For 18 years, the library at Lytham Hall has been dominated by a giant work called The Rescue after the Storm, a painting by local hero Richard Ansdell, the renowned Victorian artist famous for depictions of animals and melodramatic scenes from literature. 

But to the horror of those connected to the hall and the Friends of the Lytham St Annes Art Society, it looked like this striking canvas might be lost forever. 

The ownership of the picture, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1862, had been a bit of a mystery until a letter arrived from the widow of Allan Murray, a prominent banker in Hong Kong, who had died six years earlier. 

Great British Life: Ansdell's painting A Startled EweAnsdell's painting A Startled Ewe

He was a prolific collector of fine art and owned so many works that he loaned out several, including this much-loved painting. It had originally been destined for another historic Lancashire household, Turton Tower. Luckily for Lytham Hall, the 10x6 foot painting was too big to get through the door and it was diverted to the Fylde coast. 

Then, Murray’s widow, Carol, wanted to reclaim the picture so it could be sold at Sotheby’s in London. Ansdell’s work can attract significant sums at auction. 

After a discussion with Lytham Hall general manager, Peter Anthony, the chair of the Friends, Margaret Race, decided to take action. 

Great British Life: On the Road to Seville by Richard Ansdell, believed to be the only artist to have given his name to a English villageOn the Road to Seville by Richard Ansdell, believed to be the only artist to have given his name to a English village

She contacted Liz Moss, the chief executive of the Heritage Trust North West, who put her in touch with London art dealer Patrick Bourne, who was handling the sale. Margaret wrote an impassioned plea to the dealer urging him to pass on her carefully crafted letter to Mrs Murray. 

Margaret explained the significance of the picture to Lytham Hall and the local affection for the artist – believed to be the only painter to have a community named after him. She also pointed out that there could be few buyers able to house such a massive work of art. 

It did the trick. Mrs Murray agreed to let the Friends purchase the picture for a knock-down fee of £6,000 – a fraction of its expected value. 

Margaret, who had the support of Sarah Dean, the artist’s great-great grand-daughter and an authority on Richard Ansdell, was doubly pleased when a benefactor came forward and provided the £6,000 needed to keep the picture at the hall. 

Great British Life: The Herd Lassie, by Richard Ansdell, part of the Lytham St Annes Fylde CollectionThe Herd Lassie, by Richard Ansdell, part of the Lytham St Annes Fylde Collection

‘We were thrilled,’ said Margaret. ‘We would have been devastated if this picture had been lost. Richard Ansdell was such an amazing artist. He is our artist and the pictures in Lytham St Annes form the most significant collection of his work.’ 

Until its purchase, the picture had been called The Rescue after the Storm. It depicts two monks and rescue dogs trying to save a man half buried in snow on a Swiss mountainside. We now know that it is taken from a short poem by Longfellow called Excelsior. 

Unlike the poor chap trapped in snow, this story has a happy ending – and not just because the painting has been saved. Rumour has it the frame was so big that in recent years the hall had been forced to decorate around it and removing the picture would have left a very awkward gap.