One House Saves Another–and Perhaps, a Nation

Vivien let her fingertips glide along the curved glass railing of the crystal grand staircase of Devonshire House.  “It’s been so many years since Hart’s death but all his things remain here just as they were when he was alive.”

Devonshire House gates

She smiled sadly at her companion, the Dowager Countess of Northam, who pulled her ermine fur more closely about her shoulders as they passed into the grand saloon.

Diana was well aware Vivien was watching her. She shrugged as her eyes roved over the giltwood and gesso overmantel frames containing the priceless paintings Hart had collected for years. “Perhaps it was a blessing Blanche passed away before her husband could succeed to all this. Hart adored her–she was his favorite niece by far and he really wanted her to have all these things, though I can’t conceive why.”

“Who will be the next chatelaine of this house, I wonder?”

Diana threaded her arm through Vivien’s. They were two old ladies whose opinions mattered to no one anymore. “Spencer will never marry. He’s too much like Hart with that silly mistress of his. The one they call Skittles.”

Vivien’s dark eyes toward her. “Are you jealous of her? She’s very beautiful, I hear, and has the admiration of all the gentlemen when she rides in Hyde Park. Just as you used to do.”

“Hush,” Diana said.

Vivien patted her hand. “Don’t fly up into the boughs, my dear.”

Yes, Diana was jealous, despite her eighty some-odd years. Age had done nothing to dispel the fierceness of feeling. As always, she relied on her dearest friend to soothe the violence of her temper. She looked down on darling Vivien’s face, noting the eyebrows that were still as black as her hair once was. “Devonshire House will need a mistress made of sterner stuff than the daughter of a customs official.”

They had paused before a great window that looked out across Devonshire’s gardens. In the distance was a long wall separating the duke’s cabbage from the Marquess of Lansdowne’s fine lawn, fresh from being dug up along the riverbank. The ancient frame of an old ladder leaned against the wall.

“Stay,” Vivien exclaimed, pointing to the Palladian mansion opposite Devonshire House. “Did I not tell you there’s a baby girl just born to Lansdowne House? Louisa, God rest her soul, has a new great-granddaughter. They mean to call her Evelyn, I hear.”

Diana could not take her eyes from that ladder, her mind seized on the memory of that day long ago when she first met Hart, to Louisa’s dismay.

“Oh, darling,” Vivien exclaimed, seeing a tear slip down Diana’s face. “If you cry, then you know I will. And then we shall all be the basket.”

The last mistress of Devonshire House was that baby girl, who made sure the memory of the old house and its “Bachelor Duke” were never to be forgotten.

Lady Evelyn Emily Mary FitzMaurice, (1870 – 1960) was the oldest child of the 5th Marquess of Lansdowne and his wife, Maud. She married Victor Cavendish in 1892 and became the 9th Duchess of Devonshire. She was unprepossessing, serious-minded and nothing like her flamboyant predecessor, the German Louisa van Alten, England’s Double Duchess.

Lady Evelyn Cavendish, 9th Duchess of Devonshire – by John Singer Sargent

She was the chatalaine who presided over the death of Devonshire House.

“…by the close of World War I, the social and political London scene had changed greatly for aristocrats, and the Cavendish family sold Devonshire House. Before it was demolished in 1925, Evelyn, the ninth duchess, who had a deep appreciation for architecture and antiques, had all of the interiors photographed and the rooms painstakingly disassembled before the contents were shipped to Chatsworth.” The Ultimate Attic

The well-publicized Chatsworth sale in 2010 of those various Devonshire House fittings and furnishings could not have happened without the 9th Duchess’ labor almost a century before. Her little pieces of paper were found, under the soot from Chatsworth’s attic, attached to every picture frame, chimney-piece and wood carving, noting what room in the long-vanished London house the item was taken from. From contemporary accounts, notably Evelyn’s daughter, it appears as if Her Grace knew that a portal into the past was about to be closed forever:

“..much of the furniture and even the silk off the walls were spread about Chatsworth. Piled high in the kitchen maids’ bedrooms were silk curtains, cushions, tassels and braids. Chimney pieces lay on the backs by the forge in the stables, while in the granary loft above were stored the London state harness of the carriage horses, extravagantly carved and painted pelmets, gilded fillits….” — from Her Grace, the Dowager Duchess Deborah Mitford Cavendish’s book All in One Basket

I’ve often wondered if the Royal Collection owes a debt of gratitude to the 9th Duchess of Devonshire. It was Queen Mary who set about reinstating many “lost”items that had been loaned out by preceding generations of the Royal Family. No doubt she relied on the steady advice of her Mistress of the Robes. Doubtless she realized that those born of Lansdowne House were great collectors. Duchess Evelyn had experience in such matters.

It seems Her Grace came at the right time to serve another House–and perhaps a Nation.

All that’s left of Devonshire House’s Crystal Staircase

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “One House Saves Another–and Perhaps, a Nation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s