Catherine Wills, art historian, horsewoman and philanthropist – obituary

Catherine Mary Hamilton Wills was born on November 23 1950, the eldest child of David (later Sir David) Wills and Eva, née Kavanagh. Together with her younger brother Martin she was brought up at Sandford Park, an idyllic Oxfordshire estate around the village of Sandford St Martin.

From an early age she rode two hounds and competed in three-day eventing although she had limited patience for dressage, preferring cross-country courses taken at speed. In 1978 she won the Melton Hunt Cup on a horse called Alchemist. Later she owned a string of racehorses and kept brood mares at studs in France, Ireland and Kentucky as well as at Newmarket.

The horses had resulted in a somewhat truncated education. On discovering a love of art history she applied to the Courtauld Institute and was dismayed to find that first she needed some A levels. She asked her parents why they had neglected to point this out, so her father asked the Warden of All Souls to suggest a tutor.

She not only got her degree from the Courtauld but followed it up with a PhD, supervised by Neil MacGregor. Her father, a scion of the Wills tobacco family, had bought the Ditchley estate and gifted the great house and park, where Churchill spent wartime weekends, to a foundation to foster Anglo-American understanding in the Cold War.

When Catherine’s brother Martin, a professional journalist, tragically died of a brain tumor at the age of 39 in 1992, his will further endowed the Ditchley foundation and several separate charitable trusts, and Catherine found herself fully employed supporting these various charities as well as others Will’s family foundations.

She threw herself into Ditchley’s work, traveling frequently to the United States in pursuit of ideas and people. Ditchley directors found her surprisingly radical in her suggestions and when pomposity reared its head she could be mischievous, once putting butter on the chair of a particularly self-important politician at dinner while he was away from the table. She was a benefactor and fellow of Magdalen College and Harris Manchester Colleges, Oxford.

Famous among her friends for being always on the move, she managed the family estates, which included land at Ousden in Suffolk and Knockando in Morayshire. Opera, theatre, exhibitions and race meetings were fitted in alongside agricultural, philanthropic and academic work. Heaps of loosely organized paper followed her everywhere, until an American friend eventually persuaded her of the virtues of laptops and email – to which she then became addicted.

Her attention to the details of salmon fishing rotas for her friends at Knockando, or the breeding pedigrees of white park cattle at Ditchley, remained acute to the end.

She was modest, charming and allergic to sympathy, but once she had made up her mind nothing could change it. The insouciant courage she showed when faced with cancer last year, while caring for her dying mother, was remarkable. She survived her mother by less than three months.

Catherine Wills never married, and nor did her brother, but the family connection to Ditchley continues through her cousin Robert Wills.

Catherine Wills, born November 23 1950, died July 29 2022


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