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SARAH, DUCHESS OF MARLBOROUGH
Much of the Oriental porcelain and works of art in the Spencer Collections may well have originally formed part of the celebrated but little-known collections of Sarah Jennings, Duchess of Marlborough. Daughter and co-heiress of Richard Jennings of Sandridge, Hertfordshire, she married John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough on 1 October 1678. When Princess, later Queen Anne married in 1683, she appointed Sarah - who had been attendant upon her in Mary of Modena's household - as a Lady of the Bedchamber and her position as a Royal favourite was established. Sarah was renowned for her wit, beauty and character and her devotion to her husband and it was she who organised Anne's flight from her father in 1688. On Anne's accession, Sarah was appointed Groom of the Stole, Mistress of the Robes and Keeper of the Privy Purse - but her favour was usurped when the Queen's attentions were transferred to Abigail Masham, whose position at Court had been enabled by Sarah. In 1711, Sarah was dismissed from Court and the Marlboroughs lived in exile for the last two years of Anne's reign, only returning when the Queen was dying.
No doubt as a result of her exposure at Court to Queen Mary's fabled collections at Kensington Palace and Hampton Court, Sarah developed a taste for all things 'Indian' or Oriental. Like her peers the 1st Duchess of Devonshire at Chatsworth and the latter's daughter Anne, Countess of Exeter at Burghley, Sarah Marlborough's remarkable collection of 'exotic' wares and all manner of 'Japan' are tantalisingly recorded in a series of little-known inventories dating from the late 17th Century. 'An acccount of what chany is in the covant next My Lady's Dressing Room' in 1698 lists over 80 items, not only blue and white but also blanc-de-chine and 'Japan' or lacquer items. A subsequent list of 1712 records even more - from '2 Japan tea boards 1 Japan bowl 6 very fine pieces of coloured chinea like bottles' to '1 Pair of plates with Cammells'. Frustratingly the descriptions are all too brief and the Inventories often incomplete - so it has not been possible as yet to identify items categorically in her abridged inventories.
In the harsh words of Tobias Smollett, Sarah Marlborough died 'immensely rich and very little regretted, either by her family or the world in general', but her efforts to continue the Marlborough legacy cannot be understated. She had five daughters and two sons - but her clear favourite was her grandson John Spencer and her vast inheritance, numbering 27 estates - including Wimbledon, Holywell House, Marlborough House - as well as the Marlborough Plate, works of art and pictures all devolved on him. Before rash conclusions are reached, however, as the ewer and basin reveals (lot 13), John Spencer was clearly inspired in his taste by the influence of his grandmother.