Published: April 20, 2004
“The Devonshire Inheritance: Five Centuries of Collecting at Chatsworth” offers viewers a vivid bouquet of more than 200 exquisite works of English and Continental art, ranging from Renaissance paintings and drawings to decorative silver, porcelain and jewelry. The exhibition, on view at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts through June 30, is on a six-city tour organized by Art Services International.
This highly coveted exhibition offers art enthusiasts and collectors in the United States an opportunity to see some of Europe’s greatest treasures in a year when the strong British pound and euro make traveling abroad an expensive proposition.
On everyone’s “top five” list of great English estates, Chatsworth has been home to the Cavendish family and the hereditary dukes of Devonshire since the original Elizabethan house on the site was purchased by Sir William Cavendish in 1549. In the reality of modern times, keeping together an enormous English country house full of fantastically valuable objects is hard work. Crushing taxes, upkeep expenses and insurance fees have taken their toll, but the current duke and duchess and their family have attacked the job with much creativity. Since they began their residence at Chatsworth in 1949, 17 million people have seen the house and its spectacular collections.
As amply demonstrated by the exhibits on display at Bard, a fair number of the dukes of Devonshire were keen collectors. While they may have had more disposable income than today’s average collector, they certainly had the same passion and inspiration in pursuing yet another find for their home. When great collections are put on display, people often remark, “Well, they bought that stuff when the getting was good,” which for many objects in “The Devonshire Inheritance” was during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.
Pursuing this concept, both the exhibition and the catalog present a family history of the dukes and duchesses and their acquisitions. “What makes Chatsworth quite extraordinary compared to other family collections is the colossal figures who added hugely to the holdings,” notes Barker. “The first duke [1640-1707] built a wonderful house and furnished it. Then the second duke [1673-1729] was a connoisseur who had all the sensibilities of a most modern collector. The dukes of Devonshire have always bought high-class contemporary furniture, and the things he bought are just breathtaking.”
One purchase on display in the show is a marriage coffer and stand made in the early Eighteenth Century by Andre-Charles Boulle (1642-1732) and veneered with ebony, brass and tortoiseshell, which could be described as “high-class contemporary furniture” in its day. A portrait of William Cavendish, the second duke, by Irish-born artist Charles Jervas shows him seated by the open cabinet, holding an example from his collection of medals and coins that were kept in its drawers.
A Seventeenth Century contemporary visiting from Paris, the Abbe Fougeroux, said, “He is a true Maecenas: he supports the arts and has an infinite love of them, as well as deep knowledge.” Collecting by the dukes of Devonshire always included this mix of old and new. While the second duke sought out antiquities, such as ancient Greco Roman and Renaissance gems, he also gave patronage to the best decorative artists of the day, and, in fact, brought several Boulle cabinets from France.
When the last exhibition from Chatsworth toured the United States in 1979, objects were displayed by classification – silver here and jewelry over there. The current show, however, is “muddled up” in accordance with Barker’s wishes. From the first duke to the present, every section has a mixture of objects – all acquired at one period of Chatsworth’s history – that show the breadth of each generation’s interests as they pursued various avenues of collecting. Walking around the Bard galleries, visitors can enjoy the treasures in the same manner as travelers in Jane Austen’s day when one tipped the housekeeper to get a tour of a stately home.
An exhibition with literally something for everyone, the show offers an impressive array of fine art – paintings, drawings, prints and bronzes. Notable in the first category is the idealized portrait of Renaissance dandy Girolamo Casio by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (1466/7-1516). Two large flower paintings by Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer (1636-1699) were acquired or even commissioned by the first duke of Devonshire, and a pair of Venice views by Canaletto (1697-1768) capture an almost photographic image of life in the Eighteenth Century Italian city.
For visitors focused on the decorative arts, there is Derby porcelain with gilding in a vermicule pattern from a service made for Georgiana (1757-1806), the wife of the fifth duke, as well as her mantel clock by Benjamin Vulliamy, Sr, circa 1787, adorned with a capricious classical putti. A miniature on ivory by Richard Cosway (1742-1821) portrays the beautiful duchess around the age of 30, and she is also represented in an exhibition by an unfinished portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). Also on view are examples from Georgiana’s extensive mineral collection, one of her more unusual interests.
Noble brows require coronets, and two are included in the “Devonshire Parure” of jewelry made up in the Nineteenth Century and set with ancient carved gems collected long before by the second duke. In addition to the tiaras, the set includes a large comb, necklace, bracelet, bandeau and triangular stomacher for the dress front.
A much larger “jewel” is the show-stopping Kniphausen hawk, dated 1697 and purchased by William Spencer, the sixth duke of Devonshire in 1819 from an unknown Dutch collection. The hawk, with slightly flared wings, is studded with gems: garnets and amethysts cover the body while his feet rest on a rocky perch of turquoise.
The occupants of Chatsworth also patronized important silver and goldsmiths throughout the family’s history. Pierre Platel, who made a solid gold ewer and basin with the arms of William, first duke of Devonshire, in 1701, was a Huguenot craftsman who came to England from France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Blaise Gentot, who made an engraved silver tabletop with the Devonshire arms, circa 1700, was also an émigré from France. The sixth duke ordered plate from Regency silversmith Paul Storr (1771-1844), including a massive pair of candelabra with figures of Apollo and twin soup tureens.
No one should assume that there will be big gaps on the walls when tour groups walk around the staterooms at Chatsworth this summer. In spite of sales to pay taxes, the family’s holdings are so extensive that most of the material in the present exhibition is never seen by visitors to the house in England. “There are so many things not on the visitor route that you could easily make an exhibition out of things nobody would normally see,” says Barker. “For example, the drawings, with a few exceptions, are kept in portfolios for their own good. I could count on my fingers the things on display here which you could see if you went to Chatsworth.”
Unlike some traveling exhibitions, “The Devonshire Inheritance” was not organized to deal with treasures during a renovation or reinstallation at Chatsworth. Instead Barker says, “The exhibition is connected to this deep and rooted belief on the part of the duke and duchess that it’s their duty to let other people enjoy these things as much as they do themselves. They realize that not everybody can come to Chatsworth and even those who do can’t see everything.” For those planning a trip to England, the historic home’s website – – reveals not only visiting hours and directions but information on holiday cottages, conference rooms, dining at the home, shops on the grounds and fly fishing opportunities – all of which help make ends meet around one of the most famous estates in England.
The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture is at 18 West 86th Street. For information, 212-501-3000 or www.bgc.bard.edu.
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