Flaxley Abbey contents at Dreweatts

The contents of historic Flaxley Abbey in Gloucestershire, founded in 1151 as a Cistercian monastery by Roger Fitzmiles, 2nd Earl of Hereford, and the former family seat of the Crawley-Boevey Baronets, are set togo under the hammer in a Berkshire saleroom in October.

The extensive collection charts the history of the country house in England in the 20th century, with its diverse selection of furniture, paintings and works of art, which have been acquired by various owners of the house spanning a period of 500 years.

The Drawing Room at Flaxley Abbey. Image courtesy of The Messel Family Archive & Collection

Many works were carefully curated, sourced or produced by exceptional designers and architects. The most notable designer to make their mark on the house was Oliver Messel (1904-1978), originally a theatre and stage designer, who moved into interior design by popular demand. He redesigned Flaxley Abbey in the 1960 over a period of 12 years.

The sale excitingly contains many of Messel’s own works from his private collection (some of which were inherited through his own family), and others that he sourced from around the world and used in design schemes for his clients, including Flaxley Abbey.

The sale also contains pieces that he specially designed and produced for the house. The sale, titled The Collection Formerly From Flaxley Abbey: An Oliver Messel Commission takes place at Dreweatts on October 3.

Among the highlights of works by Messel is a costume design titled Ceus Dressed Up which is one of several similar artworks in the sale, and carries an estimate of £800-1,200.

Oliver Messel 'Ceus Dressed Up' costume design

Messel’s theatrical style and influence was evident throughout the house, which he saw as a stage to dress, while retaining the historical importance of the property. A highly decorative 20th century machine woven carpet of Aubusson style, designed by Oliver Messel has an estimate of £3,000-5,000.

An English School painting dating from circa 1740, depicts a view of a house with projecting pavilions, situated in a luscious park, with an oval pool and figures in the foreground. The work hung in the drawing room of the Messel’s family home, Homstead Manor before it was incorporated into Flaxley Abbey. It is estimated to fetch £7,000-10,000

English School painting, dating from circa 1740, depicting Flaxley Abbey

Among historical works in the sale that relate back to Flaxley Abbey’s illustrious history is a Charles II painted oak, mother of pearl and bone inlaid enclosed chest of drawers, which carries an estimate of £10,000-£15,000 and a portrait of an aged 11 James Boevey, an ancestor of the Crawley-Boevey Baronets, who were at Flaxley for over three centuries from 1648. The painting is by a follower of Gilbert Jackson and is estimated to fetch £10,000-15,000.

Charles II painted oak, mother of pearl and bone inlaid enclosed chest of drawers

Elsewhere in the sale, a set of eight George II walnut and parcel gilt dining chairs bearing the arms of the Altieri family, dating from circa 1730 are believed to be from Palazzo Altieri, showing the quality and history of the works on offer. Palazzo Altieri in Rome was the palace and home of the papal Altieri family. It housed many stunning art works and was decorated and furnished with only the most exceptional pieces. The chairs once furnished Messel’s parents’ home Nymans (which burnt down in 1947, causing the family to relocate to Holmstead Manor). The set is estimated to fetch £10,000-15,000.

Eight George II walnut and parcel gilt dining chairs bearing the arms of the Altieri family

A stunning 16th century Italian Maiolica charger from Urbino and also once in the historic Messel collection before it was at Flaxley Abbey, is estimated to fetch £600-800.

16th century Italian Maiolica charger from Urbino

Flaxley Abbey was a monastery until 1536, when it was given to William Kingston, Constable of the Tower of London, (who oversaw the execution of Anne Boleyn). At this point it was converted into a manor house with an added west and south wing. It then passed through the Crawley-Boevey Baronets who appointed the architect Anthony Keck (1726–1797) to rebuild the house in the 18th century. It remained with them until 1960, when it was purchased by the industrialist Fred Watkins and has remained within the same family to date. It was during this time that the commission for its interiors was given to Oliver Messel.

It was a chance meeting of Oliver Messel and Phyliss Watkins in the Royal shoemakers Rayne in London in the 1960s, that led to a long friendship between them. Messel’s strong connection to the royals (his nephew, Antony Armstrong-Jones married HRH Princess Margaret), which had led to many high-profile commissions, such as The Dorchester Hotel and many of the original houses on Mustique, including the redesign of Princess Margaret’s home Les Jolies Eaux.

Through these connections he was asked to create the interiors of Rayne’s new shop in Bond Street, London in 1960. Phyliss Watkins, now living at Flaxley Abbey, was a customer at Rayne and while admiring a chandelier in the newly-designed shop, was introduced to Messel, leading to his commission to redesign the whole of the interiors at Flaxley Abbey. The Watkins family chose Messel’s flamboyant design style honed from his theatre design background, to add a richness, warmth and a renewed sense of history to the house. He either created pieces especially for the Abbey or sourced them from around the world, or from his own extensive historical collection, so that they would fit perfectly with his overall vision for the house. Flaxley Abbey remains Messel’s only country house project and is one of a dwindling number of Messel interiors still in existence.

Commenting on this diverse and important sale, Joe Robinson, Head of House Sales and Private Collections at Dreweatts, said: “The dispersal of collections often reflects an end to a moment in time, but the sale of the collection from Flaxley Abbey documents a lasting record of this historically important design legacy and provides collectors a rarefied opportunity to engage with the indomitable spirit of the iconic 20th century country house style and capture items of importance to conserve within their own evolving collections or interiors.”