I too want to be a chicken loving, beautiful British aristocrat and have my portrait painted by Lucian Freud
Debo, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, died in 2014. Born Deborah Vivien Freeman-Mitford she lived the kind of life that is hard to imagine now. But Deborah Cavendish did her best to give us a glimpse behind the curtain. And there certainly has been much written by her and about her, her famous home and infamous family.
She was the youngest of six Mitford sisters. The name may ring a bell - you have merely to think of her eldest sister author Nancy Mitford (of Love in a Cold Climate and Pursuit of Love fame). Nancy codified that most rare of things Noblesse oblige, an enquiry into the identifiable characteristics of the English aristocracy.
You might be forgiven in thinking one sister like that might be enough for a family - but no there was also author Jessica of The American Way of Death. And Unity Mitford who was infatuated with Adolf Hitler. Don't forget Diana, first married into the wealthy Guinness family, and later married to Sir Oswald Mosley, the charismatic founder of the British Union of Fascists. Poor Pamela Mitford, she will always be known as the other Mitford and yet ... there's still a book written on her!
Join me in lifting a glass to the Mitford sisters!
Deborah Mitford married Andrew Cavendish, younger second son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire. When his elder brother died her husband became the heir to the Devonshire estate, the dukedom, Chatsworth House, Hardwick Hall and 36,000+ acres. Not too shabby except for some brutal 80% inheritance taxes and a decaying country house (palace?) Chatsworth House (all 365+ rooms). Post WW II, it's through the restoration of Chatsworth and the transformation of the estate that Debo put her mark on British country house society.
The Devonshires have been gradually restoring the house and opened it up to the public. Over the years, they have also sold a number of valuable paintings and even had an "attic sale" that raised nearly £6.5 million (that would be about 15 million Canadian dollars). The money goes towards the upkeep and improvement of the house and estate. The huge death duties (taxes) of the 1950s were partially paid for by the gift of Hardwick House and more valuable paintings in lieu of tax to the nation. Debo also expanded marketing of produce and goods from the estate to the public in a very business savvy way. She was a popular author, as seen by some of the titles listed here and her writings were a further source of income but also served to promote visits to the house.
A grand British house is nothing without gardens and landscaping so these also have been restored and improved to become important elements in attracting paying visitors to the estate. Debo was definitely the force to be reckoned with on the estate.
A well known beauty, she was both down to earth and also connected to the literary and artistic life of her times. Her portrait was painted by Lucian Freud, who also painted members of her family. It's said she sat for him for three hours a day for several months and they became close friends. The resulting painting Woman in a White Shirt, circa 1956-57, is a tour de force. She was intimate with many writers including Evelyn Waugh.
Deborah Cavendish standing near Lucian Freud’s 1956 portrait of her, titled, Woman in a White Shirt.
The Duchess is seen above wearing the Devonshire Intaglio Parure (which was heavy and prickly and not one of her favorites). Worry not though, for this is only one of at least three tiaras in the family's possession. If you want to read more about tiara's (and who wouldn't!) please see my earlier blog My Husband Wont Buy Me a Tiara for Valentine's Day. Sad!
In the best manner of English eccentricity, she was deeply attached to poultry, especially her chickens, raising them for money as a child and then collecting chicken bibelot - she also collected Elvis Presley memorabilia. She wrote a couple of books Counting My Chickens and Home to Roost which were brought together in one volume called All in One Basket.
Soon after the Dowager Duchess' death in 2014 her family had an auction of many of her personal belongings - including her collection of hens and poultry and her Elvis Presley memorabilia. Not surprisingly, the prices went sky high even on many prosaic items - provenance is all. The Sotheby's sale tripled the pre-sale estimates and brought in total to £1,777,838.
In an odd synchronicity (maybe not so odd actually) Lucian Freud had given Debo a very small postcard sized painting of four eggs (she would bring him fresh eggs from the Devonshire estate when visiting). The painting was a type of thank you. The family sold it by auction at Sotheby's, where it was estimated to sell for between £100,000-£150,000 – and the winner ultimately paid £989,000. Those are some eggs worth cracking!
Four eggs by Lucian Freud
Even after her death, the family continues to find innovative ways to promote Chatsworth and its collections to the world and tempt visitors. A recent book, House style: five centuries of fashion at Chatsworth: home to the Devonshires, has just been published to coincide with the current show at Chatsworth highlighting fashion from the family's history.
I have no doubt that Debo herself would have approved wholeheartedly.