The Vera and Aileen Woodroffe bequest to the Art Fund in 1986

Stephen Lloyd tells the incredible story behind a generous Art Fund bequest made by his cousins Vera and Aileen Woodroffe.

In 1986 the Art Fund received what was then its greatest ever single donation, that was eventually to amount to the sum of nearly £1.3m. Together with a small group of paintings, also donated to the Art Fund – this was the whole estate of Aileen Beatrice Woodroffe (1890-1985), an art lover, who for the second half of her life lived quietly in Dorset. An unrestricted gift, it was named the Vera and Aileen Woodroffe Bequest after Aileen herself and her older sister Vera (1886-1968), who lived together at Abbey House, which was leased from the Crichel estate in the village of Witchampton, near Wimborne. After Aileen’s death, in May 1986 Sotheby’s held a one-day sale at the house, where all the contents were disposed of, including family portraits, continental paintings, fine English furniture as well as good silver, ceramics and glass. All the proceeds of the auction were added into Aileen’s bequest to the Art Fund.

Alongside this magnificent bequest, the Art Fund also received from Aileen’s art collection a group of nine works of art, mostly oil paintings, that were allocated to various museums and galleries across England. These included a small painting on board by Eugène Boudin, Femmes de Berck sur le Rivage, signed and dated 1880, which was allocated to Southampton City Art Gallery; a fine oil on copper by Alessandro Turchi, The Adoration of the Shepherds, painted in the first decade of the 17th century, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambrdge; and a very large history painting from 1774 by William Hamilton, showing King Edgar’s First Interview with Queen Aelfrith, which now hangs at Sudbury Hall (National Trust), Derbyshire.

For seven years, from 1988 to 1994, the Art Fund was able to make major contributions to the funding of acquisitions of important works of art by museums and galleries across England and Wales. The only restriction imposed was that the bequest was not to be used for purchasing works by contemporary artists. Thus over 40 English and Welsh institutions were able to make more than 60 separate acquisitions of British and continental paintings, sculpture, furniture and decorative arts. For instance galleries in Bath, Grasmere, Kendal, London and Sudbury were able to buy major paintings by Gainsborough, De Loutherbourg, Ramsay, Van Dyck and Wright of Derby. However, the Woodroffe Bequest also supported the Art Fund in acqusitions of decorative arts, such as furniture for Bedford and Brighton, silver for Birmingham and Oxford, alongside porcelain for Cardiff and Manchester.

The scale of such a generous bequest, that enhanced so many public art collections during the late 1980s and early 1990s, makes us wonder who Vera and Aileen Woodroffe were, and what motivated the younger sister to donate her whole estate to embellish so many of our art museums, and why she chose the Art Fund to distribute her funds. As a teenager and then a young man during the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was fortunate to get to know my elderly cousin Aileen, who lived surrounded by beautiful works of art which she and her sister had collected across Europe throughout their lives, also inheriting art-works that had been bought by their father, John Witts Allen Woodroffe (1851-1940), a wealthy solicitor in London, who had become a member of the National Art Collections Fund in 1927.

The Woodroffe family were thought to have come from Yorkshire in the late medieval period, but by the 18th century they had settled as Protestants in Ireland, practising as doctors in Cork and Dublin. John Edward Woodroffe (1822-1911) – Vera and Aileen’s grandfather – moved to London, where he had a successful career as a barrister. His eldest son was JW Allen Woodroffe, a solicitor and, following his father, a director of the Union Assurance Soicety. In 1885 he married Beatrice Ellen Fox Young, the daughter of a colonial administrator in Australia. The couple had three surviving children, Vera, Aileen and Neville, and the family lived a comfortable upper-middle class life in West Kensington at 21 Cornwall Gardens, near Gloucester Road. The family travelled to the continent regularly, where they bought contemporary paintings and sculpture at exhibitions in Munich and Paris, while also purchasing works of art through auctions and dealers in London.

At the heart of the Woodroffe sisters’ house in Dorset there hung three portraits: a glamorous portrayal of Vera by De László (Fig. 1) painted in January 1916, a large oil of Aileen by Denis Etcheverry, which she sat for in Paris during 1924, and a haunting posthumous portrait by Solomon Joseph Solomon of their younger brother, Neville Leslie Woodroffe. This ghostly portrait, which was based on a studio photograph (Fig. 2) taken in 1914, showed Neville wearing his uniform as Second Lieutenant in the Irish Guards. He had received his commission in February 1913, after a gilded education at Fonthill preparatory school, Eton College and after completing just his first year at Trinity College, Cambridge. Despite not being suited to the academic side of university life, Neville had shown great promise as an actor, receiving glowing reviews in June 1912 for his convincing portrayal of Lady Mary Lazenby in an all-male production at the ADC Theatre of JM Barrie’s play, The Admirable Crichton.

On 12 August 1914, Neville crossed the Channel to France with the First Battalion of the Irsh Guards. Neville’s horrific experiences of the war during the first few months of fighting in Flanders are vividly described in a remarkable series of letters and postcards written by him to his family in England. In a long letter written on 30 September 1914 during the Battle of the Aisne, Neville described the village of Soupir, where a magnificent château had been turned into a hospital. Several of the patients had what appeared to be self-inflicted wounds: ‘It seems a favourite and old trick to shoot one’s finger off when one is cleaning one’s rifle. Two men were admitted to hospital today having blown off their fingers cleaning their rifles’. In his last letter to his mother, father and two sisters, written on 13 November during the First Battle of Ypres, Neville described the desperate situation for himself and his men: ‘These last two days have been ghastly. The Germans broke through the line. We have lost 10 officers in the last two days and yesterday the battalion was less than 200 though I suspect some stragglers will turn up – All the officers in my company were lost except myself… We have had no rest at all. Everyone is very shaken.’

Neville was killed in action on 6 November 1914 during the First Battle of Ypres aged 21: his body was never recovered. He received a posthumous mention in dispatches on 14 January 1915, while his name is inscribed on the Menin Gate War Memorial in Ypres. The circumstances of his death were recorded in a letter by his cousin Captain Frank Witts, D.S.O., M.C., who was a fellow officer in the First Battalion of the Itish Guards, writing to Neville’s mother on 13th November 1914: ‘Of the 35 that went with him not one returned. Only two days before Neville had been specially mentioned for bravery in action: he had held onto a position until long after the rest of the Batt[alion] had retired. I have lost a good friend and you will know how sincerely I sympathise with you in your irreparable loss. It may be some comfort to you to know that Capt. Orr Ewing who was close to him is certain that he was shot through the head and that death was instantaneous’.

After Neville Woodroffe’s death was announced in The Times on 14 November 1914, his mother and father received over 120 letters of condolence from family and friends. Apart from letters, portraits and photographs, the only artefact associated with Neville to have survived is a silver cigarette case, which is inscribed with his initials, NLW, and with the heraldic crest of the Woodroffe family, a right hand (Fig. 4). With the hand represented as surrounded by two laurel branches, this silver object may have been commissioned by Neville himself or perhaps by his father in memory of his son.

After Neville’s tragic death, both Vera and Aileen (Fig. 3) served as Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurses on the Western and Italian fronts with the Red Cross and the Order of St. John. On 5 June 1917 Vera received her qualification in training as a radiographer and until the end of the war served in north-eastern Italy with the VAD and the Croce Rossa Britannica. Letters sent to her mother were written by Vera from medical centres at Venice, Mantua and Padua. They give a first-hand account of the critical work Vera and her fellow nurses did in a mobile X-radiographic unit, examining wounded Allied soldiers prior to surgery. In a postcard to her mother, dated 4 September, probably in 1917, Vera wrote: ‘Do not be worried if you don’t hear from me. Am very busy and it is not very desirable to write from where I am… heads and abdominals. Frightfully interesting and magnificent surgery against tremendous odds’. Despite the horrors of the war, Vera managed to see famous works of Renaissance art, as she wrote in a letter of 17 November 1917 to both her parents: ‘At Padua… In the middle of everything I found time to rush off and see Giotto’s chapel and the Mantegna in the Eremitani. They were all covered with mattresses but was just able to catch a glimpse of them behind. Donatello’s statue is completely covered up. Went into St Antonio, saw Giotto fresco of him and several by Alticari’. In an undated latter from a medical centre at the Villa Zucchi, probably near Padua, Vera described rushing ‘about in Fiat ambulances the back of which is covered with apparatus and two orderlies’, but also commenting with an aesthetic sensibility on the war-torn landscape: ‘One can see the shells bursting in the far distance and star shells going up at night. Close all round the country is like the backgrounds to the old masters Paduan school, Mantegna etc. small hills rising up suddently covered with vines and woods with a little church nestling near the top and a few dilapidated pink houses’.

After the end of the First World War, the two sisters returned to London (Fig. 5). They never married, perhaps because so many of the young men they knew before the war, especially Neville’s fellow officers in the Irish Guards, were killed. However, a close regimental friend and colleague of Neville, who did survive the First World War, was Lieutenant Hon HR Alexander (1891-1969), who was better known as Field-Marshal Harold Alexander, 1st Earl Alexander of Tunis, a distinguished commander during the Second World War and later a Governor-General of Canada. In 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War, Neville and Alexander, then subalterns in the Irish Guards, spent a weekend in Paris – without leave – an escapade recorded in a photograph of the two friends at the Eiffel Tower.

Perhaps the sisters, who had no children of their own and lived surrounded by art, wanted – in memory of their brother killed in the First World War – to share through the Art Fund not only their wealth, but their love of art and the healing power of contemplating beautiful things. In embellishing so many art museums, we are all their beneficiaries.

Stephen Lloyd is Curator of the Derby Collection, Knowsley Hall, Merseyside.

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