The contents of Belmont House, home of the late academic and adventurer David Gibbs who passed away in June at the age of 93, will be offered in a two-day sale by Sheppard’s of Durrow on February 3rd and 4th. The auction will be live, but with no in-person attendance due to health restrictions, all bidding will be online.
Gibbs, who is fondly remembered as the charismatic first lay warden of St Columba’s College in Dublin from 1974 until his retirement in 1988, was awarded an Order of the British Empire award for his services to education in India.
He began a career in engineering, but spent time teaching at Gayhurst Preparatory School in Buckinghamshire which his father ran for 42 years. This set Gibbs on his true career path: he became the maths and physics teacher at Repton School in Derbyshire and in 1964, he applied for headships overseas becoming rector of St Paul’s school in Darjeeling.
The independent boarding school in West Bengal, known as the “Eton of the east”, is one of the oldest private schools in India. Actress Vivien Leigh – famed for her tempestuous portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind – was born on the school campus in 1913.
Gibbs met his wife-to-be, Sally Dobbs, in Libya in 1947 where he was posted for national service and she was governess to the children of Traver Blackley, the administrator of Tripolitania.
“Mum, who was then 20, had attended the Conservatoire of Music in Brussels and was an accomplished pianist. Dad had been invited to dinner at the house in Tripoli and when she heard him play the piano, that was it. They both played the piano into their nineties until elderly fingers gave in,” says daughter, Lucinda Gibbs. Sally is now in a nursing home close to St Columba’s in Dublin.
Speaking of her time in Darjeeling, where she spent her formative years, Lucinda remembers being one of only two female students at St Paul’s school: “It was really a case of princes to paupers. We had very wealthy children from Thailand and children who were refugees from Tibet. Although sponsored by ‘fairy godmothers’ from Switzerland, they had no money and came from impoverished backgrounds. We had children from all walks of life and all religions but Dad treated everyone equally.”
Lucinda, one of the three Gibbs children along with brothers Alexander and William (who now works at St Columba’s School), met her husband when she was at school in Darjeeling. Though the pair parted ways in the 1970s they met again in 2007 and married in 2010. “When Pradip [Verma] was 15 he was very involved with the Bangladesh War. As a Bengali speaker he spent months in the refugee camps during the monsoons where he learned to insert drips, give vaccinations and count the dead. All the schools at that time sent senior students to help in the camps.”
Pradip who lives in Ireland with Lucinda now runs bespoke tours to India. His father-in-law was also an intrepid traveller with a hugely adventurous spirit. During his treks to the Himalayas, Gibbs befriended Tenzing Norgay, the Nepali-Indian Sherpa mountaineer. Norgay and Edmund Hillary were the first two people known to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
The array of eastern antiquities from Belmont House is the culmination of David and Sally Gibbs’ tenure and travels in India and the Orient.
Included in the sale are intricately-woven carpets from the hands of Tibetan refugees living at the foothills of the Himalayas, some lovely Kashmiri silk wall hangings and Bhutanese crafts. Pottery includes iconic Delhi blue and white pieces from Jaipur along with an antiquarian “barleycorn” chess set (€400-€600) and metal figurines from the Bastar region of India (€80-€120).
In keeping with the romantic theme of Belmont House is a pair of intricate Mughal portraits. They date from the early 19th century and are of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his wife, Mumtaz, for whom he built the Taj Mahal, the magnificent ivory-white mausoleum in the city of Agra.
From closer to home, one of the top lots in the sale is a large Pauline Bewick tapestry which hung in the dining room at Belmont (€6,000-€9,000), a simple but rare Irish yew tea caddy (€200-€300), a 19th century Irish oak table and a 1930s art deco suite (€800-€1,200).
The collection from Belmont House – a bit like the lives of David and Sally Gibbs – reflects their curiosity for culture and their profound interest in travel.