Why Earl Spencer is selling Althorp’s treasures

After the announcement that he is to sell treasures from Althorp House, Northamptonshire, the 9th Earl Spencer tells CountryLife why he feels now is the time to do so in an exclusive interview. The sale, to be held at Christie’s in July, aims to raise £10 million to invest in the estate.

‘In 1992, I was a young man coming to terms with my inheritance. It may sound odd, but you struggle to cope. I approached it with a lot of energy, but not a lot of knowledge, and, a few years ago, I became overwhelmed by the place. But I have fallen back in love with Althorp, and am determined to more than secure its future.’

Lord Spencer, 45, continues: ‘I find the sales cathartic. A lot of people are getting to see, and having a chance to acquire, things that haven’t been seen for ages. I’ve been in the attic with Dawn, our housekeeper, and we’ve made some great discoveries.’ It has, he says, been interesting to see how vain some of his ancestors were the 5th ‘Red’ Earl had 30 or 40 portraits done. He talks of finding bows and arrows and spears, collected by a naval forebear, by a ping-pong table. ‘Christie’s tells us they’re very rare.’

Lord Spencer is restoring Althorp House, the Spencer family seat for more than 500 years. This involves a new roof and replacing the entire exterior of the house for the first time since the 1780s. ‘My aim with the sale is to make Althorp pulsate with life again. I have a 16-year-old son, Louis, and I want to leave things in a very large way better off for him. I have to think that Althorp must be somewhere that Louis can enjoy. I am very fortunate with the trustees that this is the perfect time to pick off the lower fruit.’

He explains that much of the Spencer House furniture from London doesn’t really fit in an English country house-he says there ‘isn’t room to show off’ the classical study King David by Guernico (dated about 1651 and estimated at £5 million to £8 million) because ‘our ceilings are too low for such a piece’-and hopes that the pieces originally made for Spencer House will end up back there.

Lord Spencer pays tribute to his grandfather, the 7th ‘curator’ Earl, whom he says saved Althorp for the family. ‘He lived here for 50 years and knew every fact about every item. He had an absolute disinterest in material goods. I’m not sure he would have approved of the sale, as he was an intellectual, not a businessman, but we must now reinvest more wisely.’

Even after the sales, there will be a magnificent collection at Althorp-the Marlborough Silver and Van Dyck’s War and Peace will remain there. So, too, will the full-size bronze cast of Forager, the 5th Earl’s favourite foxhound, a Peterborough champion in 1893. He is now in pride of place in the restored billiard room (where the Daguerre commode and corner cupboards, estimated at £2.5 million to £4 million, stood until recently), under a portrait of the Empress of Austria.