National Trust curators are always looking for objects that have ‘escaped’ from the historic houses in their care. These objects sometimes turn up at auction, in which case we quickly need to decide if we want to acquire them – and if we can afford it.
The portrait by Angelica Kauffman shown above, dated to around 1780, appeared in a Sotheby’s sale in London in June 2008. It was desirable because it depicts an ancestor of the Bedingfelds of Oxburgh Hall, but also because of its quality as a portrait. Kauffman seems to have had the knack of making all her sitters look intelligent, relaxed and charming, a talent ideally suited to the ‘age of sensibility’.
The Bedingfelds had lived at Oxburgh ever since it was built in 1482. As Catholics they were sometimes persecuted, and they generally lacked the funds to alter the moated manor house too radically. In 1950 Sir Edmund Paston-Bedingfeld, the 9th Baronet, was finally forced to sell the estate for tax reasons. Many of the contents were sold, but Sir Edmund’s mother, Sybil, Lady Bedingfeld, and two other relatives managed to save the house from demolition and donate it to the National Trust.
The National Trust has since tried to re-acquire the lost items as and when they became available. In 2004, for instance, curators spotted eight ex-Oxburgh pieces of furniture and sculpture in a Bonhams auction. Their provenance had been forgotten – they were ‘sleepers’ – and the National Trust was able to buy them all back with the help of an anonymous benefactor.
It was clear that we would need significant funds to buy back the personable Mrs Clavering. However, the volunteers who run the second-hand bookshop at Oxburgh generously contributed a substantial sum, and we also managed to secure a grant from the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund. In the end we had just enough to beat off the competition, and the picture is now back at Oxburgh.
Mrs Clavering is depicted in Turkish dress, which was fashionable in England in the late eighteenth century. The image above, kindly provided by Sanders of Oxford, shows a print after a portrait, also by Kauffman, of the 3rd Duchess of Richmond in similar costume (the original painting is at Goodwood House).
There may have been a mildy racy undertone in these portraits, with their connotations of the Ottoman harem. In about 1750 Madame de Pompadour, King Louis XV’s official mistress, had had a bedroom fitted out for her at the château de Bellevue which was called the chambre à la turque and was decorated with paintings of seraglio scenes. A Turkish-style French bed of the period can be seen here.