Economics of Downton Abbey: Selling Heirlooms

(Season Five, Episode Eight) I have just a quick post for today, and want to touch on two things: the sale of the Piero della Francesca painting and the war memorial unveiling.

The della Francesca

We learn in this episode that Lord Grantham decides to sell the della Francesca painting to build cottages on the estate. Many landowners strapped for cash sold non-land assets, and the sale of paintings was not uncommon through the early 1900s. These sales picked up following the Great War when landowners faced even heftier taxes on their estates. By selling family heirlooms like art collections and jewelry, they hoped to avoid losing their estates entirely. Historian David Cannadine provides background to these sales in his excellent book, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. It’s ironic that originally these wealthy British elites had bought many of the paintings from impoverished aristocrats elsewhere in Europe. Now, paintings owned by the newly impoverished British aristocrats were being purchased by a new class of wealthy elites across the Atlantic. Between 1880 and 1930, wealthy Americans “effectively created an international art market” (p. 112). As they were looking to buy art, the British elite needed to sell it.  It appears that Lord Grantham will avoid a recurrence of his past financial missteps and is jumping into the art market with spectacular timing. After World War I, art prices soared “higher than ever before” (p. 115), and Cannadine cites prices for artwork from estates that in many cases reached hundreds of thousands of pounds.  Some families, who regarded these heirlooms as sacred, found the (financially necessary) break-up of their art collections painful. Others, however, were happy to have the cash. It seems like Lord Grantham falls somewhere in the middle, and he views the sale of  the della Francesca “for a purpose” as honoring his father’s idea of estate management.

A Memorial for Archie

Finally, a word on Archie, Mrs. Patmore’s nephew who was shot for cowardice. I wrote about the stigma surrounding cowardice in episode three. At the end of this episode, we see Archie recognized at the unveiling of the war memorial. However, even with Lord Grantham’s kind and meaningful gesture, the stigma cannot quite be erased. Archie was honored publicly but without mention of how or why he died, and his name did not join those of the other soldiers on the main memorial. The underlying “separateness” is hard to miss.

Further Reading

For anyone interested in the British aristocracy and the economic and social change that took place in Britain at the turn of the century, I highly recommend Cannadine’s book. In particular, reading this book while watching Downton Abbey adds nuance and perspective to what we see on the show. As Cannadine writes in the preface, “For those Americans whose image of Britain is primarily derived from such television programs as Mystery and Masterpiece Theater, who believe that the British aristocracy has always consisted of comic and lovable eccentrics, and who regret the abolition of titles and aristocracy in their native land, this book may contain some shocks and surprises.”

Cannadine, D. [1990] 1999. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. Vintage Books: New York, New York.


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