Sixteen generations of Cavendish patriarchs – the earls, and subsequently dukes of Devonshire – stare across a grand staircase at the Acheson sisters – granddaughters of the wife of the eighth duke – who sweep across a sprawling canvas.
The Cavendishes were painted by almost every notable portraitist in the last 400 years – from van Dyck and Mijtens to Gainsborough, Sargent, de Laszló, and Lucian Freud.
Chatsworth House isn’t just the ducal seat of the Cavendish family, it’s home to one of the most extraordinary private art collections in the kingdom. They own Venetian views by Canaletto, a full-length portrait of George IV by Sir Thomas Lawrence, sketches by Carracci, Rubens, Rembrandt, Raphael, and Parmigianino. There’s even a drawing of Leda by da Vinci.
But the collection is not only impressive for its trove of great masters. It also includes a wide range of modern and contemporary art as well. In the chapel, there’s a gold statue by Damien Hirst of St. Bartholomew holding a scalpel, with his flayed skin draped over one arm (“Exquisite Pain“). There’s furniture by Joseph Walsh, including an arresting, six meter-high wooden bed frame (displayed in a room painted, dramatically, from floor to ceiling by James Thornhill). There’s a digital portrait of the Countess Burlington in bright neon colors by the Irish artist Michael Craig-Martin, and tables crowded with pottery by Australian ceramicist Pippin Drysdale.
I first learned of the Chatsworth collection in 2019, when my friend Elyssa told me about a special exhibition at Sotheby’s in New York. The incumbent Duke of Devonshire (Peregrine Cavendish is the 12th duke) – who is also the deputy chairman of the auction house – was selling off a few dozen works of art. To attract more eyeballs to the sale, the duke lent Sotheby’s some of his family’s most prized treasures to display – including that drawing of Leda, and a stunning parure made for the daughter of the fifth duke to wear to the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II.
I was gobsmacked by the glimpse I got, and decided I needed to visit Chatsworth.
If you’re familiar with Julian Fellowes’s period soap opera Downton Abbey, then you know that the economic shift of the industrial revolution created an existential crisis for the nobility. The upstairs-downstairs classism that had reigned for centuries having become increasingly unaffordable, the nobility was forced to monetize its holdings, or lose them.
The Cavendishes are a rare example of a noble family that successfully embraced commercialism, and has survived with much of their estate intact. This is not to say there haven’t been sacrifices. Upon the death of the 10th duke, for example, the 11th duke, was forced to give the family’s ancestral home, Hardwick Hall, to H.M. Treasury in lieu of a backbreaking 80%, post-war death tax. Like many other extraordinary estates of its kind, relinquished to satisfy debts, Hardwick Hall is now conserved under the National Trust. Over the decades, the Cavendishes have also sold off bits and pieces of their vast art collection to help subsidize the exorbitant upkeep of their remaining estates, including their home at Chatsworth.
In addition to charging admission to Chatsworth (to both the house and grounds), the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire operate a number of retail outlets on their property. The former stable house now houses two restaurants, event spaces, and a labyrinthine gift shop that, during the year-end holiday season, turns into, what I was told by many, an extremely profitable and popular Christmas market that draws visitors from near and far. Additionally, there are two grab-and-go shops on the estate, with refrigerated cases of sandwiches and salads, as well as pastries and hot meat pies. The steak and ale pie made a steadying lunch for me one day.
The duke’s vast land holdings also include three townships. And in each of them, he owns a hotel. I stayed at the one nearest to Chatsworth – the Cavendish Hotel in Baslow. It’s a charming, English, country inn that’s conveniently perched on a hill at the edge of the Chatsworth estate. Originally owned and operated as the Peacock Inn by the Duke of Rutland in the 1700s, the Duke of Devonshire acquired it in 1830. (At the time of writing, in February of 2023, the hotel is closed and undergoing renovation.)
Having taken the train from London (it’s just over 2 hours from London St. Pancras to Chesterfield on the East Midland Railway; and a 15 minute taxi ride from Chesterfield station to Baslow), with no car, I could easily walk the mile and a half from the inn through the estate’s beautiful grounds, dotted with sheep, to the house (be mindful where you step). The paved pathways are open to the public, and popular among joggers and dog walkers.
I took advantage of a promotion the hotel offered – two-night stay, with breakfast and dinner included, plus a two-day pass to Chatsworth. Altogether, at just over £600 (with the USD trading at around £0.92 at the time), it was, I thought, a great value.
If this is beginning to feel like sponsored content, I assure you, it’s not. I’m an art and history enthusiast, and eagerly support those who protect cultural heritage and make it possible for the public to access and experience it.
Surprisingly, the hotel, which only has a couple dozen rooms, has two restaurants. The more upmarket of the two, The Gallery Restaurant, makes an earnest run at fine dining. The ingredient quality was terrific, and the food was nicely cooked (I had locally shot grouse, and a beautiful loin of venison from the estate), albeit the plating was trying to be more modern than it needs to be. I appreciated it most for the type of civility that it inspires, one that has all but vanished from the United States, and is quickly disappearing elsewhere. Here, in a small town in the Peak District of rural England, The Gallery is a place where everyone agrees to make an effort for a night out; all preened and groomed, gentlemen in jackets. It’s lovely.
Even still, I preferred the more straightforward cooking in the hotel’s more casual restaurant, the Garden Room, where I had a nicely browned breast of chicken on a mound of peas and mash, with bits of bacon.
I confess to having a very low tolerance for contemporary expressions of art. And while I have far more confidence in the Cavendishes’ ability to discern the great artists of our day than my own, I struggled to appreciate most of the modern works at Chatsworth.
My narrow sensibilities were summed up in a delicious exchange at a nearby dinner table one night, where an older British woman was reading the Chatsworth newsletter. She informed her husband that the duke’s estate was currently featuring sculptural installations from Burning Man, an event with which neither was familiar. After reading aloud a description of Burning Man, the two sat in confused silence for a minute before the husband simply said, “It sounds dreadful.” I had found my people. Indeed, the Burning Man installations on the property were scrap metal eyesores to me.
But, I do find the Cavendishes’ approach to art exciting. They do not reject the past in favor of the present, as it has become en vogue to do these days. Rather, they embrace the unavoidable passage of time – how could you deny its existence at a place like Chatsworth? – and the evolving standards and culture that come with it, without forsaking the people and stories of the past. To that end, the art at Chatsworth is not static. Not only are there special exhibits that frequently rotate in and out of the estate, but even the duke’s permanent collection is constantly on the move, not just on loan to exhibits all over the globe, but even within his estate. In the four times that I walked through the house in two days, I noticed a number of pieces – even large sculptures – had moved, paintings had been swapped out, and furniture reconfigured.
Not only is the collection thoughtfully curated, but it’s presented in a highly educational format – from the information included on the plaques to the docents and staff, who I found to be unbelievably informed about every item in the house, and eager to look up information when they weren’t.
On the southern façade of Chatsworth House, in large, gold lettering, is the Cavendish family motto: Cavendo Tutus – “safe through caution.” It’s an incredibly insightful and instructive principle to represent a family that has, against great odds, survived the political storms and dynastic winds of an empire from the time of the Tudors, adapted with the industrial revolution, and managed to keep their estates intact through two world wars (Chatsworth House was converted to a school for girls who were evacuated from other parts of the U.K. during WWII). To be one of a couple dozen or so non-royal dukedoms remaining in the U.K. – it is all but certain that no more will be created in the foreseeable future – has required a certain level of shrewdness, perseverance, and sacrifice.
I understand all the reasons why hereditary peerage has become a fraught concept in many modern minds. But, undeniably, it has also gifted us with an incredible record of history and lessons in sociology, politics, economics, and even science – the bananas that you and I eat today originated in the greenhouse at Chatsworth, where the 6th duke cultivated and introduced what is now known as the Cavendish banana to Europe, and then the rest of the world.
Even though this impressive house, and the treasures it holds, belong to the Cavendishes, it’s clear that they see themselves merely as temporary stewards – not only for future Cavendishes, but for the rest of us. And, despite the revenue it generates, their joy of sharing it seems genuine.
The incumbent duke has announced that he and his wife would be moving out of Chatsworth and retiring to a modest, family home in a nearby village. In so doing, he will be passing the baton of stewardship to his son and heir, Lord Burlington, a professional photographer, who will be moving into the house with his young family. I hope Lord Burlington embraces the station to which he was born, and continues to preserve and share his family’s extraordinary legacy.