The Gilded Age
Everything about Chatsworth, one of England’s most famous grand houses, is on an industrial scale. Roundly: 14,000 hectares; 62 farms; three villages; 130 rooms; 17 staircases; 1,250 works of art; 12,000 books in the Library and Ante Library; and 700 staff. And one very large farmshop (think King’s Road Partridges takes flight to the Peak District). Little wonder the current Duke and Duchess, well past retirement age, have decided to step back from overseeing the whole venture. Like his mother the late Debo (the last of the legendary Mitford sisters), Peregrine “Stoker” Cavendish along with his wife Amanda are moving from The Very Big House to The Old Vicarage in one of the estate villages, the picturesque Edensor. Debo lived in one half of the subdivided dwelling. Inskip Gee Architects are reuniting the two parts of The Old Vicarage. “It is a house with service buildings that survives from the old town and predates the alteration of Edensor by the 6th Duke and Paxton,” the architects explain. “The transformation of the house as an Italianate villa in 1838 is representative of the recasting of Edensor in various picturesque styles as a model village within Chatsworth Park, carried out in 1837 to 1840.”
The 12th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire haven’t been averse to some dramatic interventions during their tenure. In 2010 they held a three day ‘Attic Sale’ of 1,422 lots including 34 belonging to Debo. For example, Lot 223: “A gilt-bronze mounted Meissen porcelain timepiece Louis XVI, provenance Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire (acquired in the 1960s), estimate £4,000 to £6,000.” There aren’t any actual attics at Chatsworth (it is flat and low mono-pitch roofed) but there are plenty of far flung wings and outbuildings which stored surplus trinkets and larger items. In fact enough architectural salvage to fit out the interior of a decent sized country house. “There simply wasn’t enough room,” the Duke notes. “We were never going to be moving to a bigger house!” More random was Lot 1412: “Six magnums of 1982 Dom Pérignon, estimate £1,250 to £1,800.” Lots 1419 to 1422 were vintage vehicles and parts.
Historian James Miller wrote the introduction to Sotheby’s sale catalogue: “Alliteration can be a dangerous thing: it can either overstate or oversimplify, but in the description of Chatsworth as the ‘Palace of the Peaks’ it does neither. Chatsworth is a palace: a huge, magnificent house, empowered in its own lushness. The phrase also encapsulates its position among the other Cavendish possessions, past and present. It is the peak amongst these that have included Burlington House in Piccadilly, Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire, Chiswick in Middlesex, Hardwick in Derbyshire, Holker Hall in Cumbria, Lismore Castle in County Waterford, Londesborough in the East Riding and Devonshire House in London.”
He continues, “These houses have all been centres of the family’s activities as builders and collectors over nearly 500 years, but at Chatsworth we now see its fullest flowering, incorporating elements of all these other family collections. Replacing Hardwick in the late 17th century, Chatsworth has been the principal family seat for the last 300 years and in the last 100 has been the repository of works of art emanating from their other houses. This has meant that over the years every nook and cranny of this ‘Palace of the Peaks’ has been filled.”
And finishes, “The past year has been spent carefully sifting through these items, retaining some of those objects which illuminate family history and selecting what has become the content of this sale. In assessing the objects, comparing them to similar items remaining in the collection, and through reference to the large number of inventories that have been kept on the various properties, it has been possible at times to identify who commissioned them and for which of the family houses, as well as finding out when they moved to Chatsworth.”
The £65 million proceeds of the sale funded cleaning the stone walls to reveal their original warm buff and regilding the glazing bars of the windows on the two principal floors of the south front (architect William Talman) and west front (architect probably Thomas Archer aided by the 1st Duke) in 25 carat gold leaf. “The house was built to show off,” affirms the Duke. The glass panes are bevelled and the internal windowsills are made of marble. There is one single pane window on the east front contrasting with the multipaned sash windows everywhere else. About one third of the house is open to the public. The private rooms are on the south and west fronts. The gardens closest to these rooms are closed to the public. This has the dual benefit of providing privacy for the Cavendish family and keeping the elevations clutter free of tourists.
One of the highlights of the tour is the Chapel. “This space is practically unchanged since the 1st Duke in 1700,” states Stoker. Except for one addition. St Bartholomew Exquisite Pain, 2008, is a life size sculpture cast in gold plated silver in an edition of three by Damien Hirst. The artist says, “I like the confusion you get between science and religion… that’s where belief lies and art as well.” St Bartholomew was one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus and was meant to have been flayed alive and martyred. In this sculpture he stands shinily resplendent, holding his detached skin draped over his right arm and blades as a symbol of his sainthood in his left hand. Historical depictions of St Bartholomew showed anatomical detail combining art and science and this artwork remains true to that tradition. It is the standout piece in the current display of contemporary art at Chatsworth and is aptly placed.
There are a few subtractions to the Chapel. The 19th century furniture and fittings went in the Attic Sale. Lot 920: “The Victorian furniture for the Chapel at Chatsworth circa 1870. Comprising an oak altar rail in three sections in the form of a three bar gate with uprights surmounted by trefoil motifs, together with a larger pair of pine Prie Dieu, a further smaller confirming pair of Prie Dieu, an oak rail and an ok and upholstered kneeling stool.” Lot 921: “A Victorian patinated bronze surmount in the form of a processional cross. Late 19th century. £300 to £500.”
The Duke and Duchess are avid art collectors, favouring 21st century pieces. Amanda explains, “We recently collaborated with Michael Craig-Martin on a new dinner service. We love music, and Michael was also inspired by the violin door in the State Music Room. The dinner service was made together with Royal Crown Derby. Around the table are chairs made by Joseph Walsh. He makes furniture full of curves – they are sculptures as well as seats.”
“The Duke and I commissioned Joseph Walsh to also make the Enignum Bed in 2014,” continues the Duchess. “It is usually in one of our guest bedrooms, but we have moved the bed into the Sabine Room so that everyone can see it. The bed is made of thin layers of ash wood, which are twisted into shape using steam. The spiralling forms are six metres tall and soar upwards in this space that was painted by James Thornhill in 1701.” There are also rather a lot of artworks in the interiors by Edward de Waal.
Art runs in the family veins. Stoker’s niece the model Stella Tennant who died two years ago aged 50, once said, “When you look at modern British art it resonates with you. It speaks to you in a very British way. I studied sculpture at Winchester.” In 2010, the model posed in haute couture along with her grandmother Debo for Vogue with Chatsworth as the backdrop to the photoshoot. “It was always incredibly exciting, going to Chatsworth,” Stella remarked. Stella’s sister Issy is a gilder, having studied at City and Guilds of London Art School. Another relative of creative bent was the acclaimed author and architectural historian Mark Girouard who died recently. His Great Aunt Evelyn married the 9th Duke of Devonshire and after she was widowed he spent part of his childhood with her in Edensor.
Mark Girouard included Chatsworth in his 1979 book Historic Houses of Britain. Like all his published work, it is beautifully written combining art, architectural, political and social history with insightful anecdotes. On Chatsworth, “By the time of the 1st Duke, the towers and huge windows that his ancestress Bess had built at Hardwick had gone completely out of fashion. Pediments, pillars and rich carving derived from the palaces of Italy and France had replaced them as the sign of greatness. Symmetry was still the rule of the day and had been carried to its furthest limits. It was now expected that inside a great house all the doors would be aligned, and outside the grandeur of the house itself was extended by avenues and sheets of water stretching into the far distance.”
A framed script in the Rutland Arms Hotel in nearby Bakewell is a reminder that there is so much more to the Chatsworth estate. “Sir Joseph Paxton, 1803 to 1865: The Duke of Devonshire was impressed with Paxton’s gardening abilities and appointed him head gardener at Chatsworth House in 1826. He designed gardens, fountains, the Lily House and the ‘Great Conservatory’. Visiting London he discovered that plans for the housing of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park were being examined and rejected. Within days he submitted his own design based on Chatsworth’s Lily House. It was chosen for its cheapness, simplicity and easy erection.” Sir Joseph also designed the glasshouse at the Devonshires’ holiday home in County Waterford, Lismore Castle. Restoration has just completed on the glasshouse: it wasn’t cheap, simple or of easy erection.
Perhaps the best place to appreciate the family history, certainly the most tranquil, is the Cavendish plot at the top of the graveyard of St Peter’s Church in Edensor. Debo’s grave is there of course. And Kick’s. She was John F Kennedy’s sister. Kathleen Cavendish, Marchioness of Hartington, to give Kick her full married name, died in a plane crash in 1948 aged 28. She had outlived her husband, the heir apparent to the 10th Duke of Devonshire, who was killed in World War I four years earlier. The present Duke’s son, William Cavendish, Earl of Burlington, has not assumed the title Marquess of Hartington unlike all previous heirs apparent. The Earl and Countess have moved into Chatsworth.