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

Regency nudes

the Mazarin Adonis

Presently, Diana and Griffin came to the conservatory that served as a transition from the house to its parkland.

Lord Montgomery seemed to find something wanting.  “Where is the statuary?  Most great country houses have a room full of the stuff.”

“Are you a coinnosseur?” Diana asked.

Griffin opened the door for her to step through.  “It depends on the subject.”

He followed her to the railing of the flagstoned veranda overlooking an ornamental lake.  “I believe the dowager countess had an affinity for statues.  Northam Park would not be complete without a nude of your namesake, the goddess of the hunt.”

Griffin’s teasing was not without basis.  They had seen the virgin huntress executed in every conceivable media throughout their inspection of the estate.  Moreover, he was quite correct that her grandmother had been a patroness of the arts.   Lady Nellie, as she was affectionately called, once supported the noted painter and bluestocking Angelica Kauffman.

But her grand passion was for the unadorned figure, sculpted in the manner of classical antiquity.

Lord Montgomery would not be so bold if he knew what her grandmother’s collection consisted of.

Diana raised her eyebrows in pretended severity.  “We keep all the nudes in London.”

“A pity.”

Diana looked away from his interested stare as if embarrassed, her finger artlessly tracing an invisible line along the railing.

“Yes, it is,” she eventually replied.  “You see, Grandmama was in the habit of commissioning likenesses of young men she admired.  There are at least two male nudes that bear a striking resemblance to yourself.”

“Good God,” he exclaimed.  “You must be joking.”

“Really, my lord.  It was only your face Grandmama used, I’m persuaded.”

“You minx.”

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Who can forget that marvelous scene in the 2005 movie adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice featuring Pemberley’s sculpture gallery?  The gallery (pictured above) was filmed at Chatsworth, a real location Austen notes in her novel.  The scene is infused with the strong contemporary feel of the Regency and its desire for beauty.

The sculpture collection was assembled in large part by the sixth Duke of Devonshire, the Bachelor Duke.  He shared a passion for art with the Prince Regent.

Venus and Adonis – Antonio Canova (circa 1820)

In my book, Northam Park is in every way comparable to Chatsworth, except it does not have a sculpture gallery.  His Grace makes a couple of appearanced in Notorious Match as he and Diana are about the same age.  At one time, before Griffin returned to England, it was thought the heiress to Northam and the duke might make a match of it.  But it became clear they would not suit.

Griffin is the exact opposite of His Grace.  He has lost his own estate, Tremont, and has no fortune.  Moreover, he is a mere lord.

Yet he has the face of a sculpted Adonis.

There can be only one Diana

Presently they came to Northam Park’s vaunted Tapestry Room.   Its walls were entirely covered by specially commissioned tapestries from the Gobelins tapestry weavers of Paris.  Griffin seemed quite taken with one in particular.

Drowning of Britomartis – wool and silk tapestry (circa 1547)

“Oh, that bloody thing,” Diana swore under her breath.

Griffin’s excessive scrutiny of the woven masterpiece made her uncomfortable.  Not because the goddess of the hunt wore a short tunic, baring her legs, striding toward the sea to save her fellow virgin from the amorous king of Crete.   It was the memories of it that she had held as a girl, childishly imagining herself to be just like the huntress.  Free, independent and disdainful of mortal men.  How naive she had been.

A mischievous light came into Griffin’s eyes.  “It must be gratifying to have so many, er, exquisite renderings made of one’s namesake.”

Diana huffed.  “I had nothing to do with the inspiration.  If you must know, my grandfather purchased it at auction in Paris.  It had been commissioned by Diane de Poitiers.”

Griffin’s smile deepened.  “The mistress of the French king?”

The devil.

“Precisely so.”

To have a Gobelins tapestry, let alone a room full of them, was a mark of distinction in Regency home decor.  Gobelins Manufactory began as a group of Flemish weavers established by the first Bourbon king of France, Henry IV.  They set up shop in Paris in the environs used by a family of dyers from an earlier century called the Gobelins.  The name stuck and the Gobelins enterprise became the royal factory supplying the French monarchy until it was shut down in the Revolution.  The restored Bourbon dynasty revived production and today it is operated by the French Ministry of Culture.

Newby Hall has a marvelous tapestry room that is well-presented in the 2007 movie adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.  See this link for an excerpt from the movie.  The room is featured at 8:15.

Croome Court tapestry room

There is another tapestry room that used to reside in Croome Court, Worcestershire.  It was removed from the neo-Palladian country house by the owner, the ninth Earl of Coventry, and sold.  Note the lovely neoclassical ceiling designed by Robert Adam, executed in 1763 for the sixth Earl.  It has been reconstituted for display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Today, Croome Court is most noted for its grounds, designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.  The house itself had been owned by a succession of groups including a school and Hare Krishnas before it was finally acquired by the National Trust from the Hare Krishnas,  After extensive restoration work, it too became open to the public for the first time in 2009.