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‘I inherited this 500-year-old country estate, but I wasn’t next in line’

Tom Nelthorpe at home at Scawby Hall
Tom Sutton Nelthorpe inherited Scawby Hall from his great-uncle Roger in 2000. His is the first family to live there since the 1920s - Charlotte Graham

In a quiet corner of north Lincolnshire, not far from the Humber Bridge, is a modest country house standing in a modest park with a genuinely extraordinary art collection.

Scawby Hall, near Brigg, does not look as if it holds the key to one of Britain’s most important painters but its family were the first patrons of the master equine painter George Stubbs, whose paintings adorn the National Gallery.

For the past 15 years, Scawby has been home to Tom Sutton Nelthorpe and his wife Kristin – a former financial journalist and Wall Street lawyer respectively – and their three children, two dogs, and two cats. The house has been open in a “fairly low-key way” since about 2008, but this summer they are putting on more open days and guided tours to mark Stubbs’ tercentenary. For if Scawby is known for anything then it’s Stubbs.

Scawby Hall, North Lincolnshire
Richard Nelthorpe began building Scawby in 1603 but it didn't become the main family seat until 1792 - Charlotte Graham

The Nelthorpe family has been at Scawby since 1603, when Richard Nelthorpe began building a house on the site. In 1620 he bought the Baysgarth estate, 15 miles away at Barton-upon-Humber, where the main branch of the family lived until 1792, when Sir John Nelthorpe, the 6th Baronet, made Scawby the main family residence.

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It was during the tenure of John’s father, Sir Henry Nelthorpe, that Stubbs first came to north Lincolnshire. In 1746, Henry and his second wife Elizabeth commissioned his first known work, a joint portrait in which Henry wears a full-bottomed wig.

George Stubbs's joint portrait of Henry and his second wife Elizabeth, painted in 1746
George Stubbs's joint portrait of Sir Henry and his second wife Elizabeth, painted in 1746 - Charlotte Graham

A decade later – by which time Henry had died and had been succeeded by his young son, John – Stubbs returned to the area, where he rented a farmhouse 11 miles from Baysgarth. In about 1756, he painted the boy-baronet Sir John Nelthorpe with his sighthound, the first time Stubbs is known to have painted an animal, according to Nelthorpe. Today, that painting hangs at Scawby alongside a 1776 portrait of John shooting with his dogs in Barton.

Today, Stubbs is the father of equine portraiture and best known for his paintings of racehorses, including of the Marquess of Rockingham’s Whistlejacket, now the centrepiece of the National Gallery. But at Scawby, three of their five Stubbses are human portraits, which he painted as he learned his craft.

Alongside the two paintings of John Nelthorpe hangs an early portrait by Joseph Wright. “I sometimes wonder whether the Nelthorpes were like indie music fans – they got into these artists early before they got famous,” says Nelthorpe with a chuckle.

Stubb's 1756 painting of the boy-baronet Sir John Nelthorpe with his sighthound. According to Tom Nelthorpe, this was the first time the artist painted an animal
Stubb's 1756 painting of the boy-baronet Sir John Nelthorpe with his sighthound. According to Tom, this was the first time the artist painted an animal - Charlotte Graham

In 2007, visiting a Stubbs exhibition at the Frick Collection in New York, Nelthorpe read that before Stubbs had achieved fame and fortune he had worked for “a minor Lincolnshire family”. “I remember getting my back up about it,” he says, “but actually, that was fair. Stubbs is the principal nationally significant connection to the house. I don’t think there were even any MPs in the family.”

Indeed, there was never a peerage, and the baronetcy died out in 1865.

Nelthorpe’s great-great-grandfather Major Robert Sutton-Nelthorpe was, he says, “the last slightly ambitious family member.

“He went to Queen Victoria and asked to add the Nelthorpe name back. Whether he would have been better off asking for a baronetcy I don’t know. There’s a family rumour that he turned down a knighthood because David Lloyd George was the one offering it.”

This follows a general Nelthorpe family pattern of not being flashy or self-aggrandising. Apart from their early patronage of Stubbs, and Sir John Nelthorpe’s subsequent commissioning of Sir Thomas Lawrence, the other only brief period of collecting came at the turn of the century.

As Nelthorpe explains: “my great-grandfather [Colonel Oliver Sutton-Nelthorpe] was a little bit ambitious. He befriended Rudyard Kipling and H Rider Haggard, as well as [the illustrator] Kate Greenaway.”

The elegant gardens reflect the Nelthorpe family pattern of not being flashy
The elegant gardens reflect the Nelthorpe family pattern of not being flashy - Charlotte Graham

As a result, in an old children’s bedroom hangs a series of pieces by Greenaway. The family didn’t even build madly at Scawby, either. The building is slightly hotchpotch, having been added to over the centuries, but never in any very dramatic ways. Upstairs, staircases appear to have been “shoehorned in,” as Nelthorpe puts it, and none of the rooms are terribly large, given the setting. “There was never any moment where the family pulled down the house – they bolted on to it.”

The only moment of almost architectural extravagance came in the 1860s. Sir John Nelthorpe, the 8th Baronet, died in 1865 with no male heir, and so Scawby passed to his sister Charlotte. With her husband the Reverend Robert Sutton, she had eight children to support future generations of the family at Scawby.

Soon enough, the new Sutton squire began to get ideas about improving the house, and in 1867 he commissioned a firm of Northampton architects to transform Scawby into something somewhat resembling St Pancras station.

“Someone took him to one side and said, ‘this is not going to work in north Lincolnshire’”. A drawing of the proposed new house hangs at Scawby today, serving as “a reminder not to get too ambitious.”

Tom and his wife Kristin: 'We've hung the drawing of the St Pancras-style transformation of the house 'as a reminder not to get too ambitious'
Tom and his wife Kristin: 'We've hung the drawing of the St Pancras-style transformation of the house 'as a reminder not to get too ambitious' - Charlotte Graham

The current custodian didn’t grow up at Scawby, but aged 16 he had discovered that he would eventually inherit it from his great-uncle Roger Sutton-Nelthorpe, who died in 2000.

“He lived here with his sister Ann,” Nelthorpe explains, “and they rattled around here with live-in help.”

When he moved to Scawby with Kristin and their young children they were the first family to live in the house properly since the 1920s. He isn’t entirely sure how and why his inheritance came to be.

“The person who knows why he did what he did is no longer with us. I think he thought that skipping a generation would be a chance for a fresh start – my father hadn’t grown up here either, so none of us was familiar with it.”

The house he and Kristin arrived at, just after the financial crisis, was tired – but coming back was essential if he was ever to understand Scawby. “You can be involved and participate in decision-making, but you can’t get a feel for it until you’re here,” he says.

In the dining room – now painted a cheery teal, Kristin’s favourite colour – the wallpaper was, she says, “really drab, brown. I found a postmark on one of the rolls in the attic dated 1948.” It was cold, too – and wet.

When their family grew with another baby, Nelthorpe remembers, “we got sent a lot of flowers, as you do, and we put them in the kitchen. They were still absolutely pristine a month later because it was so cold and damp.”

Since then, they have installed a biomass boiler, and now Scawby is toasty warm – or rather, the appropriate temperature to house the collection safely.

Inside Scawby Hall
'Faddle' by George Stubbs, painted in 1792, takes centre place in the dining room - Charlotte Graham

Coming to a north Lincolnshire estate from a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn was a big change.

Is Nelthorpe glad they did it? “Yeah,” he says. “I always point to the scene at the end of Coming to America, when Prince Akeem [played by Eddie Murphy] turns to his bride and says, ‘we’ve had this great wedding… we could go back to Queens, we could live as Jack and Jill or whatever,’ and she turns to him and goes, ‘naaaah’.”

He feels the same about Scawby. “You’ve won the lottery. There are difficult moments and there is always something to do, but it would be hard to give it up.”