It’s the time of year when agricultural shows are happening up and down the country. They range in scale from one-day fixtures on the local calendar, to major commercial events taking place over several days, like the Royal Welsh or the Great Yorkshire Show. Many have an impressive heritage, tracing their origins back into the early nineteenth century, when they first served as a focus for agricultural societies dedicated to promoting more scientific, productive approaches to farming.
But the beginning of July now goes by without the show that was arguably the most prestigious of them all – a noted feature on the agricultural, and indeed social calendar. ‘The Royal’, put on by the Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE), was staged for the last time in 2009 – a victim of, amongst other things, falling attendance figures.
On Friday morning I was looking at a picture of the Royal Show in happier days. Terence Cuneo painted the scene in July 1951: Royal Show, 1951: Festival of Britain Year. 1The show was in Cambridge that year, and Cuneo has left us a view across the showground in which pride of place is given to the pitch occupied by the manufacturer Massey Harris – an array of machinery painted in the company’s trademark red, combine harvesters, spreaders and seed drills, and their iconic little red tractor in the distance. A clock on a neighbouring pavilion reads twenty-five to four: a bright and breezy English summer afternoon, and crowds milling round enjoying the sights and quizzing the salesmen. A farming industry that is modern, optimistic.
Cuneo’s painting was on display in a sale-room in central London. I don’t know where it is now. Until the end of last week, it was part of the collection of the RASE – a collection that was put up for auction with little notice and no consultation. 2 Since the Royal Show ended in 2009, the RASE has continued to go through hard times. In selling off its historical artefacts – indeed ‘selling the family silver’ 3 – it cites ambitions to return to its roots as an organisation dedicated to promoting agricultural productivity and the application of science. The challenge of clearing a substantial deficit on its pension scheme was also a key element in the decision. 4
The RASE offered some sensible justifications for the move. With financial obligations pressing, they sized up their furnishings and the contents of the library as financial treasures rather than cultural and historical ones. 5 The fact that these items were eating up money in insurance costs seemed to make an even stronger case for selling up and using the proceeds for other things.
Fifteen pages of the sale catalogue were taken up with silverware – the cups and trophies for myriad classes of show competitions: Champion Working Hunter, best Kerry Hill Ram, and so on. Engraved names record many years of champions: one silver trophy won seventeen years in a row by a Miss J. Mostyn Owen and her succession of victorious goats named Daphne, Merrylove, Marcelline…. As it turned out, there was nothing ‘perpetual’ about these ‘perpetual challenge’ cups. But some of them have been saved from the auctioneer’s hammer for the time being. On the eve of the sale, forty of the trophies were withdrawn from auction, following challenges from the livestock societies which had donated them in the first place.
For the rest of the collection, there was no last-minute stay of execution, and no opportunity to retain its integrity as a valuable national resource for the study of the history of agriculture. As an historian, not a collector, I use the word ‘valuable’ in a way that has no place in an auction sale-room. I scarcely know what to make of the fact that someone paid £9000 (plus the buyer’s premium) for Robert Bakewell’s willow-wood chair – a sturdy seat of generous proportions on which (as an inscription on the back records) this pioneer of scientific livestock breeding sat by his fireside ‘calculating up the Profits, or devising some Improvements on his Farm.’
And once the chair and the medals and the stewards’ badges, the specimen bovine skulls and the plaster sheep, the clocks and the prints and the paintings were all sold – the auctioneers moved on to the library.
It’s hard for historians to see books going under the hammer. Well it is for this historian, at any rate. How should one determine the ‘value’ of a book? Eight of the titles were noted in the sale catalogue as ‘not in the British Library’. First editions of A Plaine Path-vvay to Plantations, by Richard Eburne (1624) exist only in collections in the United States – barring the copy that was in the RASE’s library at Stoneleigh, sold on Friday for £24000. And there were also rarities in the 149 volumes of 18th and 19th-century pamphlets collected by a one-time President of the RASE, Walter Gilbey. These attracted the highest pre-sale estimate for any lot in the catalogue – at £15000-20000 – and comfortably exceeded that on the day, going for an astounding £38000. In a period of austerity and cuts, and in the emotional cut and thrust of the sale-room, these are serious sums for any public museum or library to match.
Some of the titles were a gift to irony, and to the auctioneer’s dry humour: ‘Lot 243. A Way to Get Wealth’; ‘Lot 260. A lot of books on the poor.’; ‘Lot 240. Two books on manure. £100 to start it.’ A Way to Get Wealth (1676) went for £750, to an online bidder who now has the chance to profit from its sage counsel on ‘Six Principal Vocations, or callings, in which every good Husband or House-wife may lawfully imploy themselves.’
Farming is a vocation, but it’s also a business. And auctions are a normal part of farmers’ lives. You sometimes have to travel a good distance these days to get to one of the surviving livestock markets, yet they remain part of the social and economic experience of farming, Farm sales, too, have long been a familiar feature of rural life, as neighbours pick their way through the working capital of a business, laid out for inspection when a farmer retires, or dies, or needs to realise funds.
But they can be melancholy affairs, those breakings-up and sellings-off. The RASE’s sale on Maddox Street lasted five hours, with competitive bidding on almost everything. There was clearly a great deal of interest, not just represented in the room, but on the phones and online, including buyers overseas. Putting a positive gloss on a sale that has sparked consternation in several quarters, the RASE described the auction as ‘a celebration of agricultural history’ 6. In ‘celebrating’ that history, it also made it clear that it no longer accepts as part of its role the obligation to be custodian of a library and artefacts. One can sympathise with that position, whilst still lamenting that an organisation with such an impressive heritage should seemingly care so little about securing an appropriate home for the collection it had built up over many years.
That legacy is now scattered amongst dealers and collectors far and wide. In its place, the RASE has a fighting fund, intended to meet its financial obligations and to launch a new initiative, ‘Innovation for Agriculture’, to ‘bring many of the English Agricultural Societies together to foster new science and innovation on our farms.’ 7
The RASE dates back to the start of Queen Victoria’s reign, and it has always been committed to promoting the most modern methods, with an eye firmly on the future of farming. It has held conferences and hosted debates that influenced public policy. It played a key role in encouraging improvements in livestock breeding – the prized animals that went on to shape flocks and herds across the globe. From the start, it was an enthusiastic proponent of power farming and the latest technologies.
Yet this forward-looking organisation also found plenty of opportunities to reflect on the past: to collect old books and pamphlets that had represented the cutting-edge practice of their day; to hang onto the curios and relics that were sold off on Friday.
Many businesses and institutions have faced – and are facing – difficult decisions about what to do with their archives and in-house museum collections. The raw material for historical research and public interpretation of the past has (as was patently evident at the RASE auction) a market value that its owners are keen to realise. Righteous objections are raised when Jane Austen’s ring is about to leave the country or an Old Master canvas threatens to forsake its stately home for a collection overseas. But Robert Bakewell’s chair? Or Gilbey’s pamphlets? Or Cuneo’s Royal Show, 1951? There was no fairy godmother to step in and save them for the nation.
Clare Griffiths is Senior Lecturer in Modern History. She co-curated the exhibition ‘Farming for the New Britain: images of farmers in war and peace’ for the Museum of English Rural Life, and has written extensively on the history of British agriculture in the twentieth century.
Images: RASE sale (July 2014) ©Clare Griffiths
- Cuneo (1907-1996), a versatile painter and illustrator, probably best known for his skill in depicting trains, planes and automobiles, was an official war artist during the Second World War and made a number of paintings of royal subjects, including the 1953 coronation. He produced at least one other painting of a Royal Show, dated 1950 (and again featuring Massey Harris prominently) which sold at auction in Canada in 2008: http://www.westbridge-fineart.com/cgi-bin/new_news.pl?newsID=120 ↩
- Further information about the auction, details of the lots themselves, and the sale prices can be found at http://www.dreweatts.com/cms/pages/auction/36124 ↩
- ‘Selling the family silver’, The Scottish Farmer, 4 July 2014 online: http://www.thescottishfarmer.co.uk/news/selling-the-family-silver.24664587 ↩
- ‘RASE to auction off book and silverware collection’, Farmers Weekly, 24 June 2014: http://www.fwi.co.uk/articles/24/06/2014/145211/rase-to-auction-off-book-and-silverware-collection.htm ↩
- A photograph of the library with the items still in situ appears on the RASE website at http://www.rase.org.uk/index.php/about-us/library ↩
- Foreword to the sale catalogue by Henry Cator, chairman of the trustees of the RASE: The Collection of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, Removed from Stoneleigh Park (Dreweatts and Bloomsbury, 2014) p.3 ↩
- Ibid. ↩