West Horsley Place is a house with over a thousand year’s worth of remarkable stories. For a house of relatively humble stature compared to the great stately homes of the land, the number of famous visitors, illustrious owners, incredible discoveries and fascinating events that have weaved into the past and present of this beautiful building is astonishing.
One such story is that of the discovery of a masterpiece of English art that had been missing for 120 years: Frederic, Lord Leighton’s head study for Flaming June arguably the most famous British painting of the 19th century. Manager of the Sotheby’s sale of Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe’s estate that year was Grattan Thompson. Such was the impact of West Horsley Place on Grattan that he has returned in 2018 as a volunteer and has been an invaluable help in rationalising the remaining contents of the house.
“West Horsley Place is such a beautiful house with an incredibly special atmosphere, I came here first with Sotheby’s in 2014 and fell in love with the place. Now that the Mary Roxburghe Trust is really up and running, it feels as though the house is coming back to life; I wanted to contribute to the future of this building and help facilitate the work of the trust in any way I could.
Exploring the house not long after Bamber’s unexpected inheritance was fascinating. West Horsley Place has around fifty rooms in total, most of which had not been in use since the late 1960s; I felt as though I had stepped back in time to an age of liveried servants and glamorous parties. Getting to know the house and its contents was a journey of discovery, but one of the most exciting discoveries of all came about in the most unexpected corner.
Hanging on the back of the door in a very small windowless space that connected the Duchess’ bedroom to the landing was a beautiful pencil and white chalk drawing. It was immediately recognisable to my colleague Simon Toll, specialist in the Victorian department as a study by Lord Leighton. The study was last seen reproduced in the Magazine of Art in 1895 and had been believed lost. It is the only known head study for Flaming June. It is now thought that the picture had been given to the Duchess’ grandfather Lord Houghton, a friend of many artists, by Lord Leighton himself and kept by the family ever since. The Duchess had taken steps to protect the delicate artwork from light damage by hanging it in the small dark space; so she must have had some idea of its importance. Perhaps it was because West Horsley Place had once housed such a great collection of many important artworks that this relatively lowly sketch was relegated to such a low status corner of the house used for the most part by servants? It was a genuinely thrilling find and went on to fetch over £130,000 at auction; a significant contribution to the restoration of the house.”
The story of Flaming June, Lord Houghton and Lord Leighton and the study discovered at West Horsley Place reinforces the connections to the creative arts found through the centuries of this building. These connections are one of the reasons that the Mary Roxburghe Trust seeks to create a vibrant centre for the performing and visual arts and the teaching of crafts here.