Built 300 years ago, the house, South Pavilion, Wotton Underwood, once belonged to the historian Sir Arthur Bryant. In 1973 Gielgud saw a picture of it in Country Life magazine and bought it. Three years later it became his permanent home, and, as he gave up his other residences, he surrounded himself with all his treasures.
Coincidentally, possessions from the London town house of his great friend Ralph Richardson and his wife, Meriel, are to be auctioned by Sotheby's on April 27. Proceeds from the two auctions will go mainly to charities for actors, although Gielgud, who owned Tibetan terriers, stipulated that some money also go to animal welfare organizations. His house is to be sold separately.
When he died last May at 96, Gielgud left a wealth of possessions: paintings, sculpture, furniture, theatrical posters, scenic and costume designs and a vast library. Many items were gifts from other actors to commemorate a shared theatrical or movie experience: a miniature clapper board from Liza Minnelli for the movie "Arthur," for example, and an 1805 miniature from Alan Bennett for the play "Forty Years On."
The sale includes such personal effects as gloves, scarves, walking canes, cigarette cases and Panama and trilby hats. Various awards will be auctioned, although not the Academy Award he won for playing Dudley Moore's butler in "Arthur," a trophy that he kept in his bathroom along with a portrait of his cousin Edward Gordon Craig, the theatrical designer.
The catalog of the collection places the actor amid his property, with photographs illustrating his art onstage and his life at home and in his garden. The garden was the creation of his companion, Martin Hensler, who died in 1999. By his own admission, Gielgud had no aptitude for horticulture. Culture itself was his territory, and the house was decorated with examples of his taste: antique tables, cabinets and sconces; Persian carpets; and such minor items as a pair of painted plinths, alabaster busts, teapots and snuffboxes.
Theater people should be especially interested in his books (autographed to or by him), some of his own authorship, and others from the libraries of his great-aunt Ellen Terry and her co-star Henry Irving. There are Shakespeare plays with marginal notes by Gielgud. In a copy of "Henry V" he wrote: "A. J. Gielgud. `An English Herald.´ My first appearance on any stage. November 1921."
The house combined splendor with intimacy. The large gallery, or living room, had two banks of windows, and was lined with paintings by William Nicholson, George Romney and others. In many cases the art has a lower estimated value than the furniture. Many paintings are "attributed to" or "from the school of." They were works that Gielgud liked.
At one end of the gallery was a balcony library and under it was tucked a small, cozy room where he would often read or welcomed guests.
Lighting a Turkish cigarette, he would reflect wistfully on his past, remembering his earliest days when his acting teacher told him that he walked "like a cat with rickets." Between reminiscences, he would express a continuing interest in the latest theatrical events.
Gielgud was an insatiable reader, consuming about four books a week - biographies (many of actors) and fiction (Trollope was a favorite) - as well as newspapers (especially theater reviews). He also enjoyed television. For many years, his favorite show was "Cheers," another sign of his eclecticism. The television set, which was a prominent fixture in the room under the balcony, is not for sale.
For many years he traveled to London to see plays and meet old friends.
The last few years of his life, however, he seldom left home except to work on a film or television project. London remained at a distance because visiting the city filled him with sadness. "Every street is full of memory," he would say. When he walked those streets he would think of the loss of theater friends like Richardson and Peggy Ashcroft.
Devoted to his profession and, like any mortal actor, fearful that the offers might end, Gielgud worked throughout his life. His final appearance, last year, was in Samuel Beckett's "Catastrophe," directed by David Mamet as part of the Gate Theater of Dublin's film series of Beckett's stage plays.
Late on a September afternoon Gielgud would put on a mackinaw over his sweater and tweed jacket and stroll in the garden, striding past the resident peacock and the statuary, including a stone Cupid holding a bow and arrow. "It was all nettles when we came here," he once said of the garden, adding, as if in quotation, "a wilderness - and they have carved out an empire."
Admirers of Gielgud can now own items from his empire.