by Sir John Lavery, R.A., R.H.A., R.S.A. 1856-1941
The 1930s produced numerous truly great kennels in the UK, the influence of many of which can still be felt today. Some were owned by characters who were larger than life, whilst a few had kennel managers and handlers whose exploits were the stuff of legends. Probably one of the most, if not the most, famous fitting that description, was the Ouborough Kennels of Great Danes and Irish Wolfhounds of James Voase Rank (1881-1952).
Rank came from a milling family in Yorkshire and developed a huge flour, bread and baking empire, which in part still exists to this day as Rank Hovis McDougall. James had a brother, J Arthur Rank (Joseph), the famous film magnet.
The Rank family hailed from Ouborough in Yorkshire, where Joseph Rank senior was a miller and had a working windmill, from which the huge Rank empire grew.
On moving south, James first bought a property in the Dorking/Leatherhead area and called it Ouborough Place. The next move was to be to South Nutfield, Surrey to a house called Barn Ridge, which had 70 acres of land. Rank also renamed the property Ouborough. It was here that James Rank first built up his Great Dane kennels and also bred Guernsey Cattle, thoroughbred horses and Irish Wolfhounds.
Following a divorce from his first Welsh born wife Kathleen in 1927, and as his wealth increased, James bought and moved to a part 16th century house in South Godstone called Rook's Nest in 1928. This he also renamed Ouborough and lived here until his death at a London nursing home in 1952. In 1928, James also married his second wife, the Irish born Patsy. Patsy Rank was a great animal lover and originally had Dachshunds and Samoyeds, but her favourite breed was undoubtedly the Irish Wolfhound.
She took a keen interest in the running of the kennels at Godstone and regularly handled the dogs at shows. From 1921, the head of the Ouborough kennels was Bill Siggers. I hesitate to use the word "legendary" but if any kennel manager ever achieved this status, surely it was Siggers, who passed away as recently as 1984.
Two years after they were married, James Rank commissioned the Irish artist, Sir John Lavery (1856-1941), to paint his wife Patsy. The painting which emerged is acknowledged as one of the most dramatic of Lavery's inter-war portraits. Patsy Rank's scarlet coat in the painting brings great drama to the canvas and the portrait reveals Mrs Rank as a wealthy and confident socialite of great beauty.
Lavery was born in North Queen Street, Belfast, the son of a wine and spirit merchant, but was orphaned at the age of three. Eventually he got a job touching up photographic negatives in Glasgow and attended evening classes at the Haldane Academy of Art there. He studied further in London and Paris (at the Académie Julian). Lavery soon moved on to London full time where he became a fashionable portrait painter with a studio at 5, Cromwell Place and a house in Tangier. He painted everyone from Winston Churchill to John McCormack, and was also commissioned to record the key events of the Irish Civil War. His wife, the American socialite beauty Hazel Martyn, (whose portrait was later used on Irish banknotes) was passionately committed to the Irish cause and was rumoured to have had a relationship with Michael Collins.
Honours were showered on Lavery, culminating in a knighthood in 1918. He died in 1941, having published his autobiography ‘Life Of A Painter’ the previous year. His stunning painting of Patsy Rank measures 36" by 28".( 92 by 71cm), is a signed oil on canvas and is also signed, inscribed with sitter's name and dated 1930 on the reverse. The painting has emerged on to the market from a private collection and is to be sold at Sotheby's New Bond Street sale room on May 13th, as part of Sotheby's Irish Art sale. It carries a pre sale estimate of £40,000-60,000. The current world record for a painting by Lavery is £1,321,500, for his masterpiece "The Bridge at Grez". The entire sale may also be viewed on the internet at: www.sothebys.com
Patsy Rank died in November 1954, but had the pleasure of seeing an Ouborough Great Dane, Ch Elch Edler of Ouborough win Best in show at Crufts in 1953, shortly after the death of her husband. That same winning year, the Ouborough estate was sold, the house and grounds passing on to Guy's Hospital, who never actually took up residence. Two years later it became Streete Court School, which closed about 10 years ago. The property and grounds was then bought by Ron Noades, the then Chairman of Crystal Palace Football Club, who planned to turn it into a football youth academy. However, recently work has begun at the property to turn it into a golf course. The house can still clearly be seen from the A25 Godstone Bypass, majestically standing to the left, on a ridge and can be viewed even better from the road which leads to Oxted. The Ouborough kennels still exist and today are used to house racing Greyhounds.