Riches of Snowdonia
Bonhams’ sell- out sale not only ensured the future of Glyn Cywarch house in north west Wales, but also brought to light some extraordinary antiques
Constructed of dove- grey stone, weathered by centuries of rain and sun, the manor house of Glyn Cywarch (or Glyn as it’s a ectionately known) sits in seclusion near the Gwynedd coast, north west Wales. In one direction lies the curve of Tremadog Bay, in the other the dramatic peaks of Snowdonia. Built in 1616 and Grade II*-listed, the house has been part of the aristocratic Harlech family estate for over 400 years and has entertained politicians, diplomats, actors, musicians and even the royal family. Stu ed with antique furniture and paintings, and dotted with quirky inherited possessions such as military uniforms, vintage luggage, top hats and decoy ducks, it’s the sort of place auctioneers dream of.
In summer 2016 the dream came true for Charlie Thomas, director of Bonhams’ House Sale and Private Collections department, when he was asked by the present owner Jasset Ormsby Gore, 7th Baron Harlech, to value the contents of Glyn Cywarch. This led to a ‘white glove’ auction – a sale in
CLOCKWISE FROM FAR LEFT An Ormsby Gore ancestor, John Owen of Penrhos, painted by the wonderfully named Tilly Kettle, fetched £ 26,250; Glyn Cywarch contained some beautiful old Welsh furniture, such as this oak and inlaid
cwpwrdd deuddarn (two- part oak cupboard) from the Conwy Valley c1700, which sold for £ 3,500; a 1597 portrait of ancestor Ellen Maurice was proved to have been painted by court artist Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger and sold for £ 269,000; a late 18th- century carved and painted beech sofa was snapped up for £1,375
which all lots are sold – in March. The auction, held at the New Bond Street salesroom, lasted a marathon 10 hours and was conducted by four auctioneers, finishing up with Thomas himself. Beguiled by the provenance of the pieces up for sale, bidders swooped upon the 531 lots and parted with a total of £2,599,038 – more than twice the original estimate. The raising of over £2.5m gladdened the heart of Lord Harlech, who inherited this wonderful old place from his father Francis, the 6th Baron, early in 2016. He has big plans to transform Glyn into an upmarket country guest house, as well as repairing the roof and putting the interiors ‘back to flagstones, panelling and limewash, as it should be’. But this kind of painstaking restoration work swallows money, large amounts of it, and funds were needed.
Rare treasures Like all auctions of this scale, much preparation was required. On his first visit to Glyn, Charlie Thomas remembers driving through the Snowdonia National Park to get to the village of Talsarnau where the house is located. ‘Glyn is in a wonderful, magnificent setting and you arrive via an imposing gatehouse at the front. Inside, the house was very dark – I got my torch out in some rooms – but it was really exciting and full of atmosphere. House sales are rare these days, and it’s especially rare to go into an important country house where the contents are not already well documented.’
After an initial assessment, Thomas returned a few weeks later with a small
team of specialists to go through the house. They went room by room, up into the attic and out into barns cataloguing and listing items that were to be sold – a process that took over a week. ‘ We’d been round and seen everything, but it wasn’t really until we started cataloguing that we realised the scale and quality of the items,’ says Thomas. The Ormsby Gores were at the centre of British political life for over a century and enjoyed the trappings that go with wealth and power gained by their ancestors, the Shropshire and Caernarvonshire-based Owens, Wynns, Ormsbys and Gores. The first Baron Harlech, Conservative politician John Ormsby Gore, was ennobled in 1876 and notable descendants include the 4th Baron Harlech, who denounced Hitler at a League of Nations conference in 1933, and the 5th Baron, Sir David Ormsby Gore, appointed Ambassador to the United States in 1961 and a close friend and advisor to President John Kennedy and his wife Jackie.
Ormsby Gore family fortunes waxed and waned and Glyn Cywarch, a beautiful and secluded holiday home from the 19th century onwards, became David Ormsby Gore’s main residence in 1970. It was his son Francis’s too, who also had the unenviable task of selling up the family seat, Brogyntyn Hall in Shropshire, in 2001 after settling crippling death duties. ‘Many of the items that went up for auction came from Brogyntyn to Glyn,’ explains Charlie Thomas.
One of the biggest finds during cataloguing was a portrait that had hung in the drawing room of an Ormsby Gore ancestor, the Welsh heiress Ellen Maurice. ‘Our paintings specialist Andrew McKenzie noticed the way one of her hands was painted and said, “I’ve seen that hand before”.’ Sure enough,
It’s rare to go into an important country house where the contents are not already well documented
Inside, the house was very dark but it was really exciting and full of atmosphere
he had seen it, on a painting by Marcus Gheeraerts, court painter to Elizabeth I. The portrait of Ellen was subsequently attributed to Gheeraerts and fetched £269,000. Elsewhere on the estate, a creaky wooden door opening into a stone barn revealed a treasure trove of Georgian antiques, including a rather dusty but beautiful late 18th- century mahogany serpentine commode, very possibly by Thomas Chippendale, which sold for £17,500 at the Bonhams auction. The most newsworthy revelation was a cache of letters written by David Ormsby Gore and Jackie Kennedy around whom speculation swirled after the untimely death of JFK (see box below right).
Portraits and porcelain As is always the case with country house contents sales, there was plenty that was very a ordable and bargains included a pair of 1805 Chamberlains Worcester yellow cachepots that fetched £350, a large Victorian copper boiling pot, £400, and a pair of early 20th- century toleware tea canisters, £750. Those with a bit more to spend could bid on mid-range antiques such as a pair of 19th- century Chinese porcelain parrots, £1,750, a 19th- century diamond hair ornament, £1,875, and a late 18th- century painted and carved beech sofa, £1,375, plus lots of other workaday period furniture. Connoisseur pieces on the other hand ranged from the 1795 equine portrait The Godolphin Arabian by Irish artist Daniel Quigley that sold for £100,000, two Elizabethan oak tiered bu ets c15801600, £143,000, and a beautiful 18th- century Chinese silk coverlet that went for £10,625.
Having spent eight months organising the sale, Charlie Thomas missed thinking about Glyn once the final hammer had gone down, but was delighted to see every item go to a new home. ‘It was hard for Lord Harlech to part with some things and he had to make some tough decisions. But all the funds raised will be ploughed back into the estate. Jasset’s got bags of energy and a plan for the future, which is what Glyn Cywarch needs.’
TOP AND ABOVE Daniel Quigley’s The Godolphin Arabian, depicting a Yemeni foal that became a thoroughbred bloodline. The painting fetched £100,000 RIGHT A pair of c1805 Chamberlains Worcester cachepots went for £ 350
TOP FROM LEFT Jasset Ormsby Gore, 7th Baron Harlech; the drawing room at Glyn Cywarch with the newly attributed Gheeraerts portrait that fetched £ 269,000 ABOVE A rare cream silk coverlet made in 18th- century China for export was bought for £10,625 ABOVE RIGHT An 18th- century natural history book by the Comte de Buffon from Glyn Cywarch’s extensive library sold for £ 2,125
Inside one of the bedrooms at Glyn Cywarch. Three vintage top hats, a Stetson and their boxes made £1,187. The George III giltwood chairs are part of a set of seven that sold for an incredible £ 47,500
ABOVE FROM LEFT The winning bid on a pair of antique Chinese porcelain parrots was £1,750; a late 18th- century serpentine commode was not in perfect condition but still fetched £17,500; a set of seven late 1700s giltwood armchairs with needlepoint upholstery raised gasps when it sold for £ 47,500