THE owner of a Downton Abbey-style historic hotel is trying to solve the mystery of a missing masterpiece thought to be have been from the school of the 16th century Dutch artist, Rubens.
The giant oil painting once adorned an entire wall in one of the first floor rooms at Soughton Hall Hotel, near Northop, Flintshire.
Pieces of art from the ‘School of’ Peter Paul Rubens, who lived from 1577 to 1640, can fetch vast sums of money and a ‘School of Rubens’ panel sold at Swiss auction house Galartis in May of this year for more than £500,000.
The existence of the large-scale painting at Soughton Hall Hotel, which could also have been School of Rubens, came to light during a discussion with one of its former residents.
Sheri Bankes, the Californian-born wife of the late Nicholas Bankes, whose family owned Soughton Hall for more than 200 years, met with James Ramsbottom, managing director of family firm Elle R Leisure which took over the Grade II* listed architectural treasure just over a year ago and has since spent £200,000 refurbishing it.
As a talented professional photographer, Sheri made her own image-based record of the hall when it was a much-loved family home. She responded to an appeal made by James for people to come forward with photos, artefacts and treasured memories of Soughton Hall so he could find out more about the fascinating history of the building.
Among the many photos and negatives she has carefully preserved was a picture of the grand painting which hung in what was known to the Bankes family as the Rubens room and is now used for ceremonies at the luxury wedding venue.
Sheri told James: “It sold for only around £2,000, in around 1983, at Christie’s in London and I am sure it was only its large size which stopped more people from bidding for it and pushing the price up to something more spectacular, as it deserved.
“I think someone in The Hague or Amsterdam bought it and I did try to follow that up with an art dealer friend I knew over there, but they were unable to track it down.
“Of course, the question as to whether it was ‘School of Rubens’ or perhaps a later copy, perhaps only Victorian, would have been a major factor in determining the price.
“But it was a huge and impressive work of art and I was always surprised it did not sell for more, because it really was stunning.
“On the other hand, I don’t suppose there would be too many walls big enough to accommodate such a painting – it was enormous.
“A friend I was speaking to recently remembered it too, as well as the big gold frame around it, along with the large gilded wooden letters saying RUBENS at the bottom of the frame – with the ‘S’ hanging partly off.”
James Ramsbottom said he would be fascinated to learn of the whereabouts of the huge painting which once existed at Soughton Hall and could have been linked to the school of the famous Dutch master.
He added: “I can see from Sheri’s photo that it was a spectacular painting and I would love to find out where it is now and whether there was any chance it could have been from the ‘School of Rubens’.
“Sheri’s memories and beautiful photos have been invaluable in helping us build up a better picture of the rich history of the hall.”
Sheri also showed James pictures of the spectacular tapestries from the famous Parisian Gobelins factory which decorated the hall as part of an artistic collection built up by the Bankes family, in particular William John Bankes, during their ownership.
Sheri’s husband Nicholas, who sadly passed away in 2014 from a sudden heart attack, was the grandson of Wynne and Elizabeth Bankes who were the last people to live in the former Bishop’s Palace before it was sold and turned into a hotel in the 1980s.
It was built in 1714 by Edward Conway and remodelled, at the request of William John Bankes, by the famous Sir Charles Barry whose iconic work includes the Houses of Parliament and Highclere Castle of Downton Abbey fame which was home to the Crawley family in the hit ITV period drama.
Sheri, who lives in Cilcain and has four children and four grandchildren, also revealed a little of what life was like to live at Soughton Hall.
She said: “I lived at Soughton Hall for about a year when Nicholas and I were expecting our second child who was born in November 1978. We lived there from the beginning of that year until April 1980.
“It was extremely chilly but I think because Nicholas’s grandparents were such delightful characters that the house always felt warm and welcoming. Interesting people were always drifting in and out.
“They had a lovely cook called Adrienne and the food was brought up from the kitchen on a rumbling, old trolley. They always ate in the dining room which is now the entrance hall to the hotel.
“Breakfast was at 8.30 am and my husband’s grandmother always had a full cooked breakfast, always at the same set time.
“Lunch was religiously at 1 pm sharp and dinner at 7.45 pm. There was always afternoon tea at 4 pm and, of course, in keeping with tradition, Nicholas’ grandmother, as the hostess, would be the only person to pour the tea from the teapot.”
She also remembered the people who lived and worked on the estate including brother and sister tenant farmers Gertie and Willie whom she photographed with her husband Nicholas.
She said: “They had the tenant farm which was called Coed y Cra. They never spent a night outside the house until Willie had to go into hospital for some reason when he must have been about 80.
“When you went in their house, they had a pair of old car seats beside the fire where they would sit together. As guests, we would be given the honour of the car seats – I always remember that.”
During Sheri’s visit to Soughton Hall, she was taken on a guided tour of the building by James during which she recalled changes to the hall.
She said: “The current bar downstairs, just off the library, was known as the Justice Room. The Bankes family have a long history in the legal profession. Years ago, when various heads of the household were themselves judges, or had been appointed to the year-long post of High Sheriff of the county, judges attending the High Court in Mold would often be entertained at Soughton Hall.
“It is understood that at one time, Soughton Hall was the official ‘Judges Lodging’, that is, it was where the visiting High Court judges, on circuit to North Wales and Chester, would reside during their stay up north.
“Next to the Justice Room, there was a separate room known as the Gun Room.
“What is now the ladies’ toilets just off the main entrance hall was the butler’s pantry and there was a big table in there where the butler would polish the silver.”
James said: “When you take on a building such as this, you feel a responsibility, almost like a custodian, to preserve its stories for future generations.
“Bridal parties and guests to the hotel are so keen to know all about the building and who used to live here and we feel it is our duty to be knowledgeable on the subject so I can’t thank Sheri enough for her insight into the Bankes family who lived here and treasured Soughton Hall as a much-loved family home.”
Sheri responded and said: “It is so wonderful to see the place being invested in and I think my husband Nicholas would have been very happy because, like his father David, he adored Soughton Hall and everything about it.
“I am very happy that the family history is being researched by James. It’s exciting and important for future generations, for people to come and be able to see and find out about a house of such history.
“It’s been pleasing for me to share some of my memories with James and I will be thrilled and delighted to have some of my photos on show here.”
For more information about Soughton Hall Hotel, go to www.soughtonhallhotel.co.uk Facebook is @soughtonhall or twitter @SoughtonHall
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