CHATSWORTH HOUSE

A stately home without a Duke. How its treasures were cared for in the absence of the Duke of Devonshire

Chatsworth 1 - The Sphere - Dec 28 1946 (BNA)
The ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire. In 1946, the 10th Duke had placed Chatsworth and its treasures on a caretaking basis, as he didn’t expect to live there for many years, partly on account of high taxation and partly on account of the servant problem. (British Newspaper Archive).

The domain of Chatsworth was purchased by Sir William Cavendish and it was he in 1553 who began the old mansion, which after his death in 1557 was completed by his widow, Bess of Hardwick. Here in succeeding years Mary Queen of Scots was five times imprisoned. The present mansion includes the old Palladian pile started in 1687 by the first Duke of Devonshire and the north-wing added in 1820.

With its 636,000 visitors a year, Chatsworth House may have become one of our greatest stately homes. However, life in the Duke of Devonshire’s grand mansion wasn’t always a bed of roses. In 1946, The Sphere painted a rather bleak and uninspiring outlook for the house, a stark contrast to its present-day fortunes.

Back then, ‘one of the private treasure-houses of the nation’ was reduced to one housemaid, a sole survivor of a pre-war domestic staff of forty, and the whole house was being kept on a caretaking basis.

Chatsworth House was without a Duke. Taxation of the time made it impossible for him to live there in the old style while the servant problem was almost insuperable. It was suggested that one day the Duke might return to his Derbyshire home, but he himself didn’t expect this to happen for many years.

The custodian was Edward William Spencer Cavendish (1895-1950), the 10th Duke of Devonshire, who was still reeling from the loss of his eldest son and heir, William John Robert Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington, who had been killed in wartime action two years before. The future of Chatsworth would have rested on the shoulders of Billy Cavendish (and his wife, Kathleen Kennedy), but instead the weight of responsibility later fell to his second and younger son, Andrew Robert Buxton Cavendish (1920-2004).

Chatsworth 2 - The Sphere - Dec 28 1946 (BNA)
Mingled with the shrouded furniture in the Sculpture Gallery are examples of the genius of Canova, Thorwaldsen, Chantrey and Wyatt: During the war, when Chatsworth was used as a girls’ school, this gallery was converted into a storeroom for some of the principal treasures. (British Newspaper Archive).
Chatsworth 3 - The Sphere - Dec 28 1946 (BNA)
Restoring and preserving the great pictures of Chatsworth. Captain T.S. Wragg, who had been librarian at Chatsworth since 1933, at work on the surface cleaning of a painting on copper. (British Newspaper Archive).
Chatsworth 4 - The Sphere - Dec 28 1946 (BNA)
Mr G.H. Constantine, technical assistant at the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, at work on a landscape. He spent two days a week cleaning and restoring the Chatsworth pictures, paying particular attention to the regulation of the atmosphere. The Chatsworth pictures included works by Holbein, Titian, Reynolds and Murillo. (British Newspaper Archive).

The Chatsworth estate was saddled with debt. Death duties, liabilities from previous incumbents and a depression in British agriculture had all contributed to its downfall. In 1920, Devonshire House, the family’s London mansion, had been sold to developers and later demolished; Chiswick House, a Palladian villa in West London was sold to Brentford Council in 1929.  However, the financial burden refused to go away, and it was quite impossible to keep Chatsworth House occupied.

While Chatsworth was mothballed everything was being done to preserve its treasures, including its magnificent library, with its 35,000 books, including many irreplaceable first editions, and the art collection, including canvases by Murillo Van Eyck, Titian, Reynolds and other masters.

During World War 2 Chatsworth had been occupied by the Penrhos Girls’ College and it had taken its toll. Fumes from moth-balls in stored carpets, and lack of oxygen due to occupation of rooms by large numbers of people, had affected many of the pictures. Inadequate heating during the acute coal shortage caused fluctuations in temperature which caused the canvas of paintings to contract and expand, leading in time to cracking and flaking.

A small staff of experts had been brought in to repair years of inevitable neglect. Pictures were being cleaned, and the books whose leather was becoming brittle were being dressed in ointment, developed by the British Museum.

Chatsworth 5 - The Sphere - Dec 28 1946 (BNA)
The elaborate alter-piece in Chatsworth’s private chapel. An example of the decorative style so typical of the mansion. The alter-piece is the work of Verrio, the walls and ceilings are by Laguerre, and Cibber’s figures of Faith and Hope surmount the alter of alabaster by Samuel Watson. Watson’s wood-carving, can be seen throughout the house. When these pictures were first published it would have been a rare opportunity for people to see inside the house. (British Newspaper Archive).
Chatsworth 6 - The Sphere - Dec 28 1946 (BNA)
In the Orangery. Stored furniture, sculpture and books. The large marble urn in the centre was a copy of the Medici Vase. The Orangery is now a gift shop. (British Newspaper Archive).
Chatsworth 7 - The Sphere - Dec 28 1946 (BNA)
A 15th century masterpiece restored to its pristine glory. Mr Constantine, technical assistant at the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, and Mr Thompson examining a canvas after its renovation. The pictures all have a protective coat of varnish, and this had to be removed before they could be submitted to the turpentine-and-wax restorative treatment. Inadequate heating as a result of coal shortage had caused considerable fluctuations in temperature, and this had caused deterioration of some of the valuable canvases. (British Newspaper Archive).

When the 10th Duke of Devonshire died in 1950 there were death duties of £7 million. The 11th Duke, Andrew Cavendish, along with his wife Deborah (‘Debo’), fought hard to keep the estate, selling tens of thousands of acres of land, transferring Hardwick Hall to the National Trust in lieu of taxes, and selling major works of art. Chatsworth House opened to the public in 1948-49, but it would take until 1959 for the 11th Duke of Devonshire to move back into the house. It was a happy outcome and the rest, as they say, is history.  Chatsworth House

Chatsworth 8 - The Sphere - Dec 28 1946 (BNA)
Leather-bound books needed constant care and attention. The covers often became brittle with age, and Captain T.S. Wragg, the librarian, was seen applying a dressing to the batch which he had selected for treatment form the shelves. This dressing had been developed by the Research Department of the British Museum and had been found to be the most effective. (British Newspaper Archive).
Chatsworth 9 - The Sphere - Dec 28 1946 (BNA)
A view of the main library, where half the collection was accommodated. When Chatsworth was rebuilt in 1687 by the first Duke of Devonshire this was the Long Gallery, and it was converted into a library by the sixth Duke at the beginning of the 19th century. The preservation of the books was an unending task, and expert binders were constantly at work on repairs and renovations. (British Newspaper Archive),

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