The 7th Duke of Wellington (1885-1972) did not expect to inherit the title. He was, after all, a younger son of the 4th Duke. But when the 6th Duke (his nephew, 'Morny') died at the Salerno landings in 1943, Lord Gerald Wellesley, as he had been known, took the title and the ducal homes: No. 1, London (Apsley House) and Stratfield Saye, a Jacobean house in Hampshire.

In many ways Lord Gerald was suited to the role. He had begun life in the Diplomatic Corps, serving in St Petersburg, Constantinople and Rome. His other great strength was that he had been drawn to fine objects since childhood. While still at Eton, he bought an Italian settecento oil sketch of a saint for 15 shillings, and he acquired his second painting in Seville before he was 18. So much did he love objets de vertu that his parents left him many works of art, even though he was a younger son. More than pictures, he could not resist precious marbles, hardstones, agate and lapis lazuli. He enriched Stratfield Saye with porphyry, tazzas, obelisks and decorative objects made from malachite, giallo antico, rosso Levanto, alabaster and jasper.

Part of his collection is a remarkable group of 57 small stone boxes to be sold at Bonhams in June. The 7th Duke, 'Gerry' to his friends, acquired these throughout his life. Some were gifts: one of them was given to him in 1934 by Hélène, Duchess of Aosta; and some additions were made by his son, the present Duke, who is now approaching his 98th birthday.

Gerald shared a love of collecting with Dorothy Ashton, the heiress step-daughter of the 10th Earl of Scarborough, whom he married in 1914. Though their union was ultimately unhappy, they stayed together for seven years and had two children. Collecting was one thing they could enjoy in tandem, and both had an eye for a bargain. On honeymoon in Pera, Lady Gerald bought a large carved emerald in a bazaar for about five shillings; when stationed in Rome, they scoured the Campagna: "We used to fill sacks with shining porphyry, verde antico, giallo antico, and so on." They found a huge lump of verde antico in the Borghese Gardens, and a fragment of a Greek vase. To the undisguised fury of their English nanny, they used the present Duke's pram to transport these treasures home.

After the First World War, the Wellesleys settled at Sherfield Court, not far from Stratfield Saye, and there they added a rectangular room with two glass cabinets containing their collection of lapis lazuli – including a flying dolphin bought in Rome from an impoverished Russian aristocrat.

In 1922 Gerald and Dorothy drifted apart. In some ways their relationship was like that of their friends, Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West (so controversially described in Nigel Nicolson's Portrait of a Marriage), but Gerald and Dorothy did not have the bond that held the Nicolsons together.

Dorothy settled at Penns-in-the Rocks in Withyham, Sussex, in poor health and spirits – though sustained in her work as a poet by the admiration of W.B. Yeats. Perhaps as a tribute to her part in collecting fine stones, she liked her grandchildren to call her 'Gem'. She died in 1956; as Vita Sackville-West looked down at the small grave in Withyham churchyard, she commented: "It was rather moving – just a little hole in the ground, and a tiny wooden box containing her ashes. All that was left of those blue eyes and that wild spirit."

Back in the 1920s, Dorothy's fortune had enabled Lord Gerald to leave the diplomatic corps and take up a career as an architect. In this he was successful, setting up a partnership with Trenwith Wills and qualifying as an FRIBA. He favored the Regency period. His many commissions included Portland House in Dorset, a house in Hampstead Garden Suburb and a Gothic folly for Lord Berners at Faringdon. In 1936 he became Surveyor of the King's Works of Art.

When Gerald inherited the dukedom in 1943, never having had much money, he suddenly found himself the owner of Apsley House and Stratfield Saye. His esthete friends did not know whether to offer condolences on the bereavement or congratulate him on his good fortune. Presently he told the diarist, James Lees-Milne, that becoming Duke of Wellington and inheriting two houses was like "having a glittering present every day". Perhaps more to the point, he wrote: "The owner of a really beautiful old house has to live for it as well as in it, for its possession involves the shouldering of a responsibility for the debt which the present owes to the past and which can only be repaid in the future."

The 7th Duke was described by Lees-Milne as "a man of exceptional taste and knowledge of the arts" who "left more mark on Stratfield Saye than any predecessors since his illustrious great-grandfather". He was a curious mixture of the humorous and the irritable. When Lees-Milne put his feet on a footstool, the Duke berated him: "It never occurred to me that anyone would actually put a foot on a footstool." He valued his possessions and zealously polished away evidence of any human interaction with them. He bemoaned the sacrilegious destruction of beautiful buildings and fine frescoes. He was easily shocked by vulgarity.

The Wellington inheritance could not have been in better hands. Something of a loner, he set to work re-arranging and cataloging the collection of the 1st Duke. To this day, many items bear notes in his handwriting as to their provenance, and each year he recorded what he had achieved in books called "House Alterations". Public-spirited and serving on numerous heritage committees, he surrounded himself with historians and museum curators – men such as Harold Nicolson, Sir Brinsley Ford, Ralph Dutton and Lees-Milne.

Soon after inheriting, he realized that he could not afford to run two great houses. In 1947, with extraordinary generosity, he gave Apsley House and its fabulous contents to the nation, with no tax relief. For this reason, the treasures of Apsley House remained in London, leaving Stratfield Saye with an authentic collection of its own. He rescued the house from the gloom of recent generations, repainting red walls a pale turquoise copied from Benjamin Wyatt's unrealised plans for a palace there. He grained doors to resemble mahogany and undertook many similar improvements.

Sir Brinsley Ford always claimed that the Duke "would not have described himself as a collector", which surprises the Duke's grandson, Lord Douro. He recalled that when they went to Brussels together once a year, Sunday mornings would be spent scouring the markets. The Duke invariably found something to take home. He also edited a number of the 1st Duke's letters for publication – correspondence with Mrs Arbuthnot, Princess Lieven, Lady Wilton and Miss Burdett-Coutts. He even took the trouble to respond to an enquiry I addressed to him from school about Knights of the Garter. His eclectic group of friends included Eve Fairfax, a model for Rodin, who lived to be 106.

He died in January 1972. His son, the present Duke, took on the estate, making further vital improvements and employing John Fowler in the house; his Duchess, Diana, never returned from travels abroad without a host of varied objects to place here and there. The sale in June affords the opportunity to acquire rare pieces lovingly collected over many decades.

Hugo Vickers's latest book, Coronation, is published by The Dovecote Press.

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