Marquess parts with treasures to save family seat

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The Independent Online

The seventh marquess of Bath is about to sell off £15m of family heirlooms in an attempt to secure the future of his family seat, Longleat House in Wiltshire, it was announced yesterday.

Lord Bath and his trustees have instructed Christie's to auction paintings, furniture, books and manuscripts, in what will be one of the most significant sales of the year.

The proceeds will be used to set up a "very substantial" maintenance fund to help preserve the 16th-century house near Warminster, which is one of the best examples of Elizabethan architecture in Britain.

It has been home to Lord Bath's family, the Thynnes, for more than 450 years and was the first country house to be opened to the public on a commercial basis in 1949. The family also created the first safari park outside Africa in the grounds and have made it a popular tourism destination that draws 400,000 visitors a year.

Lord Bath said the decision to sell had been difficult but the financial impact of events such as the foot-and-mouth crisis and the terrorist attacks of 11 September had made clear the need to take a long-term approach to looking after the estate. They had chosen items for sale that were not part of the core historic collection. "This is no easy decision but we believe it to be the right one if Longleat is to remain a vibrant, living entity," he said.

The Marquess's business acumen may be sometimes hidden by his eccentric appearance and notorious fondness for his "wifelets", but yesterday he demonstrated a keen awareness of commercial imperatives, saying: "Longleat must look to the future, especially with ever-increasing competition from the changing world of the leisure industry."

Many of the items being sold came to Longleat during the Second World War from a separate branch of the family, the Botfields. The pictures and books of Beriah Botfield, a Victorian bibliophile and antiquarian, are regarded as remarkable. But they do not have the long-standing association with the house of the works accumulated by the Thynne family themselves, most notably by the fourth marquess in the 19th century. These were the key to preserving the "unique character" of Longleat, Lord Bath said.

Part of the proceeds of the auction will go towards returning a number of rooms on public display to the way they were furnished during the house's heyday in the late 19th century.

The auction will include treasures such as four 18th-century life-size models of birds by Johann Kändler. They are estimated at up to £600,000 apiece and are regarded as some of the most important porcelain sculptures created. Their sale will still leave Longleat with one of the best representations of Kändler's masterpieces in Britain.

Among the books will be the first printed in the English language, by William Caxton at Bruges, before he introduced the printing press to England. Its value is estimated at up to £400,000. A complete copy of Rationale by Durandus, printed on vellum in 1459, will be the second-oldest printed book sold by Christie's, after the Gutenberg Bible.

There are also Dutch Old Masters, including works by Salomon van Ruysdael and Thomas de Keyser, and furniture including a Louis XV games table that offers more than 20 different games, including backgammon.

Lord Bath said he had enjoyed the privilege of living at Longleat for the best part of his life and sharing it with visitors. But to continue would only be possible if the family had enough resources to maintain and conserve the estate. "To finance the maintenance fund, we shall have to sell chattels, and my concern here has been not to damage the Longleat collections," he said.

His instructions to the auctioneers when they came in to assess what should be sold were: "I don't want anyone to notice that you've been there after you've finished."

Lord Hindlip, Christie's chairman, said: "It is an honour ... to have been entrusted with a sale that will make such a major contribution to the long-term preservation of one of England's treasure houses."

Longleat House was built in 1568. Improvements were later made by Sir Christopher Wren, born only nine miles away. The original gardens were swept away by the great landscape gardener Lancelot "Capability" Brown, and have since been augmented by mazes and a lake where hippopotami swim.