• The Great Sale of 1857

    Bertram Arthur, the 17th Earl of Shrewsbury died on August 10th 1856. There was no obvious male heir to succeed him, but he had willed the succession of the earldom to Edmund Howard, the son of the Duke of Norfolk. However, Henry John Chetwynd-Talbot, from a distant branch of the family, contested the peerage. A lengthy case ensued which Henry eventually won to become the 18th Earl in 1860. However, although he would inherit the earldom and the Alton Towers estate, he was not to be the inheritor of the great treasures that the house contained. The ownership of these objects could not be contested, and the vast treasures, collected by Bertram’s forbearers, would be sold by the executers of his will in an auction conducted by Messrs Christie & Mason at Alton Towers. The contents of the great house would take over a month to be auctioned one by one, in a sale that began on Monday July 6th 1857, and finally concluded on Saturday August 8th.

    alton-towers-great-saleThe ‘Catalogue of the Magnificent Contents of Alton Towers’ lists 3,981 items and is a record and a glimpse of many of the great treasures that once adorned the house. It took Messrs Christie & Mason six days alone, to sell the huge collection of paintings, which adorned the Picture Gallery, as well as other state rooms, such as the Plate Glass Drawing Room, Talbot Gallery, Long Gallery, Octagon State Room, Music Room, Library and many others. These paintings included many pieces by Tintoretto, Van Dyck, Rubens, Canaletti, Caravaggio, Holbein, Rembrandt and Raffaelle to name but some. There were 708 paintings sold in total.

    Other item auctioned included a great collection of armour and weaponry that had filled the armoury; sculpture and statutory, bronzes, marbles, porcelain, ornaments, silverware, glassware, relics and the huge collection of furniture. Some of the more unusual items included a waxworks collection, a piece of Mary Stuart’s bedcurtain and a piece of wheel iron from Pompeii. Although many highly personal ornaments from the former Earls’ private apartments were included, some items escaped the sale, such as a rosary which had belonged to Mary Queen of Scots and the alter from the Chapel. The trappings of a functioning estate were also sold off including kitchenware, carriages, horses and the wines from cellars. The collections of valuable plants from the conservatories were sold in a separate auction, as were the books from the libraries.

    Such a collection, by modern standards would be priceless. The catalogue allows us to imagine the house at its most magnificent in mid 1850s – an architectural masterpiece inside and out, adorned with the lavish trappings of art, furnishings and artifacts. This golden age of Alton Towers, would spread but a few short years. Although the 18th Earl would gradually re-furnish the house, it would not be with comparable treasures. The age of building, expansion and adornment, funded from the immense wealth of particularly the 15th and 16th Earls had ended.

    © Dr Gary J. Kelsall, 2007