148 FAREWELL TO NEVERLAND
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