Sale of the century at Cowdray

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Cowdray Park House, home of the Pearson family since 1909, has opened its doors to the public for the first time as the riches of a past lifestyle, mostly accumulated four generations ago, go under the hammer.

Furniture, works of art, old masters paintings, suits of armour, tapestries, silver and fine linen are among the 1,200 lots which will be auctioned by Christie’s over three days this week.

Mark Wrey, the company’s southern region director, gave the Midhurst and Petworth Observer an exclusive preview of what the public will see over the four-day viewing period before selling starts on Tuesday (September 13).

The contents of Cowdray Park House are augmented by lots from Dunecht House in Aberdeenshire, also bought by the 1st Viscount Cowdray in 1909 and inherited by the present viscount’s half-brother, Charles Pearson, who, Mr Wrey said, was ‘having a clear-out’.

But essentially the sale of a century in the life of one family is the result of the momentous decision taken by the 4th viscount, Michael, and the viscountess, Marina, to leave the family seat, with its 16 bedrooms and vast heating bills, and return to their house at Fernhurst, where they lived until he succeeded to the title in 1995.

Cowdray House, built in the 19th century at the heart of the 15,000-acre estate, went on the market for £25m more than two years ago, and remains unsold.

But the couple, their three daughters and two sons have already left for their Fernhurst home, remodelled to meet his criteria for ‘sustainability’.

Dashing about amid the flurry of sale preparations, Lord Cowdray told the Observer: “Of course there are emotions about it and we are aware there are emotions locally. The family has been here for 100 years and I was brought up here.

“The one thing the children miss are the grounds, where they have had great freedom. The girls are older now, but the boys are not yet at that stage and we cannot replicate what they have had.

“But as a family we are comfortable where we are now. We are convinced it is the right decision for us.”

Next week’s event is the largest on-site country house sale Christie’s have organised for five years.

Almost all the works to be sold were acquired through the discerning tastes and artistic patronage of Annie Pearson, wife of the first viscount, the engineer and industrial pioneer Weetman Pearson.

With the Cowdrays’ own possessions gone, there has been much re-arrangement within the rooms, with paintings, furniture and even chandeliers moved around to show everything off to maximum effect while preserving the country house atmosphere.

Eighty telephone lines have been installed and two miles of cable laid for the telephone and on-line bidding, two of four methods of purchasing.

“The infrastructure for this sale is huge. It has been quite a challenge technologically,” Mr Wrey said.

The conservative estimate to be raised from the auction is £5m. Nine works from Cowdray Park were sold by Christie’s in London in July for almost £11m. They included a Gainsborough portrait which fetched £6.5m, a world record for the artist at auction.