16 March 2013

American taste and money; English art treasures

The British Forbes family originally made its money from trading between North America and China in the C19th. The first Forbes to migrate, Bertie Forbes (1880-1954), left Scotland for the USA in 1904. He founded Forbes magazine, a business and finance magazine, in 1916 and became an American citizen the very next year. His son, Malcolm Forbes (1919-90) later took over the struggling publishing business, turning it into a success. Despite Malcolm’s lavish parties, he was not successful when he stood for political elections in New Jersey in 1957. But he did have SOME good luck - at the death of his brother in 1964, Malcolm acquired sole control of the company.

In the meantime, examine Old Battersea House (late C17th) which is one of the oldest homes in that part of London. I would like to know who built the house (Sir Christ­opher Wren has been mentioned more than once)? Who later bought the house? And what it was used for? Christie’s certainly believed its handsome baroque proportions both inside and out, with grounds sloping down to the Thames, would support the Wren theory. One thing is for sure: much of the land belonging to the handsome manor house was sold in the 1920s after being vacated by St John's College, an Anglican college for priests.

 Old Battersea House
built in the late 17th century

The leaders of the fight to save Old Battersea House from demolition were Col Charles Stirling and his wife Wilhemina, the sister of the wonderful artist Evelyn De Morgan. They lived in the house, leased from local government, starting in 1931 until Wilhemina’s death in 1965. The Stirlings' art collection, ceramics and furniture were bequeathed to the De Morgan Foundation and are on view at the nearby West Hill Library.

This house over the river from Chelsea was to be demolished when the estate was being developed, and only a public outcry and an Act of Parliament saved the estate from being razed to the ground. The manor house was given English Heritage listing in 1954. Sadly Old Battersea House lay empty and neg­lected for years, a mere shell until the above mentioned Malcolm Forbes saw it and its stunning proportions in the early 1970s. Arch­itects Vernon Gibb­erd and Malcolm’s son Christopher Forbes restored and modernised the house, to serve as the Forbes family home whenever they were in London. It included 10 bedrooms, a baroque hallway and panelled drawing rooms.

From my perspective, Old Battersea House became even more significant because it housed one of the world's most important collections of C19th British art. According to Christie’s, the drawing room was to die for. It had the stars of the art collection, including works by revered Pre-Raphaelite masters Millais, Holman-Hunt, Rossetti and Hughes. There was also a stunning Orientalist work by John Frederick Lewis, and several important Scottish pictures. Through the door into the library a visitor could see Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones' St George and the Dragon. And oh what famous visitors the Forbes invited!

 The drawing room
Wilhelmina Stirling would have been pleased that the house became home to a new collection of wonderful pictures painted by artists that she once knew well. Three of the main rooms on the ground floor were devoted to works from the De Morgan Foundation collection, including paint­ings by her maternal uncle, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (l829-l908). 

The State Bedroom had a display of art in tribute to Queen Victoria, which was lovely, but I wonder why American millionaires had a special devotion to a long dead British queen. Certainly Malcolm’s three sons did not. Thus many of the Victorian works were sold off in an auction spanning two days and three sessions at Christie's London in February 2003. Then there was another art sale at the Lyon and Turnbull auction-rooms in Edinburgh in December 2011.

Let me mention a few of the paintings put onto the market. William Holman Hunt was represented in this collection by his first life-sized figure (est £1.2-1.8 million). Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones’ canvas depicted the legend of St George and the Dragon (est £1.2-1.8 million). Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, one of Queen Victoria's favourite artists, had a work celebrating an elegant Victorian sporting aristocrat (est: £800,000-1.2 million). Two stun­ning Sir John Everett Millais works were included (Trust Me £800,000-1.2 million and For the Squire £800,000- 1.2 million). The Portrait of Miss Amy Brandon Thomas, by Whistler, was not even given an estimate.

The leading sculpture in this sale was Frederic, Lord Leighton's best known composition, Athlete struggling with a Python (est £600,000-800,000).

How extraordinary that the collection, which had been assembled by Malcolm Forbes and his son Christopher so carefully since 1970, has been broken up and sold off only 40 years later. Now the House itself is on the market.

The state bedroom


Amicia de Moubray has written a book called Twentieth Century Castles in Britain, published by Frances Lincoln in 2013. Often the money to build or rebuild substantial architecture came from American women who married British men and emigrated, or from American families who stayed in the USA but wanted a European bolt hole for themselves.

Examples she gave included
a] William Waldorf Aster who spent truckloads of money on Hever Castle and its gardens in Kent;
b] William Randolf Hearst spent even more money on St Donat's Castle in Wales
c] Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, who married an American millionairess and later used her money to resuscitate the very dead Bodiam Castle in East Sussex.
d] Olive Paget, daughter of 1st Baron Queenborough and his American millionaire wife, used the American inheritance to buy the rather decrepit Leeds Castle in Kent. Olive divorced her first husband but retained possession of the castle. Then she married Sir Adrian William Maxwell Baillie, 6th Baronet, and continued to pour money into reviving beautiful Leeds Castle.


columnist said...

That drawing room is certainly packed to the rafters with pictures. I did not know the origins of the Malcolm Forbes family, so thank you for that. I was however familiar with the Stirlings, whose estate is close to where my brother lives in Perthshire. I think it's for sale, (and redevelopment).

Deb said...

Do you think the house really was designed by Sir Christopher Wren? It is not very big.

Hels said...


I have never seen the Stirlings' main family home in Perthshire... your brother selected well :)

The real joy of Colonel and Mrs Stirling renting Old Battersea House in 1931 was they brought with them fine art works collected by sister Evelyn de Morgan, as well as the ceramics brought by the brother in law, William. Mrs Stirling must have had a good, long life since she was in Old Battersea House until her death in 1965! What a cool family.

Hels said...


The London Encyclopaedia http://tinyurl.com/apelf8a said Old Battersea House was built for the lord of the manor Sir Walter St John, but there is no documentary proof as to whether the architect was Wren or not. Nor any exact date of building, although a sundial on the south front has 1699 written on it. Whoever designed it created a perfect small manor house, surrounded in its earliest days by lavender fields and watercress beds sloping down to the Thames.

elegancemaison said...

Just found it on Google maps. We used to live in Battersea a few years ago and wondered where it is. Discovered that it is a short walk from our former flat. We must have passed by it many a time. I am presuming that it is behind high walls as I cannot picture it though I clearly remember often walking along Vicarage Lane, where it stands.

Actually Battersea House is about five minutes walk from St Mary's church which I think would interest you, Hels. William Blake was married there, Turner painted from a window along the balcony inside. And the infamous turncoat from the American War of Independence, Benedict Arnold is buried in the graveyard and commemorated in a window. The church building itself looks as if it belongs in New England - the inspiration perhaps?



Hope these links work!

Hels said...


the links do indeed work.. thank you so much. I lived for a few years in North London and Herts, but I got to know Battersea only as a tourist.

St Mary's is beautiful architecturally, but I particularly love its links with music and art. http://www.stmarysbattersea.org.uk/History.html

Mandy Southgate said...

Wow, that drawing room is indeed exquisite. Battersea House is not unlike both of the buildings I've worked in London, I guess it is time to try do some research on them!

Hels said...


how did you get to work in similar places? I would give my husband's eye teeth for such a job :) I am assuming that you worked at a curator, guide or researcher, not as a maid or cleaner.

Charles and Wilhemina Stirling had lots of money, but they also had great taste in paintings, furniture and the decorative arts. Those paintings that you can see in the photo were to die for,

Hels said...

I have added a reference to Amicia de Moubray'a recent book, Twentieth Century Castles in Britain.The connection between American taste and money.. and reviving English castles is remarkable.