Bamber Gascoigne, who made his name putting students through their paces on TV's University Challenge, is facing a challenge of his own after his great-aunt, the Duchess of Roxburghe, left her country estate to him.
The retired presenter is selling the contents — more than 700 items — in an attempt to save and repair the stately pile, West Horsley Place near Leatherhead in Surrey.
Gascoigne was unaware he was to inherit the house until his solicitor informed him following the duchess's death last year at the age of 99. But though his great-aunt expected him to sell the crumbling house, he realised he wanted to save it.
The duchess was born Mary Crewe-Milnes in 1915 in Crewe House, Mayfair, where her father, the Marquess of Crewe, hosted parties with her mother, Marchioness Margaret, a Rothschild. Their guests included King George V and Queen Mary. At one Crewe House ball, Winston Churchill spotted his future wife, Clementine.
From this house, Mary, newly married to the Duke of Roxburghe, left to become chatelaine of 80,000-acre Floors Castle in Scotland. Soon after, her parents retired to West Horsley Place.
"Mary's new husband was not the most pleasant man in Scotland," Gascoigne, 80, explains. After 18 childless years, the duke's butler handed Mary a note on a salver, asking her to leave. The dismayed duchess barricaded herself in for six weeks. Divorced in 1953, she inherited West Horsley Place upon her mother's death in 1967, and lived there until she herself died.
Henry VIII dined here
Mary's mother had furnished the house grandly with items from Crewe House and her husband's former country homes — Jacobean Crewe Hall in Cheshire, and Fryston Hall in the West Riding. Nevertheless, the marchioness called 50-room West Horsley Place, run with liveried footmen and with a walk-in silver vault, her "stately cottage". Architect Nikolaus Pevsner said it had an air of "cosy domesticity", due to its glowing red bricks.
Originally a Tudor oak-beam house with a central double-height hall, where Henry VIII famously dined, in the 18th century a brick front was bolted on to the beams and the hall sliced in two, creating an upper floor. One Tudor staircase remains. As Mary aged, she lived in just five rooms. Gascoigne, of Richmond, says these were the only rooms he had ever seen.
So when he went to look round after her death, he got a shock. "I saw the upstairs drawing room for the first time when I owned it," he says. He saw crimson silk-hung walls, 17th-century paintings, a dazzling portrait of the marchioness by Glyn Philpot (lot 224, £10,000-£15,000) and a rare 18th-century Axminster carpet from Fryston Hall (lot 51, £50,000-£80,000).
This sale is a constellation of star buys, from hundreds of crested glasses used at grand dinners (lot 57, £1,000-£1,500), along with silver or gilt flatware and Minton and Sèvres services, to a solid silver tray for canapés (lot 466, £500-£700).
There's the duchess's 17th-century tester bed (lot 275, £6,000-£8,000) and an Asprey silverplate tray (lot 277, £200-£300). Or picnic hampers (lot 422, £300-£500), ceramics including a rare Queen Anne charger (lot 252, £2,000-£3,000), and a Cartier travelling case (lot 419, £700-£1,000).
Because of the state of the roof and the foundations, much work is needed. Gascoigne and his wife, Christina, hope the sale will help raise the £4 million required, despite the recent theft of some other items listed for auction. But the library is being gifted to Trinity College Cambridge. For this couple, saving West Horsley Place is a task they feel compelled to accomplish.
- The Duchess: precious objects and property from the estate of Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe is at Sotheby's on May 27 and 28. Visit sothebys.com