The return of the Coventry collection to Croome
Croome Court in Worcestershire – built in the mid-18th century to a design by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown (1716-1783) – once housed a vast collection assembled by the 6th and 9th Earls of Coventry.
But in December 1948, a four-day sale stripped the house of its historic collection, including important examples of French and English furniture, continental porcelain, Chinese ceramics, Old Master paintings, carpets, wallpapers and other works of art.
Today, some 70 years later, Croome is experiencing a complete reversal of fortune. Jane Gallagher looks back on the dispersal of the Coventry collection in the 20th century and its inspiring return in the 21st.
A tale of loss
The December 1948 sale at Croome Court was the culmination of seven previous sales held earlier in the year. These saw the dispersal of many important works that had been commissioned or purchased by the 6th Earl of Coventry (1722-1809), including pieces by the neoclassical architect and designer Robert Adam (1728-1792) as well as a significant collection of French furniture, tapestries and Sèvres porcelain.
Also stripped from the house were additions to the collection made by the 9th Earl (1838-1930), who created the comforable yet cluttered Edward interiors that can be seen in historical photographs.
During his lifetime, the 9th Earl of Coventry sought to protect Croome's future. In 1887 he set up a trust to ensure the continuity of Croome Court, the park and a collection of chattels as ‘heirlooms’. In 1921, he extended it to include the wider Croome estate. Following his death in 1930 at the age of 92, the title was inherited by his grandson, George William Coventry, 10th Earl (1900-40).
Hardships of the Second World War
Sadly, the events of the Second World War were to change Croome irrevocably, when the 10th Earl was killed at Dunkirk in 1940, leaving his six-year-old son as heir. In the same year Croome was requisitioned by the government.
Part of the park was occupied by the RAF, which carried our secret research work into airborne radar technology, while the house itself was one of a number identified as a refuge for the British Royal family in the event of an evacuation from London. For a short while it was also leased to the Dutch government for potential use by Queen Wilhelmina.
The house was handed back to the Croome Estate Trust in 1946. By that time, however, the straitened circumstances of the war had made it completely untenable as a private residence for the widowed Countess and her young family.
" Sadly, the events of the Second World War were to change Croome irrevocably, when the 10th Earl was killed at Dunkirk in 1940."
Important heirlooms were sold during this period. The Trustees of the Croome Estate Trust had little choice: many of the objects were too large or grand for the smaller house on the estate to which the family had moved. American museums came forward to purchase major pieces for display in their galleries of European art. The future of the house itself was precarious, for demolition was a distinct possibility. Safeguarding highly significant pieces of 18th-century craftsmanship, even overseas, was undoubtedly the Trustees' best option at the time.
A tale of survival in the 1980s
It took the Trustees some time to find an alternative owner for Croome Court but eventually in 1950 the Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham acquired the building and established St Joseph’s Convent School for Boys.
The school closed in 1979 and Croome Court was sold to the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. The Hare Krishna community of over 400 people cared for and maintained Croome with pride, adding their own layer to its history, most memorably with the striking and colourful decoration they applied to the 18th-century plasterwork in the Dining Room.
The Hare Krishna community lived at Croome until 1984. Thereafter the property was passed through various ownerships and was put to a number of alternative and at times insensitive commercial uses.
In 2004, the opportunity arose to re-acquire the house. The Croome Estate Trustees, who had established the Croome Heritage Trust, generously stepped in and purchased the property, reuniting it with the historic parkland which the National Trust had gradually begun to acquire and restore in the 1990s. The house is now leased to the National Trust for 999 years, and once again forms the core of the complete ‘work of art’ as envisaged by the 6th Earl of Coventry and his creative partners, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and Robert Adam.
A 21st-century homecoming for the collection
With the purchase of the house came the opportunity to return the collection of objects still retained by the Croome Estate Trust. For the past three years a project to gradually reintroduce and re-present the objects has been underway. In early 2017 the majority of the remaining collection returned to the house.
Many of the most significant objects in the collection are those commissioned by the 6th Earl of Coventry during the mid-18th century. These include pieces made by some of the leading cabinet makers and carvers of the period. A pair of commodes, made by Mayhew & Ince in 1764, are among the first pieces of Neo-Classical furniture to be created in Britain. These can be seen today in one of Croome's smaller rooms, the Lord's Dressing Room.
The 6th Earl was also an ardent Francophile and he purchased important pieces of Sèvres porcelain, including a richly enamelled tea service of 1764. The service, painted with scenes after François Boucher (1703-1770) may have been originally commissioned by Madame du Pompadour (1721-1764). This can be seen in an installation entitled the Golden Box, a walk-in, mirrored display case.
The curatorial approach to the presentation of the collection at Croome is different to that at most other Trust properties. Because the collection is incomplete, we cannot re-create the appearance of the once furnished interiors. Instead, our display of the collection reflects the original creative partnership between the 6th Earl, Robert Adam and the various craftsmen that helped shaped Croome. By working with contemporary artists and designers, our presentation offers visitors a different perspective on the objects and different ways of appreciating them.
This approach perhaps epitomises the story of the Croome collection: despite all the losses it has suffered, it has nevertheless survived to create a rich and inspiring resource for artists, designers and our visitors.