So much has been written about Devonshire House, most of it concerning the period of the Devonshire House Circle, presided over by the beautiful Georgiana, wife to the 5th Duke.
After such brilliance, it seemed anticlimatic when the house was inherited by the 6th Duke, William “Hart” Cavendish, a man witty and handsome. Alas, because of a disability, he was unable to carry on his mother’s significant political career and leader of the Whig circle.
One of my characters, Lady Diana, quite liked the young duke whose Devonshire House gardens abutted those belonging to her friend, Louisa, Marchioness of Lansdowne.
Long after those days when it was thought they might make a match of it, Diana heard that Hart was planning to leave London.
“Di, I mean it. I’m removing to Chatsworth. Never coming back to London, I daresay.”
Diana eyed the duke’s tall form in dismay. “But you’ve done so much work on this house. I can’t imagine you shutting it up for years and years.”
His Grace rubbed his ear and motioned for her to repeat herself. “You’ll have to shout, my dear. Can’t hear a damn thing, you know.”
“Oh, you heard me well enough,” she retorted. “You’ve joked often enough that you hear more than people imagine, and a good deal more than they intended.”
Hart laughed. “I can never fool you, Di.”
He looked up at carved blue and silver ceiling of his mother’s boudoir. “The thing is, I’m bored. I’ve remodelled and redecorated this place, all except this room. Belonged to Mama, you know.”
“But to leave London? What could you possibly find to do in the country?”
Hart reached out and stroked the fine organza of her sleeve. He sometimes did that with beautiful women, taking the opportunity to touch them under the excuse of having to stand close by to capture the fading sound of their voices. Sounds that had become almost inaudible.
“There’s much to amuse me at Chatsworth.”
“How silly of me to forget your little rookery you keep there for your lady-birds.” She covered his hand with hers and squeezed it. “I shall miss you, Hart.”
The sixth Duke was really far more important to Devonshire House than his mother ever was. He had carried out necessary repairs and renovations, refreshing the gilding and the like, before leaving London in the 1830s. But by the 1840s, he had returned and transformed the Piccadilly mansion.
He removed the Palladian entrance with its external stairs. A porte-cochere now led to the ground floor, which had formerly been the servants’ area. Visitors passed through it directly to a crystal staircase leading to the main floor above. A ballroom was created from two drawing rooms and many of the entertainment areas had their ceilings lifted at the expense of bedrooms above. Hart had clearly returned to London, according to Lady Eastlake in May 1850:
“..the stairs themselves splendid, shallow, broad slabs of the purest white marble, which sprang unsupported, with their weight of gorgeous crystal balustrade, from the wall; and such a blaze of intense yet soft light, diffused round everything and everybody by a number of gas jets on the walls. The apartments were perfect fairyland, marble, gilding, pictures and flowers….”
When Devonshire House was demolished, it was already in a somewhat dilapidated state. The large brick wall that shielded it from the street (built in the eighteenth century to deter burglars that plagued London’s great houses) was a magnet for graffiti. There were only a few statues remaining in the gardens. The house was sold in 1920, along with its three acres. All of it, including the crystal staircase were soon to be nore more, lamented in a poem by Siegfried Sassoon.
But all was not lost. Thanks to an intrepid duchess, the house lives on, in bits and pieces. They are by and large the legacy of the sixth Duke. These numerous Regency pieces are to be found in the most surprising places.