From Chester Beatty with love? Philanthropist’s gifts to prickly poet surface in London

Rare jewellery given to Sheila Wingfield, Lady Powerscourt, set for Bonhams auction

Sir Alfred Chester Beatty

Sir Alfred Chester Beatty

 

Diamonds, says the song, are a girl’s best friend; leaving us to wonder what sort of friendship, exactly, that might turn out to be.

But it could be no more curious than the relationship between the fondly-remembered philanthropist, art collector and honorary Irishman Sir Alfred Chester Beatty and the wealthy, notoriously prickly, and now largely forgotten poet Sheila Wingfield, Lady Powerscourt.  

The pair met in 1952. Chester Beatty had just relocated to Ireland, his second wife Edith had died, and he was cataloguing the collection which would shortly become the basis for the Chester Beatty Library on Dublin’s Shrewsbury Road.

It was a mammoth task – the world-famous collection, now housed in a purpose-built space in the 18th-century clock tower at Dublin Castle, includes works of art from the Middle East, Asia, Europe and Africa – and Lady Powerscourt was, apparently, instrumental in helping to complete it. 

Her expertise clearly impressed the mining magnate, because he gave her a gift of two superb pieces of jewellery from his personal collection. They will come under the hammer at Bonhams jewellery sale in London at the end of this month.

Lot 47, Cartier pendant
Lot 47, Cartier pendant

 Lot 47, a nephrite, onyx and diamond pendant by Cartier, carved with auspicious Chinese motifs and characters, carries a pre-sale estimate of €22,000-€33,000.

Lot 48 was originally a shoulder ornament but has been converted to a bracelet. It’s made up of five chalcedony seals, each engraved with a Qur’anic script, framed by black enamel and connected by rose-cut diamond links with emerald and ruby bead highlights.  It has a guide price of €45,000-€67,000.

Lot 48, enamel, chalcedony and diamond bracelet
Lot 48, enamel, chalcedony and diamond bracelet

“We are honoured to bring these two pieces of jewellery to auction for the first time,” says Kieran O’Boyle, head of Bonhams Ireland.

“Both pieces offer a glimpse into the history of Chester Beatty and his priceless art collection. Since they would have been gifted in the 1950s and the jewels themselves date from the 1920s, it is possible they were acquired during his travels with his second wife, Edith.”

Accomplished collector

We’re left to wonder what Edith – herself an accomplished collector who specialised in Impressionist paintings – would have thought about the gift.

But perhaps the Bonhams sale will prompt a renewal of interest in the life and work of Sheila Wingfield.

Married to Mervyn Patrick Wingfield, the ninth Viscount Powerscourt and the last member of the family to live in Powerscourt House before it was sold in 1961, Lady Powerscourt was a prolific poet and a fascinating character who, according to a 2007 biography by Penny Perrick, travelled with 30 suitcases, went shopping in an ambulance, boasted of having had 80 operations and spent her final years in a pink-painted hotel apartment in Switzerland. 

Sheila Wingfield, Lady Powerscourt
Sheila Wingfield, Lady Powerscourt

One way or another, it’s a pretty safe bet that these stylish women would take a keen interest in the fate of one of the auction’s most unusual – and expensive – gems.

Lot 139 is an extremely rare five-carat Fancy Pink diamond of VS1 clarity with a guide price of €670,000–€890,000. And who wouldn’t want to get friendly with that?

Bonhams, 31 Molesworth Street, Dublin 2. Fine Jewellery, New Bond Street, September 26th, 2pm. For online catalogue, viewing times and bidding details see bonhams.com