The Georgian era of which the Regency is a part saw greater economic prosperity for new groups, hoping to become a part of the genteel class. Think of Mr. Bingley in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” Although he had a larger income than Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s clergyman; theoretically, Collins, who depended upon her ladyship for ever morsel of his daily life, outranked the tradesman, Charles Bingley. Following his father’s wish for wanting more for his family, Bingley sought out a country life in the form of letting Netherfield Park. We readers assume Netherfield Park came furnished, for nothing is mentioned of the need for furniture and the like in Austen’s classic, but what if it was an empty house and needed to be furnished? Where might one acquire such items? (Remember: If one wished not to appear a “newby,” so to speak, all new furniture would be a dead giveaway.) What one required was the “used” furniture from the “rich and famous” to dress one’s home.
Moreover, the range of goods available greatly increased. The middling sort often purchased used goods through auctions. These public auctions “redistributed” goods, allowing those with new wealth to claim the articles while blurring social distinctions. New money came to rub elbows, so to speak, with the establishment.
The sale of goods from country houses became common. Do you recall in Season 6 of Downton Abbey when in a development that would have been unthinkable back in Season 1, Robert and his wife, Cora, the Countess of Grantham, find themselves attending an auction of a nearby estate (the aristo inhabitants were downsizing to a London-only lifestyle). Of course, this episode was set in 1925, but the sale of household goods was just as poignant in the early 1800s. As it was in the Downton episode, many houses held a “walk through” for people to come a few days ahead of the actual auction to view what was available. I know the contents of Lady Blessington’s house was auctioned in that manner. The auctioneers held an open house before the auction where serious buyers and curious people could tour the house and the serious could choose what they wanted to buy before the auction started. I imagine the auction house had people stationed all through the house who listened to comments and upped the reserve on the items that garnered the most interest.
From Encyclopeida.com “Marguerite, Countess of Blessington (1789 – 1849) Irish author who published a number of popular novels of fashionable life and for many years presided over the most brilliant salon in London. Name variations: Marguerite Gardiner; Marguerite Power; Lady Blessington; Margaret, Sally. Born Marguerite Power on September 1, 1789, at Knockbrit, near Clonmel, County Tipperary, Ireland; died in Paris, France, on June 4, 1849; daughter of Edward (or Edmund) Power (a landowner, magistrate and newspaper editor) and Ellen (Sheehy) Power; educated at home and for a short period at boarding school; married Captain Maurice St. Leger Farmer, in 1804 (died 1817); married Charles John Gardiner, 1st earl of Blessington, in 1817 (died 1829); no children.
“However melodramatic the plots of Lady Blessington’s novels, few could have been more unlikely than the story of her own life. Born in poverty and obscurity in the Irish countryside, she was a plain child who became a dazzling beauty. Married against her will at 14 to a vicious husband, whom she left after just a few months, she went on to marry into the aristocracy and to become London’s most celebrated hostess. Despite her scandalous reputation, her wit, intelligence and generosity made her the confidante of many of the most eminent men of her day, and her close friends included the poet Lord, George Gordon Byron, the novelist Charles Dickens, and the future prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli. Renowned for the extravagance of her lifestyle, she was also an indefatigable worker, who supported herself and her establishment by a constant stream of literary works, which included novels, travel books, and memoirs, as well as journalism. Nevertheless, it is clear that the disruption and unhappiness of her early years left an indelible mark on her, in her unconventional private life, in her improvidence and compulsive generosity, and in her need for admiration and attention. Ultimately, she was to find herself bankrupt and ignored by many of those whom she had regarded as her friends. Even in that final disaster, however, she retained the courage, optimism, and sense of style which had enabled her to make her first, unlikely escape, to reshape her identity, and to shine for so many years as ‘the gorgeous Lady Blessington.'”
During the 18th and 19th centuries, one must recall the sale of land/estates was greatly restricted, but, for those in dire straits financially, a person could generally sell the contents of a house. Valuable paintings. Furnishings. Silver. Imported wine collections. Etc.
Any number of reasons could cause need for such an auction: family neglect, the need for what we now call “downsize” to a different property, failure to produce an heir, etc. In fact, the new heir may not have liked his predecessor’s “taste” in furnishings and decided to earn some money to furnish the estate as he wished by holding an auction to be rid of the items.
Most assuredly, those in London had their up-scale auction houses, but those in the country increasingly depended upon people not part of the fashionable sect. These “would be” country gentlemen and ladies were much more accustomed to bargaining at a variety of venues from artisan shops to market stalls.
Newspapers of the day, especially those in the countryside, carried advertisements for auctions of household goods. Now, this is not to say all such sales were restricted to the homes of the aristocracy. It would be equally possible to find one being conducted in the home of a wealthy tradesman. One thing we discover is more money could be raised by selling the items directly from the house itself, rather than moving them into a large auction house in London or one of the larger municipalities for the sell.
Those of you who have ever purchased a new house totally understand the concept. You look at a home you think to purchase, and it has been staged by the realtor. However, when you move your own things in, it does not look so well organized.
The items in a country house would be likewise. The grandeur. The elegance. The ambiance. All would be part of the sales’ point.
One thing we rarely mention in such scenarios is what these sales did for the house’s future, as well as its history. A once in a lifetime type sale might not decrease the value of the home, but what if there were repeated sales over a matter of years. Such happened more often than we would like to think.
Take, for example, the three sales of goods from Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire. These sales took place in 1772, 1824, and then again 1831. After that, Kirby Hall died a slow death, left to rot.
From Wikipedia, we have a quick overview of the house. “Kirby Hall is an Elizabethan country house, located near Gretton, Northamptonshire, England. The nearest main town is Corby. One of the great Elizabethan houses of England, Kirby Hall was built for Sir Humphrey Stafford of Blatherwick, beginning in 1570. In 1575 the property was purchased by Sir Christopher Hatton of Holdenby, Lord Chancellor to Queen Elizabeth I. It is a leading and early example of the Elizabethan prodigy house. Construction on the building began in 1570, based on the designs in French architectural pattern books and expanded in the Classical style over the course of the following decades. The house is now in a semi-ruined state with many parts roof-less although the Great Hall and state rooms remain intact.