Sometimes, though, one person’s strength of will and determination transcends that neat pigeonhole of merely resident or owner. Certain individuals become a force, saving incredible buildings – not just for their own use, but for the public to enjoy and treasure.
The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, or “Debo” as she was known to family and friends, embodied the spirit of that amazing country house known as Chatsworth. Her death at the age of 94 marks the passing of an era – her sense of purpose in the years after World War II reinvigorated not only a house, but also a community.
Chatsworth, of course, is not only a grand county house in Derbyshire, but the stand-in for Pemberly in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice film adaptation starring Kiera Knightly. The actual history and development of the estate, however, holds its own with any theatrical production.
Home to the Cavendish family since 1549, and the seat of the Duke of Devonshire, the house and landscape have been expanded, altered and reinterpreted over the centuries. Jane Austen described the house as a “large, handsome, stone building standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance.”
Capability Brown’s busy, busy hands shaped the landscape seen today, while William Talman, Thomas Archer and Jeffrey Wyattville, along with the respective dukes of the time, lent their talent to the monumental expanses of bays, columns and pilasters. And before the energies of the late Dowager Duchess helped Chatworth rise from the ashes of death duties and war, Bess of Hardwick oversaw the construction of the Elizabethan house on the site.
But despite the grandeur and history of the estate, Chatsworth, like many country houses across Britain, was confronted with great change in the 20th century. Debts incurred by previous Dukes necessitated selling portions of the library and many thousands of acres of land. During World War II, Penrhos College, a girl’s school in Wales, occupied the house for six years.
The contents of the house were packed away and the state rooms became dormitories. Many people believed that the family would never live in Chatsworth again – when the 10th Duke of Devonshire died unexpectedly in 1950, leaving $7 million in death taxes to his heir (worth 80% of the estate), speculation that Chatsworth would become another museum or holding of the National Trust was rampant.
But the 11th Duke and his wife, the former Deborah Mitford, instead decided to retain their home. Paintings by Rembrandt and Raphael were sold, as were tens of thousands of acres of land. Hardwick Hall transferred to the National Trust in 1959, and keeping Chatsworth alive became the focus of the family – and in particular the Duchess – from the time they moved back into the house in the mid-1950s.
Today Chatsworth is a multi-layered site – and also a business. I think it is important to realize that keeping country houses open and afloat is not unlike running a multi-million dollar corporation. The Dowager Duchess was very much involved in the commercial enterprises at Chatsworth, but she also conveyed the sense that the estate was also still very much a family home.
Lovers of art, architecture and landscape design can rejoice in what has been preserved, but the efforts of the Duchess ensured that everyone could find something to enjoy at Chatsworth. She also set up and ran the very popular Chatsworth Farm Shop on the estate, selling local eggs, cheese, fruit and vegetables, game and meat. The café, always overflowing with people, was also her baby, and these two ventures not only brought profit to the estate, but earned her the nickname “the housewife Duchess.”
Her drive and energy extended to two hotels, a catering service and restaurants – all the while she penned numerous books about Chatsworth (and her beloved chickens!) and kept an active hand in the running of the public side of the house, often leading tours and talking to visitors, always in a down-to-earth and charming manner. I was a country-house obsessed college student when I met the Dowager Duchess, and she gave every appearance of being delighted by the fact that one of the many tourists she encountered was a farm girl from Kentucky.
The death of her husband, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, meant that her role at Chatsworth changed. She moved from the grand house, but her influence lingered. And now, with her passing, her legacy is celebrated by the life and vitality evident in every corner of Chatsworth – without her, this corner of Derbyshire would be very different today.
Janie-Rice is an intrepid architectural historian with a double first name. She enjoys dark chocolate, old dilapidated buildings, and darting around English country houses in all sorts of weather. She’s a proud native Kentuckian and a farmer’s daughter. Visit her at www.gardenstogables.com and on Twitter at @GerbBrother