Tragedy at Combe Bank

21st August 2019

When Lord Frederick Campbell asked the Flemish artist, Hendrik Frans de Cort, to paint his estate in Kent in 1793 he could have had little idea of the tragedy that was to unfold there over the coming years.

An inscription on the pencil and grey wash artwork reads, “Coombank. Ordered to be peint [sic] by the Lord Frederick Campbell, the 14th June 93”, but it is the later inscription in another hand that tells the rest of the story – “Burnt down in the Fire in July 1807 in which Lady Campbell lost her life”.

Lady Frederick Campbell had seen more than her fair share of difficulty and tragedy before she married the Scottish nobleman and politician in 1769. Born Mary Meredith, she married Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl of Ferrers in 1752, but the couple legally separated just six years later, with Mary citing her husband’s cruelty as the cause. Two years later, in 1760, he was found guilty of the murder of one of his servants and was hanged at Tyburn the following year, choosing to wear his wedding suit and blaming his conduct on an unhappy marriage. Before he died he is said to have cursed his former wife to a death even more painful than his.

Mary’s marriage to Lord Frederick Campbell was a much happier affair, and the couple had two daughters. However, an element of mystery surrounds her death in the fire at Combe Bank in 1807. Despite the inscription on the back of the painting, the Palladian mansion was far from destroyed in the fire, with only one room being badly affected by the blaze. A visitor to the house just three months after the fire described how only “three or four feet of the floor near the sitting room door” were actually burnt and opined that Lady Campbell, “having been thus actually burnt to ashes… can only be accounted for by her having fallen into a fit with her head in the candle”.

Rumour has it that all that remained of Lady Campbell when the fire was extinguished was a single thumb, which was buried on the estate. The fire was centred around the unfortunate lady’s dressing room and theories at the time included the unlikely scenario of spontaneous combustion, to the likelihood that she had fallen asleep while reading beside a candle. Kentish folklore claims that the ghost of Lady Campbell haunts Combe Bank, now an independent girls’ school, to this day.

The painting of the Campbell’s tragic family home has come from the collection of Lord Astor of Hever, and is being sold at Woolley and Wallis on 4th September with an estimate of £700-1,000. The collection also includes ten varying views of Hever Castle all from the 19th century, and a view of Dover Castle by Edward Duncan.

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