The Cavendish family have lived in Derbyshire, in the northern Midlands of England, since the 16th century. William Cavendish became the first Duke of Devonshire in 1694, and the 12th Duke inherited the title earlier this year.
Chatsworth House, his ancestral seat, is one of England’s greatest homes. The original building, started by the formidable Bess of Hardwick in 1552, has been completely replaced in waves of rebuilding. Today’s Chatsworth has 297 rooms, 1.3 acres of roof, 18 staircases, and 359 doors. The indoors staff numbers over 150, and is responsible for the administration and maintenance of the house including the winding of 60 clocks each week and the vacuuming of a third of a mile of red carpet every morning.
The magnificent baroque house presides over 1,000 acres of parkland and an estate of some 35,000 acres beyond. Its honey colored stone façades and gilded window frames overlook 150 acres of gardens and some of the most famous waterworks in Europe. Chatsworth is deliberately and spectacularly grand; the house and its contents were assembled with the intent of impressing the owner’s friends, rivals, and visitors. The collections and gardens are still evolving, and they continue to impress today. Since the house reopened after the Second World War almost 18 million visitors have crossed its threshold, drawn in no small part by its spectacular contents.
Over the course of five centuries the Dukes of Devonshire have amassed stunning collections of objects from every historical period through their immense wealth and advantageous marriages. The Cavendish family were able to become arbiters of taste and style. Their quest for the finest included rare paintings, old master drawings, statuary, porcelain, clocks, gems and jewelry, masterpieces of the gold and silversmiths’ art, natural curiosities, geological specimens, scientific instruments, early photographs, and over 30,000 books and manuscripts. The house contains one of Europe’s finest private art collections.
Treasures on tour
This accumulation of wonderful objects is the subject of The Devonshire Inheritence: Five Centuries of Collecting at Chatsworth, an exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum through November 7.
Chatsworth is almost certainly the house that figures prominently in Pride and Prejudice as Pemberley, the seat of Mr. Darcy. In Jane Austen’s time, just as today, visitors saw only the public parts of the house with many of the treasures rarely, if ever, on view.
Peabody Essex Museum Curator William Sargent comments that this exhibition offers an intimate look at objects in the collection not ordinarily on public display. It serves as a behind the scenes peek at Old Master drawings, books from the magnificent library, and many artifacts from the family’s private quarters. “We all share the passion to collect something,” he noted. “Each of these Dukes collected to his own taste and pocketbook – and isn’t that what each of us does?”
The objects are dramatically presented in two large galleries and one medium-sized space organized to emphasize the individual contribution of each Duke. Portraits, miniatures, and manuscripts related to their collecting are shown alongside their acquisitions and each assemblage is set off against a distinctive color scheme. Vignettes are highlighted through the use of semi-circular walls and a sitting area for visitors features upholstered furniture set before a backdrop image of Chatsworth’s library.
Silver and porcelain
The treasures of Chatsworth are almost beyond count, but curator William Sargent has selected over 200 objects to represent the splendor of the collection. Notable is the pair of silver gilt Pilgrim Bottles bearing the arms of the 1st Duke of Devonshire, along with his wine coolers and a number of other silver gilt items for use in the dining room. Among the articles of silver for table on show are the Savile cup and cover of c.1650 (part of the Burlington inheritance) and a pair of candelabra made by Paul Storr for William Spencer, the 6th Duke in 1813-14. Porcelain on view includes a pair of Derby porcelain caudle cups and saucers made for the celebrated Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and pieces from a Derby dessert service presented by George V to Victor, the 9th Duke, in 1935. These include a footed comport with a view of Chatsworth.
Works of art
The Devonshires have always collected art avidly, and the exhibit contains many old and modern paintings and family portraits. The magnificent selection of Old Master prints and drawings representing the collections of several Dukes includes too many pieces to describe in its entirety. It encompasses prints and drawings by Antonio Pollaiuolo, Andrea Mantegna, Raffaello Santi, Sebastiano del Piombo, Titiano Veccellio, Annibale Carracci, Guido Reni, Peter Paul Reubens, Anthony Van Dyck, Rembrandt Van Rijn, Claude Lorraine, and dozens more. These drawings are rarely on display. Priceless naturalist prints and drawings are also included in the show along with maps and architectural drawings.Jewelry.
The family jewels are important features of the exhibit. The Devonshire Parure, in particular, is a masterpiece of the Victorian jeweler’s art designed to stand out at grand occasions. Created for Countess Granville, the wife of the 6th Duke, it showcases many of the important carved gemstones collected by the 2nd Duke. It consists of seven pieces of jewelry: a bracelet, a bandeau, a comb, a coronet, a stomacher, a necklace, and a diadem. It was commissioned for the 1856 Coronation of Czar Alexander II in Moscow.
The Niphausen Hawk, another showstopper standing a full 14 3/8 inches high, is of silver and silver gilt and dates from 1697. The body is set with red garnets and amethysts, the feet with citrine quartzes (foiled to deepen their color), and the base is virtually inlaid with turquoises and other blue stones, amethysts, garnets, emeralds, citrines, blue sapphires, and three onyx cameos. This stunning object was purchased by William Spencer, the 6th Duke, from an unknown Dutch collection.
A must see show
The statuary, family portraits, costume, photographs, books, illuminated manuscripts, and other items combine to make this a must-see show.
This splendid exhibition spans 14 generations and represents a unique glimpse at the house’s private collections. The Peabody Essex Museum, always looking for connections to it’s own collections, is adding labels that associate items from the exhibition with items in its own collections. For example, a 16th century Japanese lacquer box made specifically to hold a ruff collar like the one worn by Bess of Hardwick is referred to. Likewise, Henry VIII’s rosary is related to a large carved pilgrim bead of the same type and date in the PEM collection.
Today, Chatsworth is still very much home to the Cavendish family. The 11th Duke and Duchess lived there year-round until the Duke’s death this spring. The house, garden, and park are today the property of the Trustees of the Chatsworth House Trust established on March 31, 1981. The 11th Duke paid rent to the trust for his quarters on the first and second floors of the house. And he insisted that no application for public funds be made towards the upkeep of Chatsworth even though extensive restoration has been undertaken since the 1950s. It is through his efforts that the history, beauty, and grandeur of this palace and the collections it contains are available to posterity.
The Devonshire Inheritance: Five Centuries of Collecting at Chatsworth, through November 7, Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem, MA 01970, (978) 745-9500, www.pem.org. An accompanying catalogue by Nicholas Barker illustrates all the exhibited works in full color, and includes a foreword by His Grace, the 11th Duke of Devonshire.
Written By: Helen Hill
Source: New England Antiques Journal