THE man who turned Sedgefield’s Hardwick Hall into one of the most sumptuous Georgian estates in the country is coming home after more than a century away in which he spent a spell in Tangier.

A lifesize painting of John Burdon is to be unveiled next week in his mansion, which is now a hotel, after a painstaking piece of trans-continental art detective work.

The painting hung for more than a century in the Banqueting House at Hardwick, but disappeared at the end of the 19th Century. As it flitted from country to country on the international art market, the name of its subject became forgotten until researchers for the hotel’s owners, Ramside Estates, found it in December 2014 hanging in an apartment in Paris.

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But now, after a decade-long search and protracted negotiations, Burdon is back.

He lived initially at Coxhoe Hall near Durham City, was the 17th child of a wealthy Tyneside merchant, but as he was the only surviving son, in 1748, he inherited his father’s £40,000 fortune. With it, he bought 200 acres and an old manor house at Hardwick, and he employed James Paine, the most fashionable architect of the day, to create a pleasureground.

Skilfully using natural water, Paine created a large lake which was fed by a cascading, serpentine river. A circular walk of more than a mile took the visitor around the lake and across river bridges, calling in at various Gothic fantasies as they went.

First stopping point on the Grand Terrace was the Tuscan Alcove. Next was the Gothic Seat and then the Bathhouse, with the chance to have a dip in the heated pool. Then, tucked away in the woods, was the Bono Retiro with a cascade bubbling away in front. On, up a slight hill, to the majestic Temple of Minerva, before dropping back down to the Gothic Bridge over the Serpentine River. A statue of Neptune stood on a plinth in the middle of the river with a Gothic ruin forming a romantic backdrop.

Finally, it was up to the Banqueting House, where drinks and ice fruit desserts were served at the end of the tour on a summer evening. The view across the winding river was spellbinding, while the inside was elaborately decorated with busts of Greek gods, marble ornamentation, rich mouldings and a magnificent scene of feasting gods painted on the ceiling.

But the centrepiece, hanging above the jasper chimneypiece, was the lifesize portrait of the host, Mr Burdon.

It was completed in 1779 by Martin Ferdinand Quadal, a minor Moravian artist who worked throughout Europe. It shows Mr Burdon in his fashionable country clothing looking over his parkland with a spaniel at his heel and, in the background, a curious archway with a smeary mark in the middle.

Burdon died in 1792. Even after 40 years of work, several aspects of his masterplan for the parkland – he wanted to rebuild the hall and he had hoped to create a grand gatehouse – had not even been begun.

Hardwick was sold to William Russell MP, of Brancepeth Castle. His sister married the 7th Viscount Boyne, who took ownership of the hall, letting it out to country gentlemen. Unloved, the estate deteroriated, the Boynes removing items that took their fancy for their other favourite mansions – the main staircase went from Hardwick Hall, and the oak floor was taken from the Banqueting House leaving it in such a state that it was demolished in 1951.

The portrait was removed first to Brancepeth Castle and then to the Boynes’ main seat, Burwarton House in Shropshire. In 1958, the 10th Viscount put it up for sale at Sotheby’s. He couldn’t remember who the gent in the waistcoat with the dog was, and so it was called “?William Russell” in the sale catalogue.

Lord Digby of Dorset, a soldier and politician, bid £12 and took it to his family seat, Minterne House, near Dorchester.

When he died in 1964, a director of Sotheby’s, Richard Timewell, took the painting to his north African home, Villa Leon l’Africain, at Tangier in Morocco.

On his death in 2005, the painting, now uncertainly known as “?The Duke of Newcastle”, was put on the Paris art market where it was acquired by artist and author Marc Boisseuil. He had his main residence in Geneva and a country estate near Limoges, but he hung the huge portrait in his Paris apartment.

Meanwhile, there had been developments in Sedgefield. In the middle of the 20th Century, Hardwick Hall had reached its nadir. Its lake had silted up, its Banqueting House was gone, Neptune had been stolen, its follies were in ruins, the military had put the hall to war uses…

After the war, as Memories readers know, Durham County Council acquired the hall and turned it into a maternity hospital. In 1967, the hall and 30 acres was bought for £27,500 by Ramside Estates, the owner of Ramside Hall Hotel near Durham City, and enlarged into the country hotel we see today. The hotel group was headed by Michael Adamson, who had started as a chef at the Ramside after the war and worked his way up.

In the 1990s, Durham County Council, under the leadership of Sedgefield councillor Ken Manton, received Heritage Lottery Fund money to restore the parkland into the beautiful, tranquil landscape that now attracts half-a-million visitors a year.

As the historical research unfolded, people began wondering where the portrait had ended up – all they had seen of it was a poor copy with a smeary mark in the background. The Friends of Hardwick was formed in 1998 and Michael Rudd, Tom Stubbs and Jack Glendinning, with the help of architectural historian Steven Desmond, began to piece together its movements.

But the wrong names and the foreign maze made it elusive. Spurred on by John Adamson, the son of Michael, Tony Smith took up the cudgels. Tony, of Tudhoe, had been the council’s head of Countryside Services overseeing the £10m restoration of the park until his retirement in 2008 and is now chairman of the Friends.

In December 2014, he tracked it down to the artist’s apartment, and the negotiations began. Eventually, in April 2016, he came face-to-face with it in Paris.

“It was quite a wow moment,” he says. “For a long time we thought we would never find it, and it wasn’t until I looked at the archway in the background that I knew we really had the right painting.”

Because what had appeared on all the poor copies to be a smeary mark in the middle of the archway was in fact clearly a flag flying from the unmistakeable roof of St Edmund’s Church in Sedgefield.

Everything then fell into place. The archway is at the end of the Grand Terrace and was the grand gatehouse that Burdon had planned but never built – in fact, it is very similar to one that Paine designed in 1761 for Worksop Manor.

In fact, if you stand today in the centre of the Grand Terrace and look towards Sedgefield, you would see exactly that view to the church that Quadal imagined in 1779 – if the gatehouse had been built.

But it wasn’t, and today all you see is trees.

Quadal must have seen Paine’s plans and painted the archway, and the church, into his lifesize portrait to place Burdon at the very heart of the estate that he had spent his fortune, and his lifetime, creating.

“Midway on the flight back to Newcastle that evening, I had an intense feeling that John Burdon was saying: ‘Thank-you for bringing me home’,” says Tony. “I know it is whimsy, but a few years earlier, when we were filling the lake, I had a really strong feeling of him saying ‘thank-you for putting it back how I wanted’.”

On Thursday, the portrait will be unveiled in the hotel’s reception area and, after 130 years away, Burdon will be formally welcomed back to the home he began creating 250 years ago.