Available from Heywood Hill, 10 Curzon Street, London W1J 5HH
Producers of ‘period dramas’, on film or television, go to tremendous trouble to create the right ‘period look’. In the late Victorian town house, everything is late Victorian; in the Regency rectory, everything is Regency; and so on. All of which is, of course, absurd — not as absurd as having late Victorian things in the Regency house, admittedly, but absurd nonetheless. For most well-stocked houses — except those of the mail-ordering nouveaux riches —have always contained a mixture of styles, an accumulation of objects from earlier periods.
If this is true of any house where the contents have been added to over several generations, how much truer it is of Chatsworth, whose owners stopped being nouveaux riches some time in the 16th century. Here we are faced not just with many generations of ownership by the Cavendish family, but with centuries of serious collecting, on a scale that could be matched by few other private collectors in the country. The result is a concentration of paintings, drawings, furniture, sculpture, books, manuscripts, gold, silver and other objets d’art that must represent, to the historian of taste, what the Roman Forum represented to early archaeologists: layer upon layer of inexhaustibly fascinating evidence.
For the casual visitor, guidebook in hand, separating those layers may not be an easy task; a typical guidebook entry will tell you more about what something is than about when and why it was acquired. And no tourist, even in this most tourist-friendly of stately homes, can expect to experience the whole range of treasures that Chatsworth holds: the Inigo Jones drawings, for example, or the Hobbes manuscripts, or the present Duke’s collection of Lucian Freuds.
But a dazzling exhibition, which has just opened in New York, now makes that experience possible; and those who do not have the chance to see it in New York, or in its other venues in the United States later in 2004-5, can still explore the history of the Chatsworth collections in fascinating detail in the exhibition catalogue. Its author, the bibliophile Nicolas Barker, chose all the exhibits, and has knowledgeable and sharp-eyed things to say about each one. Most importantly, he has organised them in a way that makes it possible to follow, step by step, the accumulation of a great collection from the Elizabethan period to the present day.
As is so often the case in the history of collecting, good taste needed to be combined, at crucial moments, with good fortune. It was fortunate that the first Duke of Devonshire developed a taste for drawings in the 1680s (a period when most rich collectors still thought paintings hugely superior), and more fortunate still that his son, who inherited this taste, outwitted rival collectors and bought one of the best collections of drawings ever assembled (by the son of Govaert Flinck, Rembrandt’s pupil).
It was wonderfully lucky that the Cavendish family acquired by marriage, in the mid-18th century, the entire estate of the aesthete Earl of Burlington. Accidents of birth –— or rather, failure to bear — also brought about a consolidation of Cavendish family fortunes, when the colossal library of the scientist Henry Cavendish (the son of a younger son) was passed to Chatsworth in the early 19th century. Only in 1950 did the luck definitively run out, when the tenth Duke died 14 weeks short of the final hurdle for Estate Duty purposes, leaving a tax bill of £4.7 million on a £5.9 million estate. (Claude’s ‘Liber veritatis’, a Rembrandt, a Memling, 60 incunables and Hardwick Hall all had to go.)
Luck, however, is only one small part of the story. Taste, passion, and special interests of all kinds played the larger roles. The commercial interests that drove the Cavendishes to acquire rare publications relating to Virginia in the 17th century; the passion for classical and Renaissance gems which led the second Duke to accumulate an unrivalled collection of them; Henry Cavendish’s special interest in scientific instruments; the 6th Duke’s taste for the finest examples of early printing, and his infatuation with the sculptures of Canova — all these are reflected and represented here.
One intriguing aspect of this story is the way in which certain themes or artists act as links between different periods and different patrons. Inigo Jones first features here as the designer of a court masque in which the 2nd Earl of Devonshire took part in 1634. Almost a century later, the drawings for it were among the mass of Inigo Jones items bought by the Earl of Burlington. That earl also commissioned a marble bust of Jones by Rysbrack, based on a well-known engraving of Van Dyck’s portrait-drawing of him; at the same time, but quite independently, the 2nd Duke bought the Van Dyck for his own collection. The 3rd Duke then gave it to Burlington, but everything ended up in Chatsworth a couple of generations later.
Nicolas Barker has arranged his material in a chronological sequence of collectors: these include the now famous Georgiana (now even more famous than before, that is), as well as the Earl of Burlington, who seems to have turned retrospectively into an honorary Cavendish rather in the way that the deceased ancestors of Mormons can be turned into Mormons. There are a few unexplained quirks: a rare Jacobean masque text included in the first section here was actually bought by the Chats- worth librarian in 1897, and a 16th-century Dutch painting is inexplicably put in the 2nd Duke’s section, even though it was acquired by the 5th or 6th. Also unanswered is a much larger question: how many of these things were in fact kept in, or acquired for, the Devonshires’ London house?
Nevertheless, this catalogue is an exceptionally valuable piece of work, not only because of all the insights it gives into the gradual formation of one of the world’s greatest private collections, but also because it has been superbly produced, with outstandingly good illustrations of every item. Those who will be in New York over the next three months have no excuse not to see the exhibition. Those who only buy the catalogue, because they are not planning to be there, may find that their plans soon change.
The Devonshire Inheritance is at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, New York (18 West 86th Street), until 20 June; then at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass., from 14 August to 7 November; for subsequent venues in Florida, Alabama and Texas see www.chatsworth-house.co.uk.