148 FAREWELL TO NEV­ER­LAND

Town & Country (UK) - - CONTENTS —WINTER 2017 - BY PHILIP AS­TOR

Philip As­tor bids a fond good­bye to his Scot­tish fam­ily home and the art col­lec­tion he took over from his father

The Hall at Til­lypronie. Op­po­site: Fox and Crow (1883) by Archibald Thor­burn

As the As­tor fam­ily de­parts from Til­lypronie, its mag­i­cal home in the Scot­tish High­lands since 1951, Christie’s pre­pares to auc­tion the laird’s trea­sured art col­lec­tion, gathered over the decades at this cher­ished sport­ing estate

Clock­wise from above right: the Porch. Thor­burn’s Wid­geon on the Frozen Loch (1916). The Gun Room. Til­lypronie at dusk. Thor­burn’s Ptarmi­gan in Win­ter Plumage, Fly­ing Across the Snow (1900). The Draw­ing Room

Ihad moved home once be­fore; but that was from a one-bed­room bach­e­lor flat, where my bed used to dou­ble up as the din­ing ta­ble. Evac­u­at­ing Til­lypronie, our fam­ily home in Aberdeen­shire un­til a cou­ple of months ago, was a quite dif­fer­ent af­fair. My par­ents had bought the estate in 1951, and my father, who was a keen and per­cep­tive col­lec­tor, grad­u­ally filled the house with an un­ri­valled col­lec­tion of sport­ing and wildlife art, cen­tred on the work of the Ed­war­dian painters Archibald Thor­burn and Ge­orge Lodge. Fol­low­ing my father’s death in 1984, I con­tin­ued to ex­pand and di­ver­sify the col­lec­tion, still with the fo­cus on or­nitho­log­i­cal and sport­ing art, but with a greater em­pha­sis on younger, up-and-com­ing artists. Some­how I found more wall space to ac­com­mo­date this bur­geon­ing ar­ray of pic­tures. At the same time, I be­came ad­dicted to ebay, earn­ing thou­sands of gold stars buy­ing old mag­a­zine ad­ver­tise­ments with a shoot­ing or fish­ing theme; I con­vinced my­self that, hang­ing to­gether in the back pas­sages, they rep­re­sented a cu­ri­ously im­por­tant and dec­o­ra­tive so­cial record. Mean­while the Bil­liard Room grad­u­ally meta­mor­phosed from a rather aus­tere space, with the odd peel­ing tro­phy of a tar­pon fish, to some­thing more per­sonal and char­ac­ter­ful, chock-a-block with ephemera and mem­o­ra­bilia, and posters and enamel signs fixed to the ceil­ing.

Thus, when the time even­tu­ally came to leave Til­lypronie, the quan­tity of stuff – there’s re­ally no other word – that had to be re­moved from the house was truly mind-bog­gling. Be­fore that process could be­gin, though, we had to en­gage in the painful de­bate as to what to keep, what to throw out, what to give to charity, what to dis­trib­ute to my sib­lings and their chil­dren – and what to sell. I would find my mood veer­ing er­rat­i­cally from wist­ful sen­ti­men­tal­ity, when I stum­bled across some ten­der reminder of my child­hood, to out-and-out ruth­less­ness, as I re­minded my­self of the im­por­tance of ‘mov­ing on’.

Af­ter two weeks of watch­ing my home be­come pro­gres­sively de­nuded, I was left alone for one last night in a to­tally empty house, apart from the sin­gle bed I used to sleep in as a child, and a tele­vi­sion for com­pany. Oth­er­wise, the rooms and pas­sages, which in the past had echoed to the sound of games like Kick the Gong and Bil­liard Fives, were silent. Gone was the grog tray that had stood at the heart of the house and pro­vided a re­fresh­ing wel­come at all times of day and night (an old Ox­ford friend once popped down at four o’clock in the morn­ing ‘for a bit of a sun­downer’). And all the walls, which had dis­played my father’s and my as­sem­bled art­works, were dis­con­cert­ingly bare. In­deed, al­most the only ev­i­dence within the house of two gen­er­a­tions of As­tor stew­ard­ship was the door in our for­mer nurs­ery with the heights of us chil­dren marked in pen­cil as we grew up.

Til­lypronie had al­ways been the hap­pi­est of homes, where we used to spend more time to­gether as a fam­ily than at the prin­ci­pal fam­ily seat, Hever Cas­tle in Kent. My father loved a party, and for weeks on end dur­ing the sum­mer, my par­ents’ friends would mix con­tent­edly with ours. The pre­text for such hospi­tal­ity and fun was the grouse shoot­ing, but there was al­ways a wealth of ac­tiv­i­ties to pur­sue, whether sport­ing or oth­er­wise, that, for most of my child­hood at any rate, the very idea of a tele­vi­sion was un­heard of.

Even af­ter I in­her­ited re­spon­si­bil­ity for the estate at the ridicu­lously young age of 25, Til­lypronie con­tin­ued to be a kind of hub for my in­creas­ingly ex­tended fam­ily. While I was still ef­fec­tively grow­ing up my­self, I would watch a new gen­er­a­tion of neph­ews and nieces come to ap­pre­ci­ate the magic of the place; and as I sat at the end of the Din­ing Room ta­ble, year by year I would watch with plea­sure as they de­vel­oped in ma­tu­rity and con­fi­dence (won­der­ing at times if they felt the same about me). In due course many of them would bring their own chil­dren, who would play with the same old toys and games, build­ing blocks and bi­cy­cles, that had been such for­ma­tive fea­tures in my own child­hood.

Sim­i­larly, many of my friends, who had per­haps first stayed at Til­lypronie when we were newly down from Ox­ford, were still com­ing to stay more than 30 years later, but now as fright­en­ingly suc­cess­ful fi­nanciers, se­nior cap­tains of industry or peers of the realm. In the in­ter­ven­ing years, Til­lypronie had wit­nessed pro­pos­als, engagements, in­dis­cre­tions and – good­ness – even my own wed­ding. My wife Jus­tine, who ini­tially re­garded Til­lypronie rather as though it had been my mis­tress, came to love it warmly, and brought her own spe­cial touch to the gar­den, com­ple­ment­ing with her plant­ing the con­tri­bu­tions that my mother and father had made to its evo­lu­tion. Jus­tine’s boys loved

IN 1878, HENRY JAMES WROTE TO HIS SIS­TER OF ‘THIS SUPREMELY COM­FORT­ABLE HOUSE’

the place too; and where I had cel­e­brated my own 21st birth­day, I was now proud to host my younger step­son Tom’s. Truly, I can think of few places that have given as much plea­sure to so many peo­ple of ev­ery age.

It was ever thus, I am sure. The house was orig­i­nally built 150 years ago in 1867 by Sir John Clark, the diplo­mat son of Queen Vic­to­ria’s physi­cian, and, as a lo­cal news­pa­per recorded at the time, ‘dur­ing the res­i­dence of the Court at Bal­moral the Queen drove over… and took a prac­ti­cal share in a cer­e­mony which was the first of its “Royal” kind recorded in the an­nals of ma­sonry. Her Majesty laid the lin­tel stone of the prin­ci­pal en­trance. The Sov­er­eign stood upon a small raised plat­form and spread the bed of lime, smil­ing pleas­antly at her own hand­i­work.’

Queen Vic­to­ria con­tin­ued to be a reg­u­lar visi­tor to Til­lypronie, of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by her ser­vant and con­fi­dant John Brown. Ac­cord­ing to the ac­count that was handed down to me, Brown con­sid­ered him­self too su­pe­rior to eat with the ser­vants of the house; the Clarks on the other hand felt it in­ap­pro­pri­ate for him to eat with them. A com­pro­mise was reached whereby a wooden hut was built out­side the front door where Brown would eat in soli­tary state. As a nod to this un­usual dy­namic, I was tick­led some years ago to find a lit­tle wa­ter­colour painted by Queen Vic­to­ria of a stag shot by John Brown. Be­sides be­ing on neigh­bourly terms with the Roy­als and pil­lars of the Aberdeen­shire com­mu­nity, the Clarks en­joyed a cos­mopoli­tan as­sort­ment of friends who would come and stay at Til­lypronie. These in­cluded sev­eral Amer­i­can diplo­mats and men of let­ters, no­tably Henry James, who in 1878 wrote en­thu­si­as­ti­cally to his sis­ter of ‘this supremely com­fort­able house – ly­ing deep among the brown and pur­ple moors’, and ex­pressed the wish that she ‘might con­tem­plate the glo­ri­ous view of sweep­ing hills and gleam­ing lochs that lies for­ever be­fore the win­dows’.

Lady Clark’s skills as a host­ess were es­pe­cially ev­i­dent in her culi­nary ex­per­tise, as an­other of their Amer­i­can friends, the writer and his­to­rian Henry Adams, re­lated to a niece: ‘If you could only see what won­der­ful things dear Lady Clark gives us to eat… She has quite the nicest ta­ble I ever saw; far bet­ter than the best French res­tau­rant be­cause it is so var­ied and ev­ery­thing so soigné, as the French say.’

This cos­mopoli­tan tra­di­tion has been con­tin­ued by suc­ces­sive own­ers of Til­lypronie. In my par­ents’ day, for ex­am­ple, I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when the house­p­a­rty in­cluded Harold Macmil­lan, Christo­pher and Mary Soames, Sir Tufton Beamish, ‘Boofy’ Gore (aka the lively jour­nal­ist and pi­o­neer­ing par­lia­men­tar­ian, the Earl of Ar­ran) – and Douglas Fair­banks Jr. Macmil­lan, I was re­lieved to see, recorded in his di­ary that the stan­dard of com­fort was very high; and he fur­ther con­fided that al­though there weren’t many grouse, the shoot­ing had been fun. ‘I shot rather well,’ he claimed.

There would have been diplo­matic har­mony on the grouse moor, when the erst­while Ma­hara­jah of Jaipur and the High Com­mis­sioner of Pak­istan were among my father’s team of guns. Jai’s widow, Aye­sha, re­turned to Til­lypronie once as my own guest, al­beit only for din­ner. Here was the Ra­j­mata of Jaipur, who had jus­ti­fi­ably been lauded as one of the most beau­ti­ful women in the world; who had served as an MP, win­ning her seat with a world record 192,909 votes out of 246,516, and was later cru­elly im­pris­oned by Indira Ghandi. What a perfect op­por­tu­nity, thought an­other of my old Ox­ford friends who was stay­ing, to get some tips about the best In­dian restau­rants in Lon­don.

More re­cently, Jus­tine and I were for­tu­nate to make friends with the pre­vi­ous Amer­i­can am­bas­sador, Matthew Barzun, and his wife Brooke, who to­gether did won­ders in pro­mot­ing An­glo-amer­i­can un­der­stand­ing with their sub­tle com­bi­na­tion of charm, pop­u­lar music and gen­er­ous en­thu­si­asm. For the first Fourth of July week­end they spent away from Lon­don, they came to stay at Til­lypronie. The fol­low­ing year they vis­ited at the time of the Ken­tucky Derby, and brought a touch of the Blue­grass State to the Scot­tish High­lands, in the form of straw hats and mint juleps. The ur­bane restau­ra­teur Jeremy King was a fel­low guest, and touch­ingly found Til­lypronie to his taste, de­scrib­ing it in the Fi­nan­cial Times mag­a­zine as ‘an un­for­get­table place… I can now un­der­stand the roy­als’ af­fec­tion for the area, one that de­fies ad­e­quate de­scrip­tion. It plays into my love of vast open spa­ces… I could be very happy at Til­lypronie.’

Im­pos­si­ble not to be, I would say; cer­tainly I hope that Til­lypronie’s new own­ers will ex­pe­ri­ence the same de­gree of hap­pi­ness that my fam­ily his­tor­i­cally en­joyed there. For now, though, my fi­nal duty as its cus­to­dian and cu­ra­tor is to wit­ness the forth­com­ing sale of the con­tents of the house at Christie’s. It will be a bit­ter­sweet event, of course, but I shall be heart­ened by the idea that the pos­ses­sions that my father and I took such de­light in as­sem­bling will find a new gen­er­a­tion of ap­pre­cia­tive homes. The As­tor Col­lec­tion From Til­lypronie sale at Christie’s (020 7389 2709; www.christies.com) takes place on 15 December. A fur­ther on­line sale will run be­tween 9 and 18 December.

TIL­LYPRONIE WIT­NESSED PRO­POS­ALS, ENGAGEMENTS, IN­DIS­CRE­TIONS AND EVEN MY OWN WED­DING

Clock­wise from be­low right: Princess Mar­garet and Lord Snow­don on the Til­lypronie grouse moor. The gar­den. Thor­burn’s A Pair of Pheas­ants in Snow (1909). The Smok­ing Room. The Queen at Til­lypronie in 1960. Blackgame in the Snow (1917) by Thor­burn. Op­po­site: Jus­tine Picardie and Philip As­tor on their wed­ding day

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