The Queen of the Desert & her arts and crafts home

Tennants Auctioneers’ Spring Fine Art Sale on 17th March is set to include furnishings once part of Rounton Grange, North Yorkshire – the family home of Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert. Lots include carpets presented to Bell by King Faisal I of Iraq, and curtains designed for Rounton by William Morris.


Gertrude Bell is undoubtedly one of the most intriguing figures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was a writer, traveller, mountaineer, photographer, political officer, archaeologist and explorer who had a significant influence on British imperial policy in the Middle East – for a woman of the Victorian era her accomplishments were extraordinary. In 2015 ‘Queen of the Desert’, a major film based on her life, was released starring Nicole Kidman.

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was born in Washington New Hall, County Durham, granddaughter of Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell - the famed Victorian Ironmaster with a vast personal fortune. After schooling in North Yorkshire and London, Bell was accepted into Lady Margaret’s Hall, the first of Oxford’s female colleges, where she became the first woman to receive a First Class degree in Modern History. Highly intelligent and with a thirst for adventure and an ear for language Bell began to travel, and after visiting Persia in 1892 immediately fell in love with the East. Travelling widely throughout the Middle East, she often shunned the normal modes of European transport for that of the humble indigenous people. Travelling through hostile desert regions, she possessed an uncanny ability to get on with the local Arab population at a time when travellers, especially women, were greeted with suspicion.

In 1916, due to her encyclopaedic knowledge of the region and her good relationship with both British officals and native tribal leaders, she was appointed to run the Iraq section of the Arab Bureau in Basra. At the Cairo Conference in 1921 the geographical structuring of the modern states of the Middle East was decided, and Bell was consulted, along with T.E. Lawrence (whom Bell had first met in 1909), in the selection of the First King of Iraq. As a result, Faisal bin Hussein – who had aided the British in the First World War - was appointed ater that year; Gertrude remained a close friend and adviser to the new King until her death in 1926.

Four carpets were presented to Bell by King Faisal I, two of which are now offered for sale, each with an estimate of £500-800 (plus 24% buyer’s premium). Whilst it is unclear exactly when Bell was given the carpets, it is thought that they decorated the courtyard when Faisal was crowned.


In 1872 Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell commissioned leading Arts and Crafts architect Philip Webb to build a new family seat at Rounton Grange, Northallerton; the architect had previously been commissioned to make alterations to Washington New Hall, and to build Red Barns in Redcar for Lowthian Bell’s son Thomas Hugh (Gertrude’s father) in 1868. Like Red Barns, Rounton was to be furnished entirely in the Arts and Crafts style by William Morris – a close friend and colleague of Philip Webb - and Edward Burne-Jones. In its day, Rounton would have been one of the most important masterpieces of the Arts and Crafts movement, with its richly decorated interior, but sadly due to dwindling family fortunes after the upheaval of the First World War, the house was demolished in 1953.

However, many of the furnishings for the house remained in family hands, and now some of the original William Morris designed Morris & Co curtains are offered for sale. Included in the lot, which will carry an estimate of £1,000-2,000 (plus 24% buyer’s premium), are a pair of hand-loomed door curtains woven with a Peacock and Dragon design, and various curtains in Morris’s signature designs.

A fully illustrated catalogue will be available at leading up to the sale. Entries are now invited for the Summer Fine Art Sale, and to enquire about entering items for sale please contact the salerooms on 01969 623780.

Faisal Carpet, Presented to Gertrude Bell, c.1900 – Estimate: £500-800
(top left) A pair of woven door curtains designed by William Morris for Rounton, decorated with Peacock and Dragon design. Part of a lot of William Morris Curtains – Estimate: £1,000-2,000