Cullen House Sale, Banffshire 1974: end of an era

Cullen House, Banffshire home of the Earls of Seafield

On September 23rd 1974 the contents of the great Seafield House of Cullen went under the hammer of Christie’s auction house. Everything went: from unique 17th century family portraits to Victorian batterie de cuisine; from Great Drawing Room crystal chandeliers to humble outhouse milking stools.

Marian Youngblood attended both viewing days and the subsequent three-day auction held by Christie’s in a marquee in the grounds. The following is her report written at the time for Leopard Magazine, Aberdeem. Reprinted with permission.

Few auctions of fine art and furniture have been held in Scotland in such a grand setting as the three-day sale at Cullen House, Banffshire, the ancestral home of the Earls of Seafield in September 1974.

Previewed for three days before the bidding started, pricelesss family heirlooms, from bedchamber to servants’ hall and from drawing room to library had prices tagged on them and paid for within 57 hours of the first fall of Christie’s hammer.

Those who had the foresight to visit the 15th century Scots Baronial castle beforehand had an inkling of how it looked when its art treasures, draperies, carpets and sculptures were in use and part of the gracious atmosphere, but even the preview days had an air of hurry and ungraciousness about them. Hundreds poured into the hall to finger Carrara marble wrestlers and 17th century fumed oak cabinets and coffers; up the main staircase where Grant ancestors looked down inscrutably from gold leaf frames soon to be unhinged and loaded into the backs of Range Rovers and Volvos, top-heavy moving vans and Volkswagen buses; across pale green Wilton pile in a drawing room now lined with gold Louis XVI chairs to be sat upon and tried out for size, along with a Louis XV standing harp, a Regency bronze-gilt-ebonized sofa, or a mid-Georgian silk-upholstered armchair.

Three storeys of tower spiral staircases rang to the patter of predatory feet on thick red dustcover-protected pile.

Names of wings and suites conjured up old ghosts of house- and hunting-parties. One could peer out of a tiny garret window in the ‘Pulpit’ attic and glimpse the Burn of Deskford as it turns north past the House, heading for Cullen Bay. Or lie for a minute on the stiff brocade cover of the old fumed oak panelled bed in ‘Paradise’, where former guests slept as close to heaven as they could get.

The main suites had family and geographical connections — Deskford, Ogilvie, Findlater, Heather, Craigellachie and Grant. Even the Queen Anne Bedroom still had a little style left; two four-posters down the hall attracted romantic comment — until all three rooms were plundered and the four-posters fetched a prosaic 340 and 3200 guineas respectively a few days later.

Romance was gone when the sale began and reality in the form of inflated Belgian francs, German marks and US dollars — along with devalued British pounds — took over. No longer was the House open to visitors and dreamers. All business was transacted in a Black’s-of-Greenock marquee as high as the Great Hall and as long as the West Wing. Here potential buyers sat in orderly rows of 16 while those precious objects manageable enough to be carried were brought into the tent for cursory check before going under the hammer. Chamber organ, giant portraits and tiered crystal chandeliers were too large and had to be imagined and remembered from the crowded preview.

In Christie’s unique style, prices during the auction were transacted in traditional English guineas. A low hum of concentrated focus controlled superbly by Christie’s auctioneers Floyd (chairman), Coleridge and Allsop, had the effect of realizing one-third more than the estimate in proceeds, but was instrumental in sending approximately one-third of the contents abroad. Four-fifths of the 17th century Flemish tapestries went back to Belgium; two out of four sets of flintlock pistols went to America. But British dealers like Muirhead, Moffat of Glasgow, Robson Lowe and London’s Faustus Galleries succeeded in retaining many works of art and first edition volumes by outbidding continental dealers.

Nor were the noble families left high and dry. The Grant family — intimately connected with the past of the House — held on to the most publicized painting in the collection by bidding 20,000 guineas for the 111-inch by 81-inch Jean Baptiste Marie Pierre portrait of Charles Grant, vicomte de Vaux. Sir John and Lady Brooke succeeded in their bid for silver items and porcelain, antique furniture and linen. Keith Schellenberg of Udny Castle acquired a stack of rare books for £320, a lot which contained many old maps as well as first and second editions. Lady Cawdor of Cawdor acquired a late Georgian mahogany kneehole desk for 160 guineas.

Private buyers and individual Scots dealers were able to pick up a few bargains, despite generally high prices commanded for porcelain, crystal and objets d’art. One buyer was taking his Berlin cupids back to his new castle in Benderloch after paying 320 guineas for two of them. Montrose Antiques went for Spode and curtains, but had to pay 84 and 240 guineas to secure them.

A Meissen coffee cup and a Nymphenburg cup-and-saucer sold for 340 guineas, while a pair of Ch’ien Lung famille rose wine-cisterns fetched 2200 guineas.

Towards the end of the sale when the old servants’ hall and kitchen treasures were the last to be snapped up great rolls of unused curtain and upholstery material, acquired by the late Countess of Seafield as decoration for some of the Cullen rooms, went for upwards of 110 guineas per roll.

As bidders competed for fine furniture and musical instruments in the marquee, a sedate litttle sub-auction was conducted in good old pounds in the Library. It seemed as if some of the literary gods smiled on book-lovers as a few were happy with their bargains collected within an authentic atmosphere of goldleaf, centuries of dust surrounded within a framework of 30-foot caged shelves. Many buyers in this rarified atmosphere kept Scotland’s history safe by acquiring collections which would stay in the country; temperatures rising as an exclusive Edinburgh connoisseur vied with a private Glasgow buyer for first and second leather-bound editions.

A rare two-volume set of lithographic plates of Scotland’s sculptured Pictish stones went to a private buyer in Aberdeenshire. Perthshire received a bounty of leather-bound treasures. And only a couple of Italian 17th and 18th century volumes went back to Rome with their native dealer.

By the time the last batterie de cuisine (for which 950 guinease had been paid) was unhooked from the Old Kitchen wall and the 5000-guinea chamber organ was extracted from its niche in the Old Drawing Room by Shore Porters — the Aberdeen removal firm which prides itself in being founded in the same year as Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue — the halls and staircases were ringing with emptiness. Huge dust-lined squares and rectangles lined the staircase where the ancestors left their only mark. They too, like prehistoric urns and tumuli which used to feature in the Cullen landscape, had gone the way of all relics: to museums and private collections.

Only Carrara marble mantelpieces and pierced oak doorways, iron bell pulls and smoky library panelling remained inside the shell of the sandstone House, itself saved by intervention of the National Trust for Scotland.*

And, although over 350,000 guineas was raised by the auction sale, more than double that will be necessary to save this Scots Baronial architectural masterpiece from further stripping.

And that, in these times of inflated currency, is difficult to come by.
©1974-2010 Marian Youngblood

Overlooking Cullen Bay: a glimpse through a side arch of the 19thC railway viaduct to Cullen Seatown

*While the National Trust for Scotland offered to preserve the remaining bulding, it fell to a private architectural firm with vision and Cullen House today stands with some pride as a restored House split into several grand residences — once again privately owned. Its penthouse apartments overlook dramatic Cullen Bay.

Originally a 15th and 16th century L-plan castle, on an earlier core, Cullen House was extended in 1600 and 1711. The interior was remodelled by architects James and Robert Adam in 1767. Rebuilt in 1820, the village of Cullen, which previously stood adjacent to the house, was dismantled and reassembled roughly one mile distant in order to create the House’s fine parkland setting. The House was enlarged in 1861 by David Bryce (1803-76).

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sheena Lumsden
    May 02, 2011 @ 20:55:14

    I was so excited to find this info regarding cullen house as I recently visited an antique fayre in Edinburgh and bought two stunning dinning rooms chairs. The dealer told me they had originally been auctioned from Cullen House which was up North. I had never heard of it before and was delighted to find this very useful information. I was told the chairs dated from around 1830 but they look more 16th centuary to me although I am no expert. They look to be made from oak and leather with beautiful carvings on the seat and back and have two lions heads on the top of each.I gave them a good clean and they look very impressive.
    Many Thanks
    Sheena Lumsden


    • cleopasbe11
      May 06, 2011 @ 12:07:30

      Thank you for comments, Sheena –so glad this piece helped you a little — I wrote it immediately after the sale, which was previewed in the House itself and held in marquees! but nevertheless, quite an occasion for the North Coast. I “think” your lions put your chairs in the earlier bracket — Seafields used that crest – the kitchen ‘batterie-de-cuisine’ was full of them! I still recall how awful the house felt after everything was removed. I acquired some of the rare books. It has now been restored as a rather grand block of flats!


  2. Penny Andrews
    May 07, 2012 @ 10:39:09

    Very interesting. My husbands 4x great-grandfather John Fraser lived at Cullen House from 1816 (his marriage to Catherine Duncan) till his death in 1848. I find anything to do with this amazing house interesting.
    Penny (New Zealand)


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