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Ernest William Beckett, 2nd Baron Grimthorpe (1856–1917)

Louis-Léopold Boilly, A Girl at a Window (NG 5583)

Ernest William Beckett, MP (Unionist) for Whitby, 1885–1905, was the eldest son of William Beckett (1826–1890), banker and sometime MP for East Retford and then for Bassetlaw, Nottinghamshire, and of the Hon. Helen Duncombe (1831–1896), third daughter of William, 2nd Baron Feversham.1 He was also the nephew, and became the titular heir, of Edmund Beckett (1816–1905), created 1st Baron Grimthorpe in 1886. Ernest William married Lucy Tracy Lee (known as ‘Luie’; 1865–1891), of the state of New York, in 1883. She, it is said, brought $500,000 on her marriage2 and was a near relative of Mrs J. Pierpont Morgan, wife of the noted New York banker and art collector.3 His social circle included Lady Natica Lister-Kaye,4 whose younger sister was Emilie Yznaga, later herself to own NG 5583. Luie died at the family home at 138 Piccadilly in 1891, a few days after giving birth to a son, Ralph William Ernest Beckett (1891–1963). It was Ralph who became the 3rd Baron Grimthorpe on the death of his father.

The 2nd Lord Grimthorpe has been dismissed as a dilettante who lived much of his life in France and Italy.5 A more generous assessment was that of his exact contemporary, the writer and editor Frank Harris who called him ‘a lover of all superiorities, who has known the ablest men of the times’.6 The family seat until 1908 was Kirkstall Grange, Yorkshire,7 but certainly around the turn of the century, and until 1906, Grimthorpe also had a house, Wood Lee, at Egham, Surrey, where he used to entertain.8 His West End residence, which during his marriage to Luie was at 17 Stratton Street, off Piccadilly, changed from 11 Connaught Place to Hanover Court, Hanover Square, probably early in 1906,9 and at least once again to 27 Welbeck Street towards the end of his life.10 In 1904 Beckett, as he then was, bought Villa Cimbrone, near Ravello, Italy, and set about the restoration of the house and garden. (It is now a hotel.) At one time his mistress was Alice Keppel, before she started her liaison with the Prince of Wales,11 and he is believed to have fathered by her Violet Trefusis (1894–1972), the writer and, more notoriously, the sometime lover of Vita Sackville-West.12 A friend of Oscar Wilde, as an amusing experiment, Beckett once invited the playwright to lunch at Kirkstall Grange in the company of a group of country squires. He later recalled that Wilde won over his improbable lunch companions with a ‘play of genial humour over every topic that came up, like sunshine dancing on waves’.13

Beckett, however, also had a serious side. Besides being a partner in the Leeds banking firm Beckett & Co., which he joined in 1878,14 he was active in politics. Among his interventions in the political arena were his criticisms of the cruel conduct of German colonisers in Africa,15 his support of Winston Churchill’s opposition to army reform proposed by the Government in 1901–3,16 and his joining with Churchill to address a Free Trade Demonstration in Halifax in 1903.17 Following his elevation to the House of Lords, he spoke supporting the ‘undenominationalism’ proposed in the 1906 Education Bill declaring that ‘as long as religious controversy was mixed up with the education question there could be no peace’.18

Beckett was also active as a patron and supporter of the arts. He was treasurer of the founding committee of the National Art Collections Fund in 1903,19 a member of the Memorial Committee for James McNeill Whistler formed immediately after the artist’s death in 1903,20 and one of a syndicate which in 1914 leased the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, for the Boston Opera Company and the Royal Opera Company of London to perform for ten weeks, ‘to show the Parisians what real grand opera was’.21 Early in the following year he was appointed treasurer of the International Academy of Opera based at the same theatre, the object of which was to find work for French, Polish and Belgian musicians engaged in grand opera who had been made unemployed as a result of the First World War.22 A friend and patron of Rodin, in 1901 Beckett commissioned from the sculptor a bust of Eve Fairfax (1871–1978), to whom he was newly engaged (they never married), and the following year was instrumental in arranging a subscription and banquet for him in London.23

In the absence of any known lifetime or posthumous list of his pictures,24 Beckett’s collecting activities remain obscure, but may have been prompted by his trip to America with Luie in 1884. There he was greatly impressed by the picture gallery of William Henry Vanderbilt, which he described as having ‘the best collection of modern pictures in the world, a perfect enchantment. One small picture cost £1200. Mr. Vanderbilt has excellent taste in pictures and he has always the pick of the market.’25 In 1906 Christie, Manson & Woods held significant sales on behalf of Beckett (by now Lord Grimthorpe). Sculpture, ceramics and (mainly) objets d’art and furniture were sold on 8–9 May. Lot 166 was a Clodion terracotta which had been sold anonymously in Paris in 1891. It is now in the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA. More objets d’art, and bronzes, marbles, faience, and furniture, French, Japanese and Chinese objets d’art, followed on 10–11 May. The sale comprised 317 lots realising a total of £10,542 3s. 6d. The most expensive item (£1,150) was a life-size stone statue of the Virgin and Child once in the church of Saint-Evroult. Among the French eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century objects were a Louis XVI clock, a Louis XV walnut-wood sofa covered in Beauvais tapestry, a Louis XVI mahogany writing table in the manner of Jacob, and an Empire mahogany bedroom suite.26

The following day Grimthorpe sold 54 pictures (realising £16,229 17s.), of which the most important by value (£5,250 to Agnew’s) was a version, apparently once in a collection at Arezzo, of a painting in the National Gallery:27 namely, the Workshop of Botticelli tondo of the Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist (NG 2497). According to The Times report of the sale, most of the pictures ‘appear to have been purchased in Italy or elsewhere abroad … and very little is apparently known regarding the provenance of any one of them’.28 A portrait by Romney, Mrs Blair, which Beckett had sold in 1903, had been inherited from his father William Beckett,29 and it is possible that some or all of the other six English School portraits then sold had been similarly acquired by him. Certainly he is unlikely to have inherited the Impressionist pictures which were included in the 1906 sale, including a pastel by Manet with a suggested date of 1880,30 a portrait of Isabelle Lemonnier by the same artist, dated 1879,31 and a Sisley dated 1876.32 Monet’s La Phare de l’Hospice he had bought from Bernheim-Jeune in 1901 or later.33 NG 5583, lot 14 of the 1906 sale, had been acquired by Beckett no earlier than 1898,34 and a pair of paintings, Séparation douleureuse and Entrevue consolante, catalogued as by Boilly and forming the following lot, were described in 1898 as having been bought recently in St Petersburg.35 All three paintings by Boilly in the Grimthorpe sale were bought by Jacques Seligmann.

When and where Grimthorpe had acquired the older masters in the 1906 sale is more difficult to discern. A copy of Frans van Mieris’s The Oyster Meal in the Mauritshuis, called in the Christie’s catalogue The Declaration (lot 46), had been part of the Van Loon collection which was sold en bloc to the Rothschild family in 1877.36 A Portrait of a Cardinal catalogued as by Holbein (lot 39) was described as ‘From the Collection of Count Castellane’. In 1906 this could only have been understood as Paul Ernest Boniface de Castellane (1867–1932), who had famously married Anna, daughter of the so-called ‘robber baron’ Jay Gould, spent most of her fortune and divorced her that year. Although married in New York, they lived in Paris, and so it was probably there that Beckett acquired the picture. Other lots in the 1906 sale, stated in the sale catalogue to be from named collections, are likely for similar reasons to have been bought, rather than inherited.37

Possibly the reason for Beckett’s extensive sales in 1906, and even for his change of address, was connected to his having invested heavily in San Francisco before the earthquake and fire of April that year.38 It was more likely, however, that the timing was fortuitous, since the sales were advertised only 13 days after the disaster occurred and then carried out less than a fortnight later,39 and in any event Beckett was apparently in financial difficulties quite apart from events in San Francisco.40


1Dod’s Peerage (1918), pp. 971–2. For more information on William Beckett, see R.G. Wilson, ‘Beckett, Rupert Evelyn (1870–1955)’, ODNB. For more information on Ernest William Beckett, with particular emphasis on his life and loves at the Villa Cimbrone, see Holroyd 2010, passim. I am grateful to Alastair Laing for drawing my attention to this book.

2New York Times, 19 April 1893. $500,000 in 1883 would now be worth over $12,000,000:

3 Ibid., 16 August 1903.

4 Ibid., 14 July 1907.

5 Ferriday 1957, p. 200.

6 Harris 1916, vol. 1, p. 133.

7 Kirkstall Grange, Beckett Park, is now part of Leeds Metropolitan University. Grimthorpe sold it to the city of Leeds in 1908: see the website Leodis, a Photographic Archive of Leeds (

8 He was planning to alter the Egham house in 1897 (National Archives, MPE 1/1522), and it was from there that he sold a portrait of Mrs Blair by Romney in 1903 (Ward and Roberts 1904, vol. 2, p. 13). See also the photographs taken in 1902 and reproduced in Lampert and Le Normand-Romain 2006, nos 353 and 356. For the sale in 1906 see The Times, 4 August 1906, according to which Grimthorpe also sold the adjoining property, Ashleigh.

9 See the catalogue entry in Wine 2018 for NG 5583, note 3. For the Stratton Street residence, see Holroyd 2010, p. 34.

10Dod’s Peerage (1918), which records his town residence as 27 Welbeck Street.

11 Lampert and Le Normand-Romain 2006, pp. 119ff.

12 Clare L. Taylor, ‘Trefusis, Violet (1894–1972)’, ODNB.

13 The anecdote is recounted in Harris 1916, vol. 1, p. 133.

14The Times, 10 May 1917.

15 E.W. Beckett, ‘England and Germany in Africa: III’, Fortnightly Review, XLVIII, August 1890, pp. 144–63, cited in Mackenzie 1974, pp. 165–75.

16 Satre 1976, pp. 124 and 133.

17 See RootsWeb website: Beckett and Churchill were among 13 Unionists who became Unionist Free Traders during the tariff reform controversy, although, unlike Churchill, Beckett did not later switch party allegiance: Satre 1976, p. 135.

18The Times, 26 October 1906, p. 4, col. 5.

19 MacColl 1924.

20New York Times, 26 September 1908.

21 Ibid., 11 February 1914.

22 Ibid., 16 March 1915.

23 Antoinette Le Normand-Romain in Lampert and Le Normand-Romain 2006, pp. 129 and 169; and see ibid., cat. nos 353 and 356 and Hare 1987. A bronze of Rodin’s bust of Eve Fairfax is in the Victoria and Albert Museum (inv. no. A.44-1914). The original marble is in the Iziko South African National Gallery, Johannesburg (‘Miss Eve Fairfax’, The Times, 12 June 1978, p. 16). For an account of Eve Fairfax sitting for Rodin, and of their relationship, see Holroyd 2010, passim.

24 I am grateful to the 5th Lord Grimthorpe for confirming this (letter of 18 July 2008).

25 Cited in Holroyd 2010, p. 40.

26 For the terracotta by Clodion, see Bennett and Sargentson 2008, no. 170 (entry by Jane Bassett and Carolyn Miner). The terracotta had previously been sold anonymously in Paris, 2 or 3 July 1891 (lot 146), but it is not clear if E.W. Beckett was the buyer. An account of the sale of 10–11 May 1906 appeared in The Times, 12 May 1906, and a briefer mention appeared in the New York Times, 27 May 1906.

27 Davies 1961, pp. 112–13.

28 14 May 1906.

29 Christie, Manson & Woods, 23 May 1903, lot 80. For its previous ownership by William Beckett, see Ward and Roberts 1904, vol. 2, p. 13. E.W. Beckett also sold sculpture, ceramics, furniture and objets d’art at Christie, Manson & Woods, 8–9 May 1902, including a terracotta by Clodion now in the Huntington Library Art Collection (see note 26).

30 Rouart and Wildenstein 1975, vol. 2, p. 14.

31 Ibid., vol. 1, no. 299. The painting is now in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

32 See lot 10 of the 1906 sale.

33 Wildenstein 1996, vol. 2, no. 38. The painting is now in the Kunsthaus, Zurich.

34 See under ‘Provenance’ in the catalogue entry for NG 5583 in Wine 2018.

35 Harrisse 1898, no. 500, in which the author describes one of the pair, L’Entrevue Consolante, as by Van Gorp. The identity of the then owner is not disclosed.

36 Naumann 1981, vol. 2, p. 45, no. 36e.

37 Lot 25 (‘R. Ghirlandajo. Portrait of A Gentleman’) was said to be from the Cantini Collection, Florence, as was lot 42 (‘H. Holbein. Portrait of a Philosopher’). Lots 38 (‘M. Hobbema. A Woody River Scene’) and 49 (‘A. Ostade. The Interior of a Shed’) were stated to be from the collection of Count de Marcy, Paris, and lot 50 (‘J.D. Patinir. A Triptych’) from the collection of the Duc Ramboldi. The Cantini referred to might have been the noble family of that name from Pistoia.

38 Ferriday 1957, p. 199.

39 The forthcoming sales of both the pictures and the objets d’art were advertised in The Times of 1 May 1906.

40 See Holroyd 2010, pp. 62–3.