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Sir Cuthbert’s controversial Old Masters

                                                                       Text: Val Herbert    Research: David Martin

Click on a picture to enlarge 

 The bare walls of the big Assembly Room in Sudbury Town Hall needed colour in the eyes of the local MP William Cuthbert Quilter, not a surprising thought as he was an enthusiastic art collector with an enviable collection.  The year was 1897, 12 years since he had been elected on a Liberal ticket and he had become fond of the town, as he wrote in a letter to the Mayor offering him four Old Masters for those bare walls.

The paintings were attributed to Peter Paul Rubens, the great Flemish Master, but were probably early copies as the MP signalled in a letter to the council.  ‘Trusting that whatever may be thought of the merits of the works themselves, they may at any rate be accepted as evidence of the interest I feel in the good old town of Sudbury’.

Town mayor Arthur Grimwood, who was an architect and had a good eye for design, accepted what he described as ‘a very handsome offer.’ Other members of the council were not enthusiastic about the idea of ‘hanging imitations on our walls’ and complained that the paintings were not of local interest. Yet others described the gift as ‘gracious’ and suggested they must have some value. This was the start of a controversy that rumbled on for more than 50 years.

               Contemporary view of Town Hall

 Mayor, aldermen and councillors must have been shocked when Quilter’s gift arrived. The paintings were huge, each measuring 2.5m by 2m – picture the size of a table tennis table. They were hunting scenes but not traditional sanitised versions of the Suffolk chase. Rubens’ visions were bloody slaughter, with tangled bodies of hunters and hunted almost falling out the frames and lots of bare flesh. The prey was lions, tigers, a crocodile and hippopotamus rather than fox or deer, and the conflict between men and beast so fierce that the outcome is difficult to forecast.

             Ruben’s original Lion Hunt

 The Sudbury ‘Rubens’ were said to be ‘dark’ so they might well have needed restoration though they were not assessed by an expert. Rubens painted the originals in the early 1600s for the summer palace of Maximilian, Elector of Bavaria. Napoleon looted them during his rampage across Europe and they were taken back to France and given to major cities. The Lion Hunt and its companion Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt are now in the Alte Pinakothek gallery in Munich.

       The companion Hippo and crocodile hunt

For 40 years the Sudbury Rubens hung in the town hall until a show-down in 1937. That year they were taken down from the walls of the Assembly Room on the grounds that they would clash with decorations planned for a dance. It was obviously an important event and probably part of the celebrations in May that year for the coronation of George VI, father of our present Queen. The paintings were taken by dustcart to the sewage pumping station in Ballingdon Street and lost to public consciousness for 18 years until 1955 when they were located after a search. Opinion against them had obviously hardened, because two years later the Town Council sent its  ‘Rubens’ for auction at Christie’s where they were they were sold to a London art dealer for just over £100. The proceeds went to a fund set up to buy Gainsborough’s birthplace in the town in order to create a museum and art gallery. An appropriate choice as Rubens landscapes are said to have influenced both Gainsborough and Constable. In 2019 Bonhams sold a copy of the Lion Hunt in the US for $25,000.

      Gainsborough’s House benefits from sale

 There was little risk of offending William Quilter, he had died a multi-millionaire in 1911.  If any hint of controversy had reached him at the time he made his gift, it would surely have been brushed aside after news of a royal honour. Weeks after offering his gift to Sudbury the MP was created a baronet in the Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee honours. He chose to be known as Sir Cuthbert Quilter, side lining the name William in favour of the family name of his paternal grandmother.

At last Sudbury had a Member of Parliament with no less than royal approval after being notorious for its corrupt elections at the start of Queen Victoria’s reign. The town has a strong claim to be the Rotten Borough that Dickens depicted as Eatanswill in Pickwick Papers.  The Reform Acts of the 1840s put an end to it, Sudbury losing its right to send two MPs to Westminster which dated back to 1559. Instead it was allocated only one, shared with the rest of West Suffolk.

Rotten borough depicted by Phiz

Then 40 years later in 1885, another redistribution of parliamentary seats again gave Sudbury, and the surrounding villages, their own representative at Westminster. He was William Quilter, a Liberal and a wealthy stockbroker in his mid-40s, who won the seat with a comfortable majority over his Conservative rival.  It is likely that he benefited from newly-enfranchised farm workers voting against their Tory employers. This was part of the background to the ‘Melford Riot’ of 1885, when men from Glemsford, angry at having to walk to Long Melford to cast their vote, clashed with locals. It ended with militia being called out from Bury St Edmunds. At this time cheap imports from the American prairies flooded the English market leading to great poverty in the countryside.

Sudbury Cricket Club: given a Quilter donation

Quilter was understandably careful to avoid any possible accusation of bribery and corruption. His £100 contribution towards a new cricket ground in Friars Street (worth £13,000 in 2020), was made long after his election. He officiated at the opening of the new ground in 1891 and is believed to have paid for the handsome cast iron railings that still remain around much of the perimeter. His gift must have been popular with footballers as well as cricketers because they used the ground in the winter.

Rescued from decay: Lavenham Guildhall

Sir Cuthbert had Suffolk roots. His Quilter grandfather had farmed near Felixstowe. His father turned his back on farming to become an accountant in the City of London, opening his own practice and making the substantial fortune that trickled down his family. Sir Cuthbert worked in his father’s office as a young man then moved on to become a stockbroker.  He too was an astute businessman, his investments including the National Telephone Company which  eventually became BT. He was highly successful but in 1888 he was about to become  very, very wealthy after his father died leaving today’s equivalent of  about  £75m. By this time he was Sudbury’s MP.

Sir Cuthbert and his wife May had raised their young family of five sons and two daughters in Surrey and East Sussex but his interest in Suffolk was obvious in 1877 when he acquired and restored the decaying 16th century Guildhall at Lavenham. Just before WW2 his eldest son and heir paid for a second restoration before giving the building to the village preservation committee in 1946. It is now owned by the National Trust and attracts thousands of visitors annually.

           Plaque records Quilter generosity

Five years after saving the Guildhall Sir Cuthbert moved his family to Suffolk, significantly at a time when plans were in train for boundary changes that again gave the electors of Sudbury and surrounding  villages their own MP. Sir Cuthbert clearly had political ambitions as he rented the impressive 16th century Hintlesham Hall to the west of Ipswich as base for conducting his successful campaign to win the Sudbury seat. While the family was living there Sir Cuthbert bought a spit of wild land on the north shore of the river Deben estuary, where a Martello tower had kept watch since fear of invasion by Napoleon.

      Aerial view of Martello Tower

The year after his 1885 election victory he began building a seat worthy of a wealthy baronet.  Over a span of more than nine years this grew into the impressive Bawdsey Manor, with its Tudor, Gothic and Georgian influences. At least two architects worked on the design alongside Sir Cuthbert himself. The final result had 50 rooms including a ballroom lined with mirrors, an oak-lined hall with a gallery for musicians, a billiard room and numerous dining rooms with a sea views

            Bawdsey Manor from the west

There was an orangery, a Jacobean tea house and a quarter of a mile of cliff terraces designed by Lady Quilter.  Sir Cuthbert dynamited the Martello tower to make a sunken garden and huge sums were spent on sea defences. Eventually his estate covered 8,000 acres and he had planted two million trees, rebuilt village houses, added a reading room for the local people, and restored the church.

         Loading a Quilter steam-powered ferry

 Access was not a problem. His two steam-powered chain ferries linked the estate to Felixstowe and its railway station. They carried vehicles and provided easy access for the Quilters and their guests. House and grounds were serviced and tended by a large work force of indoor staff and gardeners and the family entertained generously. Sir Cuthbert must have been an interesting host. He travelled widely in the Americas, Europe and Asia and had an eclectic range of interests including breeding Suffolk Punch heavy horses, brewing beer, archaeology and collecting fine art as well as the countryman’s sport of shooting. Bawdsey was considered to be one of the best shooting estates in East Anglia.

Champion of the Suffolk Punch

     The Bawdsey Suffolk Punch stud was renowned and Sir Cuthbert was elected President of the Suffolk Horse Society for life. His art collection included works by Velazques, Reynolds, Constable, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites and then there was yachting. He indulged his passion for the rich man’s sport of racing big yachts with large professional crews. He lived on board his 165-ton schooner Zoe while successfully racing his 40-ton cutter Britannia around the coast. He won prizes too with his 71-ton racing yawl Hirondelle. Altogether he owned six yachts.

Big boys toys: racing yachts in late 19th century

Among fellow big yacht owners and opponents were the future King Edward VII and the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, Queen Victoria’s grandson, who led Germany into WW1.

Sailor cousins: Kaiser Wilhem and Edward VII

On at least one occasion the Kaiser was among guests welcomed to Bawsey. One of Sir Cuthbert’s proudest achievements as vice commodore of the Royal Harwich Yacht Club, was his part in organising, with the Kaiser as patron, a race for big yachts across the North Sea from Bremerhaven to Felixstowe.

Under sail: cutter Meteor II owned by the Kaiser

Sir Cuthbert’s sport mingled with his political life after he moored his steam yacht Peridot close to the House of Commons ready to take the Speaker of the House and fellow MPs for trips on the Thames.

                    Steam yacht PERIDOT.

That aside, Sir Cuthbert was not a significant member of the House of Commons. He was tall with a commanding presence but is said to have had a slight lisp which could explain why he seldom spoke in the Chamber, though he did present a Bill calling for stronger regulations to improve the quality and purity of beer. This might well have been linked to him buying his own brewery at Melton near Woodbridge which is now a pub.

Sir Cuthbert seems to have satisfied the electorate of the Sudbury Division, many having met or seen him particularly in the early days. He was a Freemason and attended the opening in 1886 of the Freemasons’ Temperance and Family hotel in North Street. This is still home of the Stour Valley Lodge but no longer a hotel.

     Freemason’s Hotel: Quilter attends opening

 Despite being a Liberal, he joined the Sudbury Conservative Club, which was said to have attracted more Liberals than Tories at this time. He was returned unopposed in 1886 on a Liberal Unionist ticket, a party formed by a breakaway group of Liberals. They supported Conservative opposition to Irish Home Rule believing this would break up the United Kingdom. He was re-elected in 1892 with a decisive victory over a Liberal candidate and again returned unopposed five years later.

1905 Christmas card: pride before fall

The end of Sir Cuthbert’s 25 years in Parliament came in the 1906 election when the Liberal Unionists were rejected nationally. He lost to the mainstream Liberal candidate William Heaton-Armstrong, a banker married to an Austrian baroness. His colourful past included serving in the British Merchant Navy, fighting with the Turks in the brief Russo-Turkish war of the 1870s and then ‘assisting’ Chile in its war with Peru in the 1880s which makes him sound like something like a mercenary. Heaton-Armstrong did not stand again in the 1910 General Election. He turned to banking and financed railways in British Columbia and Jersey.

     1910 and a new generation

This created an opportunity for Sir Cuthbert’s eldest son and heir, 36-year-old William Eley Cuthbert Quilter, a serving officer in the Suffolk Yeomanry. Despite his father’s apparent Liberalism, he stood as a Conservative winning the seat with a comfortable majority over the Liberal candidate.


       Electioneering in North Street in Sudbury

The victorious new MP had campaigned in a motorised shooting brake, almost certainly from the Bawdsey Estate. His father’s health was failing and it seems unlikely that he is the elderly, bearded man in the centre of this contemporary photograph taken in front of the White Horse pub in North Street. The younger man with his light-coloured coat wearing a rosette is almost certainly William Quilter.   

 Months later in the spring of 1911, Sir Cuthbert and Lady Mary were at their London home in Mayfair in the care of ten servants including a housekeeper, butler, valet and chauffeur. Living with them was their youngest son Roger Quilter the composer and musician. Sir Cuthbert died, aged 70, at Bawdsey in November that year, the day after returning from London, and was buried in the family mausoleum in St Mary’s churchyard.

Quilter mausoleum at Bawdsey

The title passed to his son, the new MP for Sudbury who, rather confusingly, also chose to call himself Sir Cuthbert Quilter. He served in the Suffolk Regiment in WWI and did not seek re-election in 1918. His younger brother, John Arnold Quilter, was killed in 1915 at Gallipoli serving as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Grenadier Guards. Quilter parliamentary agent Major Charles Tippet died in action during the same campaign. He lived on the Croft in Sudbury.

Bawdsey Manor and its estate was requisitioned for the Devonshire Regiment then returned to the family after the war. In 1936 it was sold to the Air Ministry and became the first Chain Home radar station.  This led to Bawdsey achieving its most memorable hour by playing a vital role in the RAF winning the Battle of Britain in September 1940. Radar gave RAF squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes advanced warning of the incoming Luftwaffe bombers and the victory led to Nazi Germany postponing, and finally abandoning, its plan to invade Britain.

Bawsdey: isolated site of radar reearch

The manor was retained by the RAF until 1991 when it was sold, becoming first a boarding school and then a PGL children’s education and adventure centre. The initials are those of the founder Peter Gordon Lawrence – not, as is sometimes supposed, ‘parents, get lost’.

Quilter Key to tackle unexploded German bombs

The name Quilter lives on in another war context. The third baronet, Sir Cuthbert’s grandson, John Raymond Cuthbert Quilter, will long be associated with a WW2 invention that bears the family’s name. He founded the GQ Parachute Company, which developed the static line system for deploying parachutes and designed the Quilter key, a ratchet spanner for unlocking the fuses of unexploded German bombs. They continue to be found decades later and the Quilter spanner still has a place in bomb disposal tool kits.

The Quilter dynasty continues. The 5th baronet is Sir Guy Quilter who farms in Suffolk. He and his wife Jenny have two sons.