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Lord Beaverbrook's legendary English estate sold to investors

Cherkley Court Leatherhead Surrey Britain, England

Andy Williams/The Travel Libra/Rex Features/Andy Williams/The Travel Libra/Rex Features

The storied English estate at the heart of a legal battle between New Brunswick's Beaverbrook Art Gallery and a British charity has been sold to a consortium that wants to convert it to a hotel and golf course.

Representatives of the Beaverbrook U.K. Foundation, headed by one of the grandsons of the first, Canadian-born Lord Beaverbrook, confirmed the sale last week of Cherkley Court, but declined to say whether it realized its asking price of more than £20-million ($32-million). One hundred years ago, Ontario-born, New Brunswick-raised press baron Max Aitken bought the approximately 160-hectare rural Surrey property shortly after his knighthood by George V. Before Beaverbrook's death there in 1964, Cherkley saw a steady stream of important visitors, including Sir Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling, W.B. Yeats, David Lloyd George, H.G. Wells, even Adolf Hitler's foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, as well as Bonar Law, the first only Canadian-born British prime minister.

An unspecified portion of the proceeds from the sale is expected to go the Beaverbrook gallery as part of an out-of-court settlement reached last fall by the gallery and the U.K. foundation. Its details, worked out after two disputed arbitration hearings, are secret. But it is known the Fredericton-based gallery obtained clear ownership of 85 artworks valued by some at more than $100-million, including paintings by Thomas Gainsborough, J.M.W. Turner and Lucian Freud. The foundation, for its part, gained ownership of the 48 other, largely lesser artworks in the dispute.

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The site's new purchaser, Longshot, a consortium of 14 English investors, has indicated wishes to convert the estate's park and farmland to a members-only golf club (including the construction of a club house) and the manor house and adjacent cottages to a luxury hotel. The purchase price is expected to be revealed later this spring when the new owner registers title.

But these developments require approval from the local planning commission and council. Organizations such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England already have said they'll oppose Longshot's plans. For one, they argue, Surrey is already home to 141 golf courses and does not need another venue that would take agricultural land out of production. An earlier application by a Singapore developer to build a golf course on the site was denied in 1995, resulting in the Beaverbrook U.K. Foundation buying it back as a registered historic property in 1998. It had been home to the first Lord Beaverbrook's wife until her death in 1994.

Cherkley Court became a bone of contention between 2002 and 2004 when the U.K. foundation, headed by Maxwell Aitken III - a grandson of the first Lord Beaverbrook - decided it would spend millions upgrading the estate. It planned to convert it to a Beaverbrook museum and library and also make it a venue for corporate events and weddings. The estate's gardens and fountains also were to be renovated and opened to the public, with the expectation they could draw 50,000 visitors annually.

But how to finance it? At this time the foundation and its sister philanthropy, the Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation, believed it owned outright more than 200 works housed in the Beaverbrook gallery in Fredericton. The gallery had been established as a gift to New Brunswick in 1959 by the first Lord Beaverbrook and provisioned by him with an eclectic selection of paintings, drawings and sculpture. But the U.K. foundation believed the artworks were simply loans, recoverable at any time. It was particularly interested in The Fountain of Indolence, an 1834 canvas by Turner, and Freud's Hotel Bedroom, from 1954 - paintings that, if sold at auction, likely would fetch tens of millions of dollars.

Faced with rising insurance costs on its art holdings, the need to cover costs for the Cherkley Court renovation and the demands of other charities it had long supported, the foundation hit upon the idea of selling what it came to describe as "a number of paintings" in the Fredericton gallery. In addition, it planned to hang some of the gallery's canvases at Cherkley Court "on a rotational basis." To sweeten the deal for the gallery, the foundation said it would donate a large portion of the realized sales to the gallery's endowment. However, the Fredericton board, fearing it would be denuded of some of its most valuable holdings, balked at the proposition and decided to determine once and for all just what were gifts and what were loans. By spring of 2004, with renovations to Cherkley Court well under way, both sides were gearing up for the legal fight that would consume them for the next six years.

All manor of details: Facts and figures on Lord Beaverbrook's estate

  • Acquired by Lord Beaverbrook in 1911.
  • Was his home until his death in 1964.
  • Lord Beaverbrook used it to entertain guests including writer Rudyard Kipling and then and future British prime ministers Bonar Law, Herbert Asquith, Harold Macmillan and Winston Churchill.
  • An important centre for Lord Beaverbrook's activities in the Second World War as minister for aircraft production and a key member of Churchill's War Cabinet.
  • Set in 150 hectares of park and woodlands. Includes 6.5 hectares of landscaped gardens.
  • The main house has five reception rooms and six bedroom suites, including one referred to as "Churchill's Room."
  • The service wing contains staff accommodations and offices. There's also an orangery and indoor swimming pool.
  • The secondary house on the estate has six bedrooms.
  • There are two cottages and a former stable block, which now comprise the gardener's cottage and a range of garages, offices and stores.

Compiled by: Celia Donnelly

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Sources: The Beaverbrook Foundation; Savills plc

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