Portraits of 'ridiculed' aristos return

He was the man who gifted Burgh Castle to the nation, who set up the Norfolk Archaeological Society and who was made a baronet at Queen Victoria's coronation.

He was the man who gifted Burgh Castle to the nation, who set up Norfolk Archaeological Society and who was made a baronet at Queen Victoria's coronation.

But he was also the man ridiculed throughout Norfolk for dumping decomposing bodies into a churchyard after deciding that a full-up vault would make a fitting resting place for his dying wife.

The story of Sir John Boileau and his wife Lady Catherine is little known today but in the mid 19th century few had not heard of the goings-on at Ketteringham Hall, near Wymondham.

And now a prestigious American auction house is hoping that there will be enough interest in the couple to see a magnificent pair of portraits returned this week to Norfolk.

The portraits, each measuring 100 by 125cm, were painted by Sir Francis Grant - himself quite the character - at Ketteringham Hall in the late 1850s.

Each oil painting depicts the sitter on the steps of the hall. Sir John stands tall but appears meek, perhaps apologetic, while the well-wrapped Lady Catherine looks pallid.

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The portraits were painted at

a time when the couple were being ridiculed throughout Norfolk, with ditties of derision being openly sung in the

county's pubs and fields.

Lady Catherine, daughter of a governor-general of India, had a delicate constitution and by 1853 was coughing up blood, with specialists warning that she did not have long left.

Sir John wanted his wife buried at St Peter's church, which backs on to the hall, but in its vault rather than the graveyard so that she was away from the ordinary folk.

One night he had the bodies in the vault removed, believing they had all been dead 150 years, but his bodysnatching was soon discovered by the foul stench being emitted from the graveyard - and complaints from relatives of the recent dead were not far behind.

The bodies were returned a month later and a mausoleum built close by for the Boileaus' remains, but Sir John never recovered from the humiliating episode.

How the portraits got to America is a mystery, but could have something to do with Ketteringham Hall being used as a US military base during the second world war.

The Boileau family left the hall in 1948 and are now based in Dorset and Australia - since then the hall has housed a school, Group Lotus, where Formula 1 cars were developed, and is now carved up into small offices.

Doyle New York will auction the portraits on Wednesday and art expert Elaine Stainton said the pair are estimated to fetch about £6,000.

"These particular paintings are top quality and Sir Francis's paint-handling is first rate," she said. "They are as good as any Victorian portraits at a time when there were a lot of good artists working," she said.

"The sitters are noble and they follow the van Dyke tradition of being placed in grand setting, with luscious drapery.

"We hope there will be a lot of interest from people in Norfolk and we would love to see these paintings return home where they would be most appreciated."