Top stock of sporting art flies the nest
“He collected, on reflection, a ridiculous number of pieces,” says Astor. “They suited the house perfectly – both in terms of period, which is late Victorian, and because it is a sporting estate.”
The collection includes dozens of paintings and sketches by Thorburn, as well as relevant works by contemporary artists, many done at Tillypronie. “My father and my great-grandfather [William Waldorf Astor] were great collectors, and in my humble way – just on eBay – I was always rather acquisitive,” says Astor. “When I inherited, very young, at the age of 25, I continued to collect but I diversified.”
As well as what Christie’s has called “the best collection of this type of work that will ever come on to the market”, the auction will include furniture and other art from Tillypronie, which Astor sold earlier this year at an asking price of £10.5million. “Part of that is so we can try to recreate a sense of the rooms,” says Annabel Kishor, who is running the auction for Christie’s. “It helps to tell the story of the house, its history, and all the people who stayed there.”
Built in 1867 by Sir John Clark, the son of Queen Victoria’s physician, Tillypronie has hosted a who’s who of high society. Henry James lauded the “supremely comfortable house” with its “glorious view of sweeping hills and glorious lochs”, while Harold Macmillan noted in his diary that the standard of comfort was very high. Tillypronie started as a summer home for the Astors, before they moved there in 1982 after selling the family seat in Kent, Hever Castle.
In 2002, the Queen visited Tillypronie to plant a tree in the Golden Jubilee garden. “I had a dog called Bill at the time, who didn’t observe the full degree of protocol,” Astor recalls of his pet’s toilet mishap. “The Queen seemed to understand the ways of dogs and didn’t seem in any way unsettled.”
It was not the Queen’s first stop at Tillypronie, nor was she the first royal guest. Queen Victoria, who was a regular visitor (Balmoral is a short drive away) laid the foundation stone of the house. A watercolour she painted of a stag is included in the Christie’s auction at a guide price of £6,000 to £10,000. “She was quite prolific but most of her work is in the royal collection,” says Kishor. “It’s unusual to see something like this that’s not portrait studies of her children.”
All this context serves to tell a good story rather than to increase financial gain, says Kishor. “The Astor name certainly engages people and piques their interest, but it doesn’t actually add value to each individual item.” The lots, which range in price from a few hundred quid to £100,000 ( Thorburn’s Blackgame in the glen), are expected to bring in a total sum in excess of £1.5million. They go under the hammer on Friday Dec 15, along with an online-only sale until Dec 18.
It’s the end of an era for the Tillypronie collection, which is likely to be dispersed among many buyers. It’s bittersweet, says Astor. “But I’m heartened by the idea that the possessions which my father and I took such delight in assembling will find a new generation of appreciative homes.”
Philip Astor and Justine Picardie, below right, married in 2012 at Tillypronie, below, selling it earlier this year A pair of red grouse in moorland by Thorburn, main, hangs in the drawing room at Tillypronie; his Blackgame in the glen, below, is the auction’s priciest lot