They’re an innovative lot, these Cavendish’s – Derbyshire’s dynasty of the Dukes of Devonshire. Everyone had to keep his or her belts tightened for a good few years after 1945. For Britain’s land-owning aristocrats, austerity came calling like an Angel of Death Duties, wielding a 65% tax bill on inheritance. The negotiated peace with many titled families saw land, houses and works of art handed over to the state or one of its proxy partners. This was the time for James Lees-Milne, bright, be-spectacled administrator from the National Trust, to traverse the rural by-ways of England, striking deals to restructure the ownership of a string of architectural pearls. They’ve adorned the elegant neck of England’s property owning charity ever since. Very often the old family would live on in one wing of the great house, whilst the British public day-tripped their way into the countryside, delighting in the old piles, sharing in the dowry of a wealth held (partly) in common.
1945 brought a new era. Perhaps the one where Britain came closest to embracing a spirit of equity. Houses would be built, health-care made free, the ownership and benefits of industry would be spread around, National Parks would protect and share the countryside. In this new age, old entitlements no longer commanded an automatic role for a top-titled peer in the shaping of the nation. For the young and recently ennobled 11th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, the possibility for their grand inheritance to turn from power-houses into decaying liabilities must have hung in the balance for a good few years. Andrew and Deborah (Debo) Cavendish inherited Chatsworth (Derbyshire), Bolton Abbey (Yorkshire), and Lismore Castle (County Waterford) amongst various other properties in 1950. But they lost the old family home, Hardwick Hall (also Derbyshire). Hardwick is still the most wonderful Elizabethan prodigy house, exuding the character of the family’s founding dynastic matriarch, Bess of Hardwick. This country house went to the National Trust, with no in-situ family residence. To pay the tax man, the family sold-off or surrendered much more besides.
Over the coming decades, the Duke and Duchess chose Chatsworth as their focus. The seat of their Derbyshire estate became their principle residence, and the subject of their greatest creative output. Uncle Harold McMillan did bring Andrew into his government for a while, but Debo drove Chatsworth forward. Referencing Chatsworth’s centuries old tradition for hospitality, she threw open the doors, charged for entry, buttered the scones, published the guidebook, broadened the brand, and packaged the flag-ship of their inheritance into a new Elizabethan settlement for the English Stately Home. The same ideas were being played out in a hundred or more historic country houses across the land. Never a family to hold back, the Devonshire’s embraced the opportunities of the new age. Chatsworth is not a property or an enterprise to reward restraint or mediocrity, and the Duke and Duchess must in part have succeeded through their own force of will. The post-war challenge for Chatsworth was to find its audience, connect to it, grow it, and nevet let go. Chatsworth is ploughing the same furrow still.
The house, gardens and park now welcome more than a million visitors a year. Why is it this successful? What makes modern Chatsworth work?
My opening answer is excellence. At Chatsworth, people encounter something that is flamboyant, and gorgeous. Chatsworth represents something that is towards the outer-limits of human achievement. There’s wealth, style, art, knowledge, commitment, and the layering of generations, each adding their own contribution to the history of this place.
This experience was once the preserve of the well to do. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett and her travelling companions turn up at Darcy’s historic home, Pemberley (likely based on Chatsworth) and are given a guided tour by the housekeeper. In a post-war Britain with more equity than in Austen’s day, and a great deal of aspiration, the affordable entry fee, and the means to journey by motor-coach and motor-car, made Chatsworth’s brand of excellence accessible to an ever-widening audience.
The second appeal of Chatsworth is order – not the order of social class (you don’t want to come across like a Romanov amongst the peasantry), but the order of place. Everything here feels connected. There’s a flower, in a vase, in a room, in a house, in a garden, in a park, in an estate, in a county, in a nation. Beyond that the implied order of landscape once reached further – across the British Empire.
This ordering is not an accident. It’s taken a lot of time, money, trial-and-error for everything to appear this way. The building style is mainly French baroque, borrowed from the court of an absolute monarch. But the Versailles approach to landscape, of imposing man’s dominion over nature, was tried but then discarded at Chatsworth, In the eighteenth century, the style to be seen with was the trademark English Landscape Garden of Capability Brown. The rule-bound planting of the earlier Elizabethan and French-style gardens was ripped out at Chatsworth. The river was re-routed, the estate village of Edensor was raised and relocated. The trees grew where they were intended – to frame the land and project their cultivated air of permanence. The sheep were grazed on the gentle pasture between the planting, hemmed in by the ha-ha, their open pasture accentuating the reveal of each vista. You have to do a lot of serious intervention to appear this natural.
The rawness of fresh cut stone softened with age, and the shock-of-the-new yielded to the passage of time. Chatsworth settled into Arcadia. This was an idealised vision of an ordered and natural landscape, inspired by the Roman camapagna, a mythologised countryside to surround the Eternal City. Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin were the influential artists who transplanted the order and beauty of this Italian landscape onto canvas, and other artists propogated the same idealised form. Their vision was captured within their art, and the paintings imported into England by aristocrat participants of the Grand Tour.
Art is storytelling. And people tell stories to share ideas. Back in England the manifesto for landscape broke out of its gilded frame to inspire a new generation of patrons and garden designers. The Italian campagna became the English Landscape Garden.
The style went viral, so that Britain has no surviving gardens from the time before this design-led landscape revolution. England has long-since settled for this look as its definitive national garden style. It is hugely popular and influential – at home, and for many people who visit England from abroad. The style has taken root in other nations, across the British Isles, on the continent, into North America. In England there have been no serious challengers to this Landscape Garden style for nearly three centuries.
The Chatsworth landscape is now part of a National Park, and there are perhaps two messages. The first is that Chatsworth belongs to the Duke (well actually it belongs to the Chatsworth Settlement Trustees), yet by going there, somehow, it can also belong to us. The second is this landscape feels natural, feels right, feels like it has been here for a long time, and will be here for ever. Of course, some people might once have thought the same thing about the Roman Empire. But for now, Chatsworth works, because when we venture into the garden we become a detail in the picture, a part of a landscape that strikes all the right notes. Therefore, alongside excellence and order, it is this sense of permanence that is Chatsworth’s third appeal.
Permanence doesn’t mean that Chatsworth stands still. New ideas are always being added to the mix. The family love their contemporary art, and the vast garden is also a constant playground for innovation (within the established framework), whilst the importance of visitors to financial viability means that the relationship between Chatsworth and its audience is an ever-evolving two-way exchange. Chatsworth is outward looking and open to ideas.
The 1st Duke encased the Elizabethan house in the baroque. The 6th Duke built the North wing, showcased his neo-classical sculpture, brought in Joseph Paxton to collaborate on every polymath innovation they could dream up together. The 12th Duke, Stoker is blazing through a £30 million plus house restoration, driving forward the legacy of his parents, and – judging by the involvement of his daughter-in-law in the 2017 House Style exhibition – getting on with succession planning. There is the projection of permanence, but for a considerable time Chatsworth has also understood the importance of renewal. I think we’re getting closer to understanding one more part to Chatsworth’s contemporary appeal.
Chatsworth is a home. There have been times when it hasn’t been. But in its current incarnation, as established by Andrew and Debo, it’s been a family home for most of most people’s living memory. Where a Stately Home can become impersonal, this is often reigned back at Chatsworth. The Painted Hall might be attempting full-on Sistine Chapel, but there’s usually an early 20th century pushchair for an infant heir, made out of bamboo or such-like, added into the mix. Where the overbearing extravagance of baroque gets too much (and baroque is about as showy as you can get in architecture), the Duke has gone the other way, embracing it – chuckling to himself I think, and telling people that gaudy gold guilding is just 18th century bling, like he’s taken inspiration from watching TOWIE.
The reminders that this is a family home are all around. For the most part, the portraits of the succession of Cavendish men don’t stand out. With the Earls (of which there were six), then with the Dukes, their posture, expression and clothing are formal. The ones with stern faces and wigs, contriving to show off their shapely stockinged legs are caught in a cold artistic convention. Its hard to empathise with stern, born-to-rule authority. If this is what feminism means by patriarchy, it makes children of us all.
It all changes if we go back to the earliest portraits of Bess (her painting normally resides at Hardwick) and William Cavendish – earthy, powerful people, not then secure in their positions, painted by artists who aspired to see people in the manner of Hans Holbein. And there’s a great leap forward as we come – perhaps inevitably – into the era of Andrew and Debo. The series of family portraits that date from the 1960s by their friend Lucien Freud, are gentle, personal, extraordinary studies of ordinary humanity. Their modest size is intended, their undoubted financial value incidental. For the most part the family has maintained the tradition. The recent portraits are either innovative or personal, occasionally both, and usually centre-stage.
From left: Bess of Hardwick as a young woman, English school c. 1550; Detail of Sir William Cavendish, John Bettles the elder, c. 1552; Lady with a Bird (Amanda Cavendish, with Stoker Cavendish framed behind, the 11th Duchess and Duke of Devonshire) by Michael Leonard, 1981.
From left: various family portraits including Debo and Andrew by Lucien Freud; Duchess Georgiana as Diana (5th Duchess) by Maria Cosway c. 1781-1782; Deborah Devonshire (10th Duchess) by Pietro Annigoni, 1954.
Each time I walk around Chatsworth – I live close by, so I go maybe once a year – I notice more and more the portraits of female members of the family from across all the generations. Have they always been this prominent, but I wasn’t tuned in to notice? Some of these women are extraordinary – amongst them Georgiana, Evelyn, Debo – their personalities barely contained within their frames. In one painting, Georgiana is Empress of Fashion, in another she is Diana – or is it Wonder Woman? Even the paintings themselves have their own back-story, their own biography.
Everything here is personal. Ultimately that is why contemporary Chatsworth works. Although it is magnificent, it is human. By living there and having their family there, Andrew and Debo made it that way. Stoker and Amanda ensure that Chatsworth is run as a professional outfit, but it is above all else a home. When we go, for the time we’re there, Chatsworth has made it possible to feel like we’re part of the picture.
Notes on Images: All images are the work of the author or are licensed for use under the Creative Commons scheme. The opening image of Andrew Cavendish in front of Chatsworth is by the society photographer Allan Warren. Images of original art are faithful photographic reproductions of works that are in the public domain.