Persuasions #5, 1983 Pages 10-12
This painting by Rex Whistler 1905-1944 of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tritton at Godmersham is now in the possession of Mrs. Sam Hood (daughter of Mrs. Tritton) by whose kind permission it is reproduced here. It was sent in the form of a postcard to a member of the Austen-Leigh family in about the 1930’s.
Godmersham, near Canterbury, Kent, a property of some 1200 acres once the home of Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight, was auctioned by Christie’s in June of this year, the house and the contents each fetching about £3 million.
Godmersham was built in 1732 for Thomas Brodnax who changed his name first to May then to Knight. After it passed out of the Knight family it became almost derelict until purchased in 1936 by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tritton (pictured above). They restored it, in the words of the Times, to “the 1930’s ideal of what constituted Eighteenth Century taste.” Mrs. Tritton lived there almost half a century, dying this year at the age of ninety-four. She was a New Yorker who had inherited through her first husband, Sir Louis Casson, the Black Cat cigarette fortune. Both her husbands were cultivated men. In commenting on the auction the Times remarked that “the house is a dream for any lover of eighteenth-century furnishings.” Indeed it was filled with superb paintings, tapestries, rare pieces and first editions of Jane Austen’s novels, making it undoubtedly far grander than it had ever been in Edward Knight’s time.
Christie’s and the newspapers declared Godmersham was ‘said to be’ Mansfield Park taking as evidence Edward being adopted by rich relatives (like Fanny Price), and Edward’s eldest daughter being named Fanny. But when I first went to Godmersham some thirty years ago, I was told most definitely that it was Rosings. Even Mr. Collins’s house was pointed out to me, situated in a garden sloping to the road, behind some laurels and just across from the park wall. Be that as it may, whether Godmersham was Rosings, Mansfield Park, Kellynch or any other of JA’s country houses, the fact remains that it was while staying at Godmersham that she lived in a superior style to that of Southampton or Chawton Cottage, and it was at Godmersham that she had the opportunity to meet a variety of people – guests in that hospitable house – not so readily encountered at home.
Some of Jane’s letters written from Godmersham give the flavour of the place as it was in those days: “We live in the Library except at Meals & have a fire every Eveng … I am now alone in the Library, Mistress of all I survey – at least I may say so & repeat the whole poem if I like it, without offence to anybody … At this present time I have five Tables, Eight and twenty chairs & two fires all to myself … Yesterday passed quite à la Godmersham … James and Mary are much struck with the beauty of the place … The Comfort of the Billiard Table here is very great. – It draws all the Gentlemen to it whenever they are within, especially after Dinner, so that my Br Fanny & I have the Library to ourselves in delightful quiet … Half an hour before breakfast – (very snug, in my own room, lovely morng, excellent fire, fancy me) … In another week I shall be at home – & then, my having been at Godmersham will seem like a Dream … But in the meantime for Elegance & Ease & Luxury.”
Among the paintings sold were two portraits of Jane Austen. Lot 1130 and 1131 in the Sale catalogue. Christie’s estimated prices for these were £500/1000 and £200/300, but the amounts actually fetched were £2,160 and £540. The paintings with their catalogue descriptions are reproduced below.
Information on the auction at Godmersham supplied by J. David Grey, New York City.