Chatsworth was the highlight of our trip to Derbyshire. Seat of the Duke & Duchess of Devonshire, this property has made the transition from fusty country estate to an historical entity pulsating with energy and vitality. It is no wonder it’s been selected as the UK’s favourite country house on several occasions and attracts over a million visitors a year.
This is no small feat, and its success is largely attributable to the driving force of Deborah, the late Dowager Duchess of Devonshire (how’s that for alliteration)! A little background: the Cavendish family, among many others, were hit with 80% (!) death duties in the first half of the 20th century, in wake of the socialist tide that overtook Britain after World War II. Many families simply flung up their hands in despair and negotiated handing over their estates to the National Trust in settlement of the tax. The 11th Duke and his wife Deborah, (one of the famous Mitford sisters) went a different route and pulled the estate back from financial abyss through sheer force of will, it would seem. They sold tens of thousands of acres of land, transferred other properties to the National Trust and sold some major works of art, but that was only the beginning.
Like most country houses during the war, Chatsworth had been used for institutional purposes. Britain’s economy was on its knees after the war, struggling with enormous war debt and the harsh realities of rebuilding a country whose fabric had been severely damaged. Rationing continued for more than a decade after peace had been declared as everyone continued to try and do more with less. Thus it wasn’t until the mid 1950s that the family began to consider occupying the house again.
Little by little, extensive renovations were undertaken including rewiring, plumbing and heating. The small staff bedrooms and communal servants’ hall were replaced with self-contained flats. The largely socialist mindset in Britain after the war made it impossible to get local British workers for places like Chatsworth,so with the a team of Hungarian women, including the redoubtable Solymossy sisters, Ilona and Elizabeth, rooms were painted, furniture and carpets brought out of storage and curtains were hung. The Duke, Duchess and their three children moved back into the house in 1959.
These images capture but a fraction of the works of art and gorgeous details of the house. I’ve visited several times and never fail to see something new to learn and enjoy.
This famous portrait by Gainsborough of Georgiana, wife of the Fifth Duke of Devonshire’s is now back at Chatsworth. It was lost in the shuffle sometime in the past, and fell into the hands of an elderly schoolmistress, who cut it down in order to fit over her fireplace. Georgiana’s life was the subject of the movie Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes.
Deborah Devonshire was responsible for many improvements to the house & garden, including the maze, the kitchen, the cottage gardens. She wrote several books about different aspects of Chatsworth and its estate, including Chatsworth: The House, which gives us a peek into the private rooms and a behind the scenes look at what is involved in running this mammoth estate. Her memoirs, Wait For Me! gives us tremendous insight into her childhood and the events that shaped this remarkable woman.
It was extremely amusing to see how the family doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are some wonderful quotes stencilled around the walls in one of the display areas of the house.
We had a marvellous day touring the house and grounds, all of which are impeccably maintained. The entire estate vibrates with life. Parcels of school children tour the house and play on the spacious grounds, rolling down hills and chasing the ducks.
Florabundance was just getting underway when we were there. Teams of florists were putting up arrangements in many of the rooms, adding further colour and enthusiasm to the interiors.
Sotheby’s had a wonderful exhibit of quirky statuary on one of our visits, with work by Barry Flanagan featuring enormous hares in a variety of dancing postures. You can’t help but grin when you see them.
There are plenty of things to feed the inner girl, too. There are two restaurants on the estate presenting delicious food in gorgeous surroundings.
We really enjoyed visiting the farm on the property with all the different breeds of chickens. Deborah was extremely interested in livestock of all sorts, and writes about it in her earlier memoirs, Counting My Chickens and Home to Roost. The books have been combined in All In One Basket.
The nearby farm shop, with its own restaurant, is of world-class standard, with fabulous meats, pastries, prepared foods and cheeses. It does your heart good to see such a successful endeavour.
The village of Pilsley hard by the farm shop, is a typical English country village complete with school, pub and beautiful stone houses.
Andrew, 11th Duke of Devonshire, passed away in 2004, and his widow, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, remained extremely active in promoting the estate until shortly before her death in 2014. The mark of her tireless efforts are evident everywhere at Chatsworth, and if your trip to England takes you to Derbyshire, it’s well worth a visit.