Friday, 25 September 2020

Urn Again

Accustomed as I am to the extraordinary stories, that unfathomably result from Balintore's restoration, the following miraculous sequence of events took even me by surprise.

I was contacted on my blog by an Andrew from Perth, saying that he had spotted the urns that once adorned the front of Balintore Castle, for sale at a Perth Auction House. 

urn for sale as pictured in online auction catalogue

"That'll be right!" I sighed to myself, not for a moment thinking that this could be true. The urns can be seen in old Victorian photos, but disappeared a long time ago. I had no idea where these had gone, and assumed they were lost forever.

Victorian photograph of Balintore showing urns above entrance door

To be courteous to Andrew, I checked the photos on the auction website against the Victorian photos. There was, it had to be admitted, a superficial resemblance, but urns of this style would surely have been churned out in Victorian times so the similarity was just a coincidence.

I studied the lichen-covered stone of the urns in the photos, and then a chill started up the back of my neck. Forms can be deceptive but patina holds the soul. The rose-blush sandstone and the light coloured lichen were already known to me, for this was surely the very material from which my castle was built. The photos of the urns showed them to be in front of a neo-classical building with fluted columns, built from a different redder sandstone, suggesting that the urns and building were not of a piece. The urns also overhung the blocks of sandstone they were sitting on, in an unsightly fashion, suggesting there were not designed together.

My heart started to race, and another message came in from Andrew that the niches on the bases of the urns corresponded to stonework on the face of Balintore Castle. 

I couldn't let myself accept that the evidence seemed to be definitive, but I did message Andrew back that these did seem to be Balintore's urns. 

With a starting price of £2000 and an auction estimate of £4000 to £6000, there was no way I could afford them. I needed to act, and I did so without hesitation. I wrote to Historic Environment Scotland for funding to buy the urns, and wrote to the auction house to ask if they could delay the sale until they could provide written provenance on the items because they come from an A-listed building. If the urns had been removed after the date of listing (January, 1980) then the sale was illegal.

My sister then emailed me to say she had done further research on the urns on the auctioneer's website and discovered they are at Bardmony House, 10 miles south of Balintore Castle. Bardmony House had been recently sold, and the online estate agent specification showed interior photos. I recognised one of the fireplaces immediately as coming from Balintore Castle. I asked the estate agent to send a message to both the old and new owners asking about the fireplaces and urns. In particular, I asked the new owner of Bardmony if I could buy the urns privately. Given that the urns were for sale, it was clear they were not wanted. By the same token, I did not ask to buy the fireplaces as these are installed within the fabric of Bardmony and were not up for sale.

There was no guarantee that either party would respond, but with GDPR regulations all I could do was to ask the estate agent to pass on my messages. I also asked the auction house to pass a message to the seller of the urns.

urns for sale at auction house in front of Bardmony House poster

The new owners of Bardmony replied first, and I was told that although the urns did indeed appear in the estate agent specification, they were removed a week before the house sale went through. The previous owner then replied saying a private sale could be possible, and after discussions a price was agreed. However, before any sale, the seller wanted me to inspect the urns, now at the auction house, to ensure that they really did come from Balintore. I measured the niches in the bases of the urns. These were 11". I measured the bases of the urns carefully: these were 50cm x 50cm. I then climbed up a tall ladder at Balintore and measured the locations where the urns had once been. The platforms where the urns has stood were 50cm x 50cm and the stonework into which the side of the urns slotted was 11" . This was the 5 sigma Higgs Boson proof. There could no longer be any doubt, or rather it was as certain as anything could be, that the urns at auction were the long lost urns from Balintore castle.

Despite the agree price being a lot of money for me, I was delighted with the outcome - as it meant returning the urns to Balintore Castle after a long absence. The last known photograph with the urns at Balintore is 1976, and the (presumed) sale of the urns by the Kinnordy Estate must have been before 1983 as this is when the Estate sold the castle. The sale of the Balintore fireplaces by the Kinnordy Estate was already known about, and it is a reasonable assumption that the urns were sold as part of the same transaction as they went to the same buyer.

This date window for the removal of the urns, indicates that they have been away from Balintore for around 40 years.

I messaged Andrew that we must exchange email addresses, as I wanted to find out more about how he spotted the urns in the first place. I told him that he must be a remarkable person, because most people would just see the urns and not make any connection to Balintore Castle. Andrew told me he has high functioning autism, a great interest in architecture, and a photographic memory for architectural detail. He had seen a Victorian photograph of Balintore some years before and was able to instantly make the connection. What is remarkable is that the photo he had seen was not particularly high resolution. The human mind is an amazing thing.

urns re-instated at Balintore Castle after 40 years

The image above is of a recent wedding at Balintore Castle. It is no accident that when I was reluctantly dragged in front of the camera in my Victorian smoking jacket, that you find me hanging on to one of the urns proprietorially. Their reacquisition was quite some journey.

I cheekily asked the new owners of Bardmony, if I could have a peek at the Balintore fireplaces. Friend of Balintore, Duncan, and I were treated to a wonderful guided tour of the house and a delicious dinner. There are three fireplaces that could have come from Balintore.

Balintore's drawing room fireplace at Bardmony House

top-quality detailing on Balintore drawing room fireplace

The pure white carved marble one above is definite as there is a photo of it in Balintore's drawing room. The other two are "possibles". 

possible ex-Balintore fireplace in veined marble

There is light veined marble one (above) which has an almost Egyptian style that is common to William Burn fireplaces.

possible ex-Balintore fireplace in fossil marble

gilt gryphon detail on fossil marble fireplace

There is a back fossil marble one (above) which, on its own, has a plain-ness that is common to William Burn. However, there is applied gilt detail on top of the marble, which though charming, is neither William Burn nor aesthetically well-balanced. The consensus amongst Duncan, myself and the new owners is that at least some of this, if not all, was added at a later date. I will ask some experts about the two possible fireplaces.

It was such a thrill for me to see the Balintore dining room fireplace that I almost cried, as I had tried to track it down for many years but the trail had gone cold: see this previous blog entry here. There was a companion (presumed identical) dining room fireplace, but apparently this was too large to be fitted in at Bardmony and was sold on. Does anyone know the whereabouts of the white fireplace's twin? 

Seeing the original fireplace in the flesh was surprising, as it was not as grand or large as I had bigged it up to be in my head. However, there was no denying the quality of the carving or the fact that it is made from the finest white statuary marble - these two features are what add the most value to fireplaces. In short, the fireplace shows understated good taste but you have to know your fireplaces, to appreciate how truly top class it is.

I was pretty hysterical for the fortnight between Andrew's message and my private purchase of the urns. It seemed impossible to get them back, but somehow I knew that had to come back to the castle, and the scary thing to me was that this was (almost) regardless of expense. Historic Environment Scotland said they had no funding for this type of purchase, so I was on my own and I now know how people who are blackmailed must feel. :-)  I normally only purchase low-priced items for the castle, but these were different - they were the castle!

The elements of the story are remarkable. If Bardmony had not been for sale, the urns would not have been for sale. If Andrew had not such a remarkable mind, the sale of the urns would have gone undetected. If my sister had not done her detective work, the location of the urns would not have been discovered. If location of the urns had not been revealed, then the Balintore fireplaces would have not been rediscovered. 

Stylistically the urns share details from the castle entrance, but in addition there are carved swags of identifiable fruits and flowers and carved "metal" rings, both of which provide a bravura display of sculptor's undercutting, which separates the top end from the pedestrian.

I am not sure what it all means, there is a heady confluence of personality, art and place in the narrative, and I was left reeling by the day-to-day events that happened over the course of this fortnight, only a fraction of which can I relate in the blog. What I do know, is how staggeringly right the urns look in front of Balintore Castle. They add something that I didn't know was missing. 

To donate to the Balintore restoration project click here.


  1. Hooray to Andrew who lives all thebway in Perth (amazing observation, excellent decision to notify you), your sister (research), seller (for doing what was right) and Bardmony owners for the warm welcome. Welcome home too, to the Balintore urns. It is good to have you back.

  2. Very nice! Well done! Next mission: get the stairs back!! :-D

    1. Titter - I would even ask for these back as ripping something out of another person's house is very impolite. :-)

      However, if the staircase was offered. :-)

  3. Seridipity at it's best ! Bravo

  4. Felicitations! How wonderful to have the urns back.

  5. The urns look really nice! The doors look nice as well. As I recall, you posted a story about the lion door knockers. I missed the post about the doors being completely restored. How did you do it? Did you need to strip off old paint and sand them down? What did you use to paint them?

    1. Glad you like the urns and doors. I didn't create a blog entry for fixing up the front doors. We replaced the missing bits of moulding. There was only a small amount of sanding, most of the original paint had long gone. We used a chocolate brown woodwork paint. In fact as the front doors were oak, they were in remarkably good condition.