The Earthquake of Hertford House

The death of the Wallace Collection museum’s first director, Sir John Murray Scott, triggered a sensational court case that captivated London’s scandal lovers

Words: Tom Hughes

17th January was the coldest day yet in the winter of 1912. Winds howled across London—the maximum gust was clocked at 49mph at Kew. On that frigid morning, a doctor was called from his office in Manchester Street to come immediately to Hertford House, Manchester Square where the director of the Wallace Collection museum, 25-stone Sir John Murray Scott, had suffered what was later described as a “short heart attack”. The efforts of the doctor were unavailing and Sir John was pronounced dead at the age of 67. He left behind a fortune worth an estimated £1,180,000.

Sir John was unmarried but, as his obituary noted: “He is survived by brothers and sisters.” These siblings were not at all pleased when their brother’s will was later opened—the bulk of the fortune, including two homes in France, one of them an art-stocked palace on the Rue Lafitte in Paris, and £150,000 cash were all being left to Sir John’s dearest friend, Lady Victoria Sackville of Knole.

Sir John had earned his knighthood by advising the late Lady Wallace to leave her family’s vast collection of paintings, porcelain and armour to the nation. Sir John’s father had been a doctor who lived in Paris and served ex-pat patients. Among Dr Scott’s clientele was the infamous 4th Marquis of Hertford, who had been driven from London by his profligacy. The marquis, as well as amassing one of the worst reputations of all time, had assembled a magnificent art collection. When he died in 1870, he left it to his illegitimate son, Richard Wallace. During the old scoundrel’s last illness, Dr Scott’s own son, John, although training for the bar at the Sorbonne, had assisted his father.

Young John attracted the attention of Richard Wallace who promptly employed him as his personal secretary. Sir Richard and Lady Wallace had no children and Scott, a charming 23-year-old, soon made himself indispensable. The bulk of the family’s art was moved back to Hertford House in 1871. After Sir Richard died in 1890, Scott remained as Lady Wallace’s adviser. When she passed away in 1897, in addition to bequeathing Hertford House and its collection to the nation, she left all the rest—the homes in France and a million pounds—to her faithful assistant, John Murray Scott.

Place of pilgrimage
The Prince of Wales came to Marylebone to open the collection to the public in 1900. The Times exulted: “Henceforth Hertford House and the Wallace Collection, vaguely famous until now, among the experts and amateurs of Europe and America, will become a veritable place of pilgrimage for all who care for art.”

While giving a private tour to some of the era’s A-listers, Sir John was introduced to Lady Victoria Sackville. Her Ladyship invited Sir John to visit her at her splendid if financially encumbered home at Knole. The friendship speedily blossomed. In his diary, Sir John wrote: “Sat under the tree with V till lunch. She told me all her trials and worries.” In their correspondence, she was V or Vickey and he was ‘Seery’, a baby-talk derivative of monsieur.

With her husband otherwise engaged in his serial philandering, V was able to focus her considerable charms on Seery. She began to preside over his lavish home at 5 Connaught Place, just across the Edgware Road. She relegated his “stupid sisters” to their rooms upstairs. The sisters called Lady Sackville and her friends ‘the Locusts’. The servants called her ‘the Earthquake’ because every time she came, she would re-arrange the furniture and art. The prurient reader should be informed that there was never any suggestion of a physical intimacy between V and Seery, and Sir John’s Falstaffian proportions certainly made him an unlikely romantic hero. Nonetheless, although he had known her for only two years, Sir John’s will declared his wish to leave Lady Sackville “comfortable and independent in return for her goodness and sympathy”. After Sir John’s death, the brothers and sisters Scott angrily caucused and harrumphed: “We’ll see about her goodness.”

Scheming woman
For eight days in June and July 1913, crowds packed the Probate Court on The Strand for the sensational Scott Will Trial. The best counsel had been employed by each side. FE Smith, for the Scotts, declared: “Until Lady Sackville entered into it, there was never a more affectionate family than the Scotts.” This scheming woman, he said, “deliberately set herself to make mischief”. She disparaged Alicia and Mary, the unmarried Scott sisters, saying that they did not have “the Knole manner”. Sir John’s aged mother became so upset over the impact Lady Sackville was having on her family she died of a stroke. But Sir John could not be stopped—he regularly wrote cheques, making gifts to Lady Sackville that Smith claimed “dropped like gentle rain from heaven”. These gifts amounted to a cool £84,000.

The Scotts were, said Smith, greatly heartened when Sir John’s ardour for his vexatious friend began to cool. In 1911 Sir John had written to Lady Sackville to tell her he had determined to make a codicil that would greatly reduce her expectations. He had decided that the valuable contents of the Rue Lafitte house should be brought to London and made part of the public collection at Hertford House.

But this codicil was never found. Did he ever actually make the codicil? Was it stolen? There were dark stories of Lady Sackville and her teenaged daughter (Vita Sackville West—later to become famous for both her novels and her colourful love life) skulking around the Connaught Place house during a party, trying to break into Sir John’s desk. The Sackville ladies insisted they had alibis.

On his knees
In that, as with the other charges, Lady Sackville was more than a match for her accusers and their dashing lawyer. She knew Smith quite well socially but by the trial’s end she had dismissed him as a cad. On the stand, she gaily parried all his toughest questions. The New York Times thought “she spoke with as much ease as if in a drawing room”. Her description of Walter Scott, Sir John’s equally corpulent brother, crawling around her drawing room on his knees proposing that she become his mistress, was just one of many highlights.

Lady Sackville’s lawyer Sir Edward Carson made the telling point that Sir John’s legacy was his personal fortune—it was not Scott money, it had been left to him by the Wallaces. His siblings had been well cared for and had all enjoyed “the magnificent establishment” he kept for them in Connaught Place. He took country houses for them, paid all their travel expenses and his will provided them with the not inconsiderable ‘residue’ of the estate. Sir John was fully within his rights to pass his fabulous wealth on to whoever he wished. There was nothing beyond the wretched sisters’ hurt feelings over their perceived ‘belittling’ to back up this entire case. Lady Sackville had been made subject to a “vitriolic black-washing” at the hands of the Scotts over what were mere trivialities. The presiding judge admitted to the jury that had Sir John made this bequest to a male artist friend, no one would have raised an eyebrow.

The jury—after eight gruelling days—took just 12 minutes to clear Lady Sackville of all aspersions of “undue influence”. The Times opined that few would begrudge Lady Sackville her victory. “Into the somewhat vapid life of an old man, with no one about him to light it up, came a brilliant and imperious woman.” It was his wish to reward her for having made his last years more pleasurable. So, let it be done.

Following her legal triumph, Lady Sackville rather rapidly—many thought with unseemly haste—sold the entire Rue Lafitte lot at auction for more than £250,000. The pain of losing dear old Seery was soon eased by new—and even wealthier—male admirers. Men like WW Astor and JP Morgan were soon to be drawn, just like Sir John Scott before them, to the “brilliant and imperious” charms of Lady Sackville.