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

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Devonshire House – “Its Beauties all Within Reside”

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.

south front – Devonshire House

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.

north front Devonshire House

Animal Rights and Lansdowne House

“Mama, I’m as concerned about Diana as you are.  If she truly needs me, I will always be there to help her.”

“Of course.”  She poked her elegant finger among the brooches and earrings in the ornate box.  “You’ve managed everything quite well up to now, have you not?  But beware, my darling.  We have only just arrived in London.  Inevitably, Diana is bound to choose another improper friend.  One that may not be as amenable to your carte blanche as Miss Swynford.”

“Did you say Diana’s gone out riding?  I should go call for my horse.”

The dowager cocked her head.  “Your niece is all the way to Hyde Park by now, most likely.   Quite keen, she was, to try out her new mare.”

“That wretched animal she picked up from the horse knackers?  The dealers at Tattersall’s were glad to be rid of her after she injured one of their grooms.”

“The very one.  She tried to kick one of ours in the head just this morning.”

Diana’s Garnet was never a favorite of her Uncle Russell’s.  She was an ill-tempered mare and he always said Diana rode her just to spite him.   But in his heart he was proud of his niece for saving the animal from the knackers, and for trying to make something of the tall, angular chestnut.  He knew Diana needed Garnet, just as Garnet needed Diana.   The Marquess of Wimberley was only too aware that the victim of abuse, be it man or beast, can sometimes be set upon the road to healing when given a purpose–a destiny.  And his lordship fervently hoped this first step for Diana would lead her toward recovery.  Little did he know it would lead him there as well.

The notion of rescuing animals–saving them from ill-treatment–was a topic of considerable discussion in the Regency period.   Philosophy was motivated in those days by new ideas about the rights of man.  A century before, Locke, and later Kant, had already raised the notion that animal abuse was a bad thing–not for the animals, but for man.  In the mid-eighteenth century Rousseau argued the matter one step further.  The beasts of nature, by virtue of them being sentient, have their own right to the mercies of natural law, even if they cannot reason on their own.

The entire idea of introducing laws to protect animals remained, however, purely philosophical.

It was also something of a comedy.  Wollstonecraft’s In Defense of the Rights of Woman at the close of the eighteenth century was met with another tract published under the satirical title, Vindication of the Rights of Brutes.   In other words, if we give rights to women, we shall dashed well have to give them to the beasts!

Enter Lansdowne House and one of the Marquess’ most illustrious guests–Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832).  He was a philosopher well-known for his radical notions about freedom and equal rights, getting the C out of the E (ie, separating church and state), and abolishing slavery.  When it came to animal rights, he brushed aside natural law as “nonsense upon stilts” and made an argument that was unanswerable:

“…The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

It must be said he did not oppose the use of animals for medical research.  He gave his own body to a medical college for public dissection and ordered that his corpse be put on display in an auto-icon.

When not engaged in philosophical dialogue, Bentham was known for courting women with “clumsy jocularity” (Michael St. John Packe’s The Life of John Stuart Mill).  The women in particular were members of the Marquess of Lansdowne’s family.  It appears from some of Bentham’s correspondence the ladies had refused to receive him when he called at Lansdowne House.  His style of rebuke, a mixture of pleasantries and irony so typical of the Regency, is amusing:

“I am glad to find you have begun to feel something like remorse; it is a virtuous sentiment–do not struggle to suppress it.”

“Most Delicate in his Acts of Generosity” – the Third Marquess of Lansdowne

Lansdowne House was not only famous for its architecture and furnishings–it was known for its people, as well.  This post is dedicated to the one person who not only brought the house into its prominence in the Regency period, but very possibly saved it from destruction.

Lord Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, Marquess of Lansdowne

Lord Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, third Marquess of Lansdowne (1780-1863) was born in Lansdowne House to the second wife of his father, the first marquess, Lord William Petty, also known as Earl of Shelburne.  It was his older half-brother, Lord John Henry, who succeeded their father.  However, he died a few years later and Lord Henry became not only Earl of Kerry but Marquess of Lansdowne as well.

 An heir and a spare.

And what a spare he came to be.

The hero in Vivien’s story, Notorious Vow, also succeeded his older half-brother.  His patrimony was an earldom in shambles.  The marquisate was similarly situated when it came into Lord Henry’s hands.

Indeed, Lansdowne House had been left by Lord Henry’s predecessors in such a dilapidated state it might have gone on the auction block.  The situation was quite desperate, leading to a scandalous litigation over the debts the estate was faced with, brought by various creditors who held substantial mortgages on Lansdowne House and the family’s country estate of Bowood.  These persons sought to recover monies from the sale of many of the estate’s assets, among them the large art collection that was once once housed in the magnificent Adams rooms of Lansdowne House.  Even the trees themselves had all been cut down and sold as firewood.

Under Lord Henry’s watch, the trees were eventually replanted and Lansdowne House, along with its art collection, restored to former glory.  It was to be one of many of his lordship’s remarkable achievements.  He was a humble man, having turned down a dukedom and the office of Prime Minister.  Nevertheless, his presense was a powerful one in Britisih political life–championing the causes of eduation, Catholic emancipation and the abolition of the slave trade.

He was a man worthy of presiding over the Regency Centre of London:

“Under him the reputation which Bowood and Lansdowne house had secured in the lifetime of Lord Shelburne as meeting-places not only for politicians, but for men of letters and of science, was fully maintained. In the patronage of art and literature Lansdowne exercised considerable discretion, and re-established the magnificent library and collections of pictures and marbles which had been made by his father, and dissipated during a short period of possession by his half-brother. Most delicate in his acts of generosity, he freed the poet Moore from his financial troubles; he assisted Sydney Smith to long-waited-for preferment and he secured a knighthood for Lyell.”

—–from an article written by William Carr and published in 1895 (as reprinted in Dr. Marjorie Bloy’s English History website here.)

The Ghosts of Lansdowne Passage

The layers of history in an old place like London continually fascinate me.  The city is like an ancient mansion that’s been made over by successive generations to suit changing tastes in fashion and function.  New wallpaper is placed over the old, new paint is slathered over faded oak.  When these layers are peeled back, we see something completely different, in the same place.  And it never fails to amaze.

Highgate cemetery - London (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License)

Fitzmaurice Place is a small street leaves the southeast corner of Berkeley Square and runs into Curzon Street, just where the old core of Lansdowne House sits.  Across from its truncated facade is a pedestrian walkway lined with shops that leaves the house and ends up at Hay Hill on the other side.   It is called Lansdowne Row.

In the days of the Regency, this was a narrow walkway sunken between forbidding walls.  Walls so tall that they permanently darkened this shortcut linking the two ends of Mayfair.  You couldn’t see what was on the other side of either wall, nor were you meant to.

There are very few good photographs of the passage.  I used this image of the Egyptian Avenue monument from London’s Highgate cemetery.  It looks imposing–and a little spooky.

At Lansdowne Passage, in the middle of the most fashionable part of Regency London, two great estates–two great families–came together in a physical way.  As mentioned in an earlier post of the series, Lansdowne House was built in such a way as to give Devonshire House an unobstructed view toward Berkeley Square.  The two houses had enormous gardens.  They abutted one another yet gave way to that ancient right of passersby–an easement, if you will, called the right of way.  This came to be known as Lansdowne Passage, appearing much like a crevasse when Diana, sometimes called Viscountess Northam, climbed the ladder of the Lansdowne House garden to remonstrate with the Viscount Hartington, heir to His Grace, the Duke of Devonshire, who stood on his garden ladder opposite.

Many legends abound of the walkway, mostly because its long length was hidden from observation and provided a perfect route for robbers and ladies of the night.  Indeed, Hay Hill at one end of the passage was long a favorite of highwaymen.  Even the Prince Regent was robbed there at gunpoint, along with his brother, the Duke of York, of the three shillings they had between them.

A highwayman once urged his steed down into the deep passageway to escape apprehension, goading his horse to leap across the descending stairs, landing heavily on the paved stones below.  They were now in a narrow passageway, mind you, and the rider must needs take the reins in one hand and grip the cantle behind him with the other so as to reduce the width of his profile, spurring into the darkness lit only by a full moon riding the sky above.  Then there was the ascending stair opposite.  Even the most intrepid horse must pause, his ears pricked forward, throwing his head down to eye the obstacle ahead.  But alack!  Pursuers are even now approaching–their cries funnelled between haughty walls to spur even a spooked animal to leap upwards, scrambling and skidding for purchase on stone steps to Hay Hill above and the wilds of undeveloped London beyond.

Iron bars were erected to prevent this sort of thing from happening again.

Today, Lansdowne Row is listed as one of London’s haunted places.  Spectres of highwaymen, footpads and the Loquacious Lady still wander the passage, lit by the storefronts of Hugo Morelli and Starbucks.

In the Garden of On-Dits and Blue Ruin – Lansdowne House

the Marquess of Hartington

Russell drove his tilbury at a rapid pace towards Berkeley Square.  His niece, Diana, fidgeted beside him.

“Dash it, darling, what the devil is the matter?”

She tossed her fire-blond hair, so like his and leaned out of the sporting carriage to catch the breeze like a hoyden.  “I hate London.”

“We’ve only just arrived,” he pointed out.  “I’m persuaded you will like this party we are going to.  Lansdowne House affairs are really quite the thing.  Besides, you probably know some of the girls from that school of yours who might be in attendance there.  Lady Louisa, for instance.  It is said she might get an offer from Lord Henry Petty, heir to Lansdowne.”

“Louisa is a bore,” Diana declared, pulling herself back in the tilbury with a sigh.  “There is a girl from school I should like to see–but she lives in Knightsbridge.”

The Marquess of Wimberley wisely restrained himself from responding.  It would be just like Diana to tease him, pretending she would rather befriend some merchant’s daughter from the City instead of an earl’s daughter.

The tilbury paused at a set of dark doors set in a high wall that ranged the entire length of Berkeley Square’s south side.  A porter emerged from an ivy-covered lodge set in the wall.  He bowed and opened the entrance so his lordship’s carriage could pass through.  Once inside, it was as if they had stepped into the countryside, although they were in the middle of London.  The sounds of traffic diminished to merely hoofbeats on a well-kept gravel drive. The fresh green lawn was so very nearly perfect it might have been brought up from the riverside moments before. Tall oaks towered over them, old enough to have been present when nearby Hay Hill was still a farm in Queen Anne’s day.

Solemn footmen with real powdered wigs appeared before the stately home’s portico to escort the pair inside.  Soon, Diana found herself in the company of the very girl her uncle desired her to accompany.

“What would you like to do?” Louisa asked.

Diana shrugged, gazing up at the exquisite ceiling of the Adam drawing room.  “Dashed if I know.  Shall we take a turn on the grounds?”

Shortly thereafter they were walking toward an ancient wall, the boundary of the Lansdowne garden.  There was a small ladder placed against it.

“What’s on the other side, I wonder?”

“Oh,” Louisa answered, in her diffident way, “‘Tis His Grace of Devonshire’s garden.”

Diana immediately went to the ladder and began to climb, taking care not to let her slippers get scuffed on the wooden rungs.  She ignored the remonstrations of her missish companion.

“I should like to see His Grace’s garden,” Diana declared.  “One can never tell what a duke’s cabbage looks like.”

Diana reached the top of the ladder.  Below her was a narrow, dark passage that opened below her like a crevasse.  Without warning, another person peered at her–from an opposing wall scarcely feet away, all ears and a wide grin.

“Hello,” he said.

“How did you get up there?” she demanded.

“I’ve got a ladder, same as yours.” He asked, “Who are you?”

“I am Diana.”

“Well, then,” he replied, triumphant.  “I’m Marquess of Hartington.  But you may call me Hart.”

“I shan’t call you anything,” Diana retorted.  “Because we have not been properly introduced.”

“Tell your uncle you’ve met the heir to the Duke of Devonshire and I’ll wager he’ll tell you we’re intimates.”

“How dare you!”

Berkeley Square south side – Lansdowne House Gardens

There’s not much more one can say about the Lansdowne House gardens.  The description of its environs came from Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine, Volume 31 by Ernest Jessop, published in 1903.  By then the massive area in front of the house had become rarified real estate in the middle of London and valued at a price that would just about cover a marquisate’s death duties–taxes that were the scourge of great houses in the early twentieth century.

The new death taxes were to become, as Giles Worsley titled his first chapter in England’s Lost Houses, a Gathering Storm.

Lansdowne House – Rape and Death in a Ballroom

“Do you mean to tell me you’ve another interesting display?”

Louisa cringed.  “Oh, I wish you would not tease me, Diana.  You cannot know how dreadful it is to have a husband who brings home everything that is dug up.  Why is it that the Romans had to conquer so many places and scatter their things about?  I vow they did this just to distract wives in decent society hundreds of years later.”

The offending art was located in the ballroom at Lansdowne House.

Louisa gestured to large fragment of Roman sculpture mounted on the wall, watching Diana’s reaction with trepidation.

“It’s called the Rape of Persephone.  And from a coffin, no less.  Lansdowne would have it mounted there, just in time for our first ball of the Season.  I declare he has done so for no other reason than to vex me.  And you know there will be any number of debutantes and their mamas in attendance.  They shall all think it terribly ill-bred, being forced to gaze upon the image of a young girl being carried off to suffer any number of indignities.”

“I shouldn’t worry about it, Louisa.”

“Really?  You amaze me.”

Diana turned to face her.  “It’s a metaphor for untimely death.  Not at all improper, I assure you.  The sarcophagus probably belonged to someone who died very young.  Snatched away by Death in the prime of her life.”

Louisa swallowed, just then remembering Northam’s tragedy.  “Diana, please forgive me.  I had no notion, otherwise I shouldn’t have–”

“Do not be distressed, Louisa.  My parents have been dead for so long that I can scarce remember them.”

Yet Louisa could not miss the strange glitter in Diana’s eyes.

She took Diana’s arm.  “Uh–come away, dear and see my latest watercolor.  I am persuaded you will enjoy il Signor Rossi’s technique.”

The ballroom at Lansdowne House is still extant, but without the decoration that made it famous.  The panel known as the Rape of Persephone was one of several Lansdowne marbles that were arranged in this room–originally intended to be a sculpture gallery.  In the 1930 photo, you can see them set in the wall.

And you thought only Elgin had them.

Originally the ballroom  was meant to be a music room by Lord Bute, the first owner of Lansdowne House.  The Earl of Shelburne, later Lord Lansdowne, had visited Italy after purchasing the house and was possibly inspired by the excursion to have a gallery for his sculpture.  He commissioned the Scottish painter Gavin Hamilton to convert the music room to a suitable space.  Hamilton lived most of his life in Rome and was considered a gifted neoclassical history painter, favoring Greek and Roman subjects.  He was also an art dealer and excavator of antiquities.  How convenient.

Eventually, however, the plans for the sculpture gallery were dropped and by the time of my story Notorious Match, the room assumed its present and final function.

The ballroom can still be seen today at the Lansdowne House Club (see below) which has a marvelous gallery of its own you can peruse here.