See all stories
26 Apr 2019

Hill of Tarvit picture bills and receipts

Written by Ian Riches and Antonia Laurence-Allen
A portrait of Frederick Sharp of Hill of Tarvit
This is the story of a small collection of receipts and bills relating to some of the paintings at the former home of the Sharp family at Hill of Tarvit.

Introduction and background

The story of this archive is laced with both sadness and eventually good fortune. When the National Trust for Scotland acquired Hill of Tarvit Mansionhouse in 1948/49 it was the most modern building in the Trust’s portfolio, having been completed just over 40 years previously. The house and estate were bequeathed to the Trust by Elisabeth Sharp, the daughter of the man who bought the Tarvit estate and commissioned the construction of the house, Frederick Bower Sharp.

Frederick was born to John Sharp and Elizabeth Bower in 1862 and was the youngest son of five children. Frederick followed in his father’s footsteps as a Dundee jute manufacturer and financier. When his father died in 1895 he left around £750,000, a huge sum at that time. Frederick married Beatrice White in 1896 and they had their first child Hugh the following year. Frederick’s financial investments had further increased his wealth and in 1904 he bought the estate around Wemyss Hall, near Cupar in Fife, with a view to establishing his family home there.

This estate was situated near to railway links, enabling him to attend his work in Dundee, but was also close to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St Andrews, of which he was an enthusiastic member. Frederick engaged the Scottish architect Robert Lorimer to design his family home (in the process demolishing almost all of the existing Wemyss Hall), which would also serve as a showcase for his collection of paintings, tapestries, porcelains and furniture. Hill of Tarvit has been described as ‘practically the only country house [designed] by Sir Robert Lorimer to retain its original contents in situ’ [Gow, 2001].

A large white-walled country mansion stands on a slight hill, with stone staircases and terraced gardens leading down in front. Tall trees surround the gardens.
Hill of Tarvit Mansion

Hill of Tarvit Mansionhouse was completed in 1906 and this became the Sharps’ family home. Frederick and Beatrice’s second child, Elisabeth, was born in 1909. However, their stay there was to be fairly brief and interspersed with tragedy.

Frederick died suddenly of a heart attack whilst in Aviemore in August 1932, only a week before his 70th birthday. In December 1937, Hugh was travelling to the west of Scotland to meet his fiancée Mabel Hogarth. The train that Hugh was on had stopped at Castlecary because of the heavy snow, and was hit by the Edinburgh to Glasgow express with such extreme force that the stationary train’s engine was sent 100 yards down the track. Hugh was among the 35 people who died in that rail disaster.

Beatrice died in 1946 at the age of 82 and then just two years later Elisabeth died of cancer at the age of 38. Before she passed away, Elisabeth made arrangements to leave Hill of Tarvit to the National Trust for Scotland.

The archives

The prevailing wisdom as to why there are no Sharp family papers is that they were burned by the grief-stricken Beatrice and Elisabeth, following the tragic loss of Hugh. However, a small bundle of documents, whether by accident or design, managed to evade the alleged bonfire. An inventory of the house in 1949 refers to the contents of the Sitting Room off the main staircase which ‘embraced a file of letters and receipts for pictures etc’. An additional, later note says that these documents were ‘locked in the Strong Room’. In the late 1990s, a locksmith was called to open a couple of locked cabinets at the property, but frustratingly these documents were nowhere to be seen.

In 1999, when the National Trust for Scotland was in the process of moving its headquarters into its new Charlotte Square home, a ‘sad-looking cardboard box, about to be thrown out’ was rescued and its treasure trove of contents uncovered.

The survival of this small collection of papers (c60 documents) has provided us with invaluable primary source material for Frederick Sharp’s collecting activities. Its survival is probably not coincidental because one of the main reasons for Frederick’s commissioning of Tarvit was as a home to exhibit his art and antiques. It has been surmised that the documents were safely guarded by the surviving Sharp women just because they reflect Frederick’s collecting activities.

The collection of papers spans the time between the mansion being designed and constructed for Sharp (around 1905) up until July 1932, just weeks before Frederick’s death. They’re mostly receipts for paintings and indicate that Sharp’s collecting went beyond the local art dealers in Glasgow and Edinburgh to those based in London and even Amsterdam.

The subject matters of the paintings range from still lifes, portraits and landscapes to winter and golf scenes. There was a particular period in 1928–29 when Sharp had a yen for buying Allan Ramsay portraits – four were bought from art dealers in London and Edinburgh in the space of around 18 months. The letters that accompany the bills also show that Sharp went to some lengths researching his acquisitions and thought carefully about what paintings to collect. We’ve selected a few documents to highlight some of the better-known ones.

A receipt from 1905
Receipt from 1905 for three paintings

The first is a receipt for three paintings: ‘J. F. Herring senior The Forge; framed original oil painting by Fantin-Latour – Stocks, hollyhocks, gladioli &c, framed; original oil painting by Chas. Torone, Man going and hoofing; ... and a Chippendale Chair’. The items were bought from A. Baird Carter and dated 2 December 1905.

Still-life of flowers by Fantin-Latour in the Library at Hill of Tarvit
Flowerpiece, Henri Fantin-Latour, 1869

These paintings were purchased whilst the building of Hill of Tarvit was still underway. We think that Mr Sharp bought the still life by Fantin-Latour as a Christmas present for his wife, who was keenly interested in gardening and who, in an inventory of 1938, had four paintings in her bedroom, all containing flowers (Ian Gow, Country Life, 15 August 2012). It can be seen today in the Library at Hill of Tarvit. Incidentally, the cost shown of £557.12 is the equivalent to just over £47,000 today.

In December 1905, Frederick Sharp paid a visit to Agnew’s – to this day a well-known fine arts dealer in London – and purchased a couple of paintings by British artists: Winter by George Morland [1763–1804] and The Fresh Team by John Frederick Herring [1795–1865]. Both paintings are currently on display at Hill of Tarvit.

Frederick Sharp had a great love and passion for golf, so much so that he had his own nine-hole golf course built in the grounds to the front of the house. It was Sharp’s love of the game that first sparked an interest in 17th-century Dutch paintings depicting games of golf on ice. These and similar paintings are on display either in the bedroom corridor or in the Dressing Room at Hill of Tarvit. We have two bills for such paintings, purchased by Sharp after he and his family had moved into Hill of Tarvit.

Archives, historical papers, manuscripts, etc often turn up when you least expect them and in the most unexpected of ways. We’re very fortunate that this small series of bills and letters were preserved and have come to us as the result of a chance discovery. Among other things, the bills show that Tarvit was designed to be filled with new purchases, alongside the collections Frederick already owned.

Although there’s undeniably a sadness that permeates the period when the Sharp family lived at Hill of Tarvit, we can also imagine the joy that the purchase of these paintings brought to Frederick, as he began to decorate his wonderful new family home set in the hills of Fife.

Explore the Hill of Tarvit

Visit now