Dowager Countess of Cirencester Park asked her interior designer to sell the family chattels

Just over a month ago, the London branch of the auction house Christie’s hosted a sale of some of the effects of a deceased Dowager Countess. The artefacts listed in the catalogue included several Old Masters, items of furniture and various pieces of jewellery. So far, so unremarkable. But the […]

Just over a month ago, the London branch of the auction house Christie’s hosted a sale of some of the effects of a deceased Dowager Countess.

The artefacts listed in the catalogue included several Old Masters, items of furniture and various pieces of jewellery.

So far, so unremarkable. But the Countess in question was Gloria Bathurst and when her stepson, the current Lord Bathurst — the 9th Earl — heard about the sale, he was furious.

Old Harrovian Allen Bathurst, 59, branded Gloria — who was his father Henry’s second wife — ‘callous’ and spoke angrily of family treasures being sold off. 

With her striking looks, it wasn’t long before Gloria was more in demand in front of the camera

‘This is a terrible tragedy and incredibly sad for my family to see long-term possessions of historical importance being hawked for sale to the highest bidder,’ he harrumphed to the Mail’s Richard Eden.

Referring to his stepmother, who was married to his father for almost 34 years until his death in 2011, he said: ‘This callous woman came into the family and we welcomed her. 

‘My father entrusted her with these precious possessions with his clear understanding and belief they would be returned to the family on her death.

‘Gloria has broken his trust and there are now chattels of national and historical significance, from within a family collection dating back over 11 generations, being dispersed.’

Instead of being held on display, as he would wish, ‘for the enjoyment of the nation’ and ‘in the place where they belong’, they would be split apart to hang ‘on the walls of strangers as interior décor’.

But with his stepmother dead for more than 18 months and in the absence of any next of kin — the Dowager Countess had no children — at whom were the Earl’s sulphurous comments directed?

Some believe this aristocratic finger-pointing must have been aimed at the two men who are not only beneficiaries of the late Countess’s will but also her executors.

They are Grant White and Geoffrey Bradfield. Both are successful interior designers, both are originally from South Africa and both are understandably upset at any suggestion they may have behaved improperly.

Last week, in his first interview since the controversy over the Dowager Countess’s estimated £32 million fortune erupted nearly two years ago, Kensington-based Mr White launched a robust defence of his role.

‘I take the view that the animosity that existed was not of my making. But it is wrong that Gloria has been made the scapegoat,’ said Mr White, adding: ‘Anything with a monogram or crest, such as bed linen, papers and photo albums, has gone back. 

‘There was masses of it — letters, old school reports — and we handed over all the items of historical importance.’

When her stepson, the current Lord Bathurst ¿ the 9th Earl ¿ heard about the sale, he was furious

When her stepson, the current Lord Bathurst — the 9th Earl — heard about the sale, he was furious

He went on: ‘Gloria’s fortune did not just derive from Henry. She had been married to a wealthy man before him and she owned two properties in London as well as other investments.’

Mr White is also angered by any implication that the Christie’s sale of the Dowager’s chattels — which was arranged in accordance with her express instructions — involved the contents of the entire estate. 

In fact, the items sold were less than 10 per cent of the possessions she had placed in a trust fund.

It is clear that Mr White enjoyed an extremely warm relationship with Gloria. 

He speaks of his deep affection for the ‘fun, sophisticated and highly intelligent’ woman he was proud to call his friend.

And his relationship with the Countess went beyond mere companionship. 

When her health declined after she suffered an apparent stroke, it was Mr White who organised round-the-clock nursing so she could remain in her home, and later her end-of-life care — not her late husband’s family.

The continuing furore over her estate has shone an intriguing light not just on Gloria — once one of the world’s most sought-after models — but on the bond she formed with Mr White and Mr Bradfield.

Interior designer and landscaper Grant White at his London Home in Earls Court

Interior designer and landscaper Grant White at his London Home in Earls Court

‘She looked upon Geoffrey as a younger brother,’ says Mr White. 

‘They were close for 40 years, while with me it was a case of two people on the same wavelength. That’s why I feel so strongly about her legacy.’

The youngest of four children, who was brought up by his mother after his parents divorced, Mr White found nothing unusual about friendship with a woman almost four decades his senior. 

They met at a dinner party in 1991, not long after he had moved to London from his native Cape Town.

‘The Bathursts had just been on a grand tour of South Africa and, because of their friendship with Geoffrey, they felt well-disposed towards South Africans and we just hit it off,’ he says.

‘Also, Gloria was once a great beauty who had been used to men hitting on her — something she was not going to get from a gay interior designer!’

Thanks to the treasures in Cirencester Park — the family seat in the Cotswolds which has its own polo club where Princes Charles, William and Harry have all played over the years — the couple had developed a keen interest in art. 

This was something they shared with Mr White, who was working in antiques and interiors.

‘They would come to London and we would go to an exhibition, then have dinner afterwards,’ Mr White recalled.

As Earl Bathurst was an active member of the House of Lords until the abolition of the automatic right of hereditary peers to sit in the House in 1999, Grant was sometimes called upon to play the role of Gloria’s plus-one. 

‘On one occasion she invited me to the Monaco Grand Prix because Henry couldn’t come,’ Mr White recalled. 

‘We had a fabulous time staying in a house in Cap Ferrat but it worked so well because she was not a needy woman.

‘I would get up in the morning, go water-skiing, go swimming and I wouldn’t see Gloria till lunchtime. Then she would disappear and reappear again for dinner. I am sure this was because she’d had a successful independent career before marriage. 

‘She didn’t need a man to tell her what to do — she could take care of herself. And she was such fun.’

The couple had married in 1978. For both of them it was a second marriage. 

The 8th Earl’s first wife, Judy — daughter of a Lancashire textile manufacturer and mother of his three children — had left him for Old Etonian John Vestey, a cousin of the meat and shipping tycoon Lord Vestey.

Thanks to the treasures in Cirencester Park ¿ the family seat in the Cotswolds which has its own polo club where Princes Charles, William and Harry have all played over the years ¿ the couple had developed a keen interest in art

Thanks to the treasures in Cirencester Park — the family seat in the Cotswolds which has its own polo club where Princes Charles, William and Harry have all played over the years — the couple had developed a keen interest in art

Meanwhile, Gloria had been widowed after the sudden death of her wealthy husband, lawyer David Rutherston, three years earlier. 

She had come to marriage late — although she had broken off five engagements before meeting Rutherston.

Nor was she maternal. Through her first marriage she had ‘inherited’ four stepchildren, then three more with Lord Bathurst.

‘When she married Henry she told him she was not prepared to make any decisions regarding the children,’ says Mr White. 

‘This wasn’t being callous but practical and a recognition of the fact that they still had their own mother and she, Gloria, was not their replacement.’

The Countess’s early life had been unorthodox. The daughter of a Liverpudlian engineer who had emigrated to New York, she was born in the U.S. and saw out World War II with a relative in Florida.

She came home when hostilities ceased as a confident young woman with plans for her life. ‘Her father suggested she should get a job as a librarian in the Midlands,’ says Mr White. 

‘That was not her view. She wanted to go to Fleet Street and become a fashion writer.’

Which is exactly what she did, working on magazines. But with her striking looks, it wasn’t long before she was more in demand in front of the camera.

The French couturier Christian Dior presented his New Look in 1947 and by 1950 Gloria was the designer’s favourite model.

‘She had the perfect figure — long limbs and a tiny waist — and for a while she was the most photographed woman in the world,’ Mr White says.

She also featured regularly in newspaper gossip columns, where, because of her glowing, healthy looks, she earned the nickname ‘England’s outdoor girl’.

After her marriage to Earl Bathurst, they moved into ‘the mansion’, as the family call Grade II-listed Cirencester Park.

Henry, a Lord-in-Waiting to the Queen, was a carriage-driving friend of Prince Philip, who often came to stay.

In a thank-you letter after one visit, Philip wrote to Gloria commending the sense of style she had displayed in transforming the interiors of the house.

But after ten years in residence, they moved out in 1988 to allow the Earl’s son and heir, Allen, to take it over.

She and the Earl settled in the considerably less grand Manor Farm House, in the nearby village of Sapperton, Gloucestershire. 

It was the start of a new life for the couple — but it was also the beginning of difficulties between the Earl, his family and his second wife.

Henry had inherited the earldom as a teenager after the death of his father in World War II and, when his grandfather died shortly afterwards, he found himself hit with double death duties.

Just over a month ago, the London branch of the auction house Christie¿s hosted a sale of some of the effects of a deceased Dowager Countess. Pictured is a pear and diamond necklace - a gift from Queen Anne

Just over a month ago, the London branch of the auction house Christie’s hosted a sale of some of the effects of a deceased Dowager Countess. Pictured is a pear and diamond necklace – a gift from Queen Anne

In the early Sixties — a time of high taxation — he placed 75 per cent of his wealth into a trust fund to benefit his children and preserve the integrity of the estate.

Crucially, he retained control of all the valuables in ‘the mansion’, some of which he and Gloria used to furnish their new home.

At some point in the early Nineties, the Earl and Countess asked their friend Grant White to make a photographic inventory of everything in the house — and it was around this time that Mr White met the flamboyant Geoffrey Bradfield, a man known as ‘the billionaire’s designer’, who spent every Christmas with the Bathursts.

But as Mr White and Mr Bradfield grew ever closer to the older generation of Bathursts, Henry and Gloria’s relationship with his son Allen deteriorated.

And when the 8th Earl began suffering the effects of dementia, matters only became worse.

By the time of Henry’s death in 2011, Gloria wanted nothing more to do with his family and asked Mr White and Mr Bradfield to be her executors.

With three-quarters of the 8th Earl’s wealth already in the hands of his children, she put the bulk of her husband’s remaining fortune into a trust fund for them. 

The money was administered in the same ratio as before — in other words, Gloria handed over 75 per cent to the children and kept 25 per cent for herself.

But the acrimony only increased, with accusations that Gloria had squandered her husband’s inheritance. ‘This was all untrue and very unfair,’ says Mr White.

As Gloria’s health deteriorated, he found himself spending more and more time with her.

‘I had no idea that we were, in effect, her next of kin,’ he says. ‘I thought there would be cousins, nieces and nephews but there was no one. So when she became ill, I was her primary carer.’

The Countess¿s early life had been unorthodox. The daughter of a Liverpudlian engineer who had emigrated to New York, she was born in the U.S. and saw out World War II with a relative in Florida.

The Countess’s early life had been unorthodox. The daughter of a Liverpudlian engineer who had emigrated to New York, she was born in the U.S. and saw out World War II with a relative in Florida.

There was little common ground with the Bathursts. After Gloria’s death, Allen said: ‘It was no secret that my stepmother and I did not see eye to eye, despite a number of attempted reconciliations, all of which were thrown back in our faces.

‘Having married into the family, she was more than happy to use the family name. It was just disappointing that she could not follow in the manners, standards and loyalty of the family of the past.’

Grant White rejects this accusation and points out that Gloria and Allen’s father had been happily married for more than three decades — a fact not even mentioned in the eulogy at the late Earl Bathurst’s memorial service.

‘He unfailingly supported Gloria in every breath he took and every word he wrote,’ Mr White insists.

He and Mr Bradfield face a £14 million bill for death duties on Gloria’s estate. ‘She had made no tax provision whatsoever and was perfectly happy to pay whatever inheritance duties were due,’ he says.

Many will be hoping that, with the conclusion of last month’s sale — the 255 lots raised £2.1 million — tranquillity will at last return to the rolling acres of Cirencester Park. But no one is holding their breath.

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