The Devonshire Inheritance: Five Centuries of Collecting at Chatsworth, Mar. 18-June 20, 2004, at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture, 18 West 86th Street, New York, N.Y. 10024
The people are as fascinating as the objects in the touring exhibition, The Devonshire Inheritance: Five Centuries of Collecting at Chatsworth. Over 15 generations of collectors have occupied Chatsworth, which dates back to 1552 and is one of the largest and most sumptuously decorated of British country homes. Still a private residence, it is partially open to the public. New Yorkers can sample its riches in the current exhibition on view at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture (and for the shows subsequent travel schedule, see below).
I went to Chatsworth several years ago and marveled at the Old Masters, the exquisite furniture, and the magnificent setting for them, not only the house but the 1,100 surrounding acres, including a deer park whose inhabitants were as aggressive in caging my lunch as those here in the burbs in devouring gardens. Bard deserves be on your agenda even if you have taken the Chatsworth house tour, as about 90 percent of the pieces being shown in the exhibition are not ordinarily accessible to the public at the house.
Whats refreshing about this show is that a quick description of the collectors adds an absorbing human dimension to the paintings and drawings, prints, silver, textiles, ceramics, books and letters, gems, coins, scientific instruments and sculpture on display.
Spread over the three small floors of Bards townhouse, the more than 200 works are arranged chronologically. A brief wall text about each of the most outstanding collectors turns the story of a collection into a series of personal legacies.
Among several depictions of Chatsworth, a needlework portrait from around 1600 is particularly handsome. It belonged to Bess of Hardwick, the second-richest woman in England after the queen at her death, and the main force behind the construction of Chatsworth along with her second husband, Sir William Cavendish. The buildings portrait is just one piece from her collection of embroideries. This single work was valued in 1608 as being worth more than the cost of building her ancestral home of Hardwick.
A Florentine cabinet with pietra dura panels from the 17th century, sketches for costumes for a mask by architect/designer Inigo Jones, a spectacular gold ewer and basin from 1701 by Pierre Pletel, and an elaborate Dutch tulip vase, circa 1690, are among the items on the first floor that impressed me, but those more interested in, say, English clocks or engravings might prefer other items.
Prepare to spend some time on the second floor with roughly 20 or so Old Master drawings by Raphael, Titian, Annibale Carracci, Guido Reni, Rubens, Van Dyck, Claude, Elsheimer and three stunners by Rembrandt. I cant imagine anyone not being entranced by Rembrandts An Actor in His Dressing Room, from around 1638. Nearby, Boltraffios Idealized Portrait of Girolamo Casio, from ca. 1500, a painting once mistaken for a Leonardo, presents a refined and very sensual likeness. All are the result of the far-sighted William Cavendish, the 2nd Duke of Devonshire (1673-1729), a great collector who amassed his drawings at a time when they were not often valued as much as they are today.
Duchesses are rarely associated with mineralogy, but a number of specimens and notes belonging to Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), one of the most intriguing characters associated with Chatsworth, prove that she studied seriously with a number of scientists and gathered her own mineral samples when traveling and at home. She was also a published poet. A less sanguine side to her life is illustrated by a letter in which she bemoans her gambling debts. She appears as a radiant beauty in an unfinished portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Whether you appreciate 19th century decorative arts or not, there are three over-the-top pieces acquired during that time, guaranteed to get your attention.
Although purchased in 1819, the German-made Kniphausen Hawk dates from 1697. Its strong, rich colors, thickly encrusted surface and more is more esthetic made it a natural for connoisseurs of the period, at least very wealthy connoisseurs like the 6th Duke. Constructed of silver and silver gilt with enamel, most of the birds body is covered in chunky garnets and a few amethysts, the feet in citrine quartz, and its perch in turquoises, other stones and three onyx cameos. At a little more than a foot tall, this is one extraordinary bird!
The Devonshire Parure is equally spectacular. This seven-piece collection of jewelry, heavy with cameos and multicolored gems collected over the years, was set during in the early 1850s. It seems clunky to my modern eyes, but no doubt impressed the Russians when it was worn at the coronation of Czar Alexander II by the Countess Granville in 1856. She and her husband, a nephew of the 6th Duke (the same man who bought the Hawk), were Queen Victorias representatives at the festivities.
Paris House of Worth fashioned a gown for the wife of the 8th Duke, Louise, Duchess of Devonshire, to be worn at Queen Victorias Diamond Jubilee Ball, held at Chatsworth in 1897. The gown was made to transform the Duchess into Zenobia, the warrior queen of Palmyra. A concoction of cloth of silver, cloth of gold, brilliants, gemstones, and embroidered with more metalwork, the dress has a peacock feather fan motif at the hem and a train of turquoise velvet embroidered with gold.
Despite the lost of another house and several masterpieces to death duties, the current inhabitants of Chatsworth, Andrew Cavendish, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, and his enterprising wife, Lady Deborah, have done a great job in preserving and maintaining the enormous house and grounds. After musing when I visited Chatsworth on the cost of repairing and cleaning a single set of draperies (there are 30 public rooms alone), I understood the need for a large gift shop even with half a million paying guests a year.
On the third floor at Bard are several family portraits by Lucian Freud, additions made by the current Duke and Duchess, who supported Freud early in his career. They provide interesting material to compare with Freuds latest show across town at Acquavella Galleries.
The exhibition was organized by Art Services International, and the catalogue, authored by Nicolas Barker, has photos of Chatsworth, a Cavendish family tree and lots of additional information on the pieces and personalities of Chatsworth.
The Devonshire Inheritance was seen earlier at the Dixon Galleries and Gardens in Memphis; it subsequently appears at the Peabody Essex Institute, Salem, Mass., Aug. 14-Nov. 7, 2004; the Society of Four Arts, Palm Beach, Dec. 13, 2004-Jan. 16, 2005; Mobile (Ala.) Museum, Apr. 8-July 4, 2005; and the Tyler (Texas) Museum of Art, July 30-Oct. 23, 2005.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.