Art and history made relevant 

Chatsworth House, the residence of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, holds one of the world's great art collections

click to enlarge A piece of contemporary sculpture on the grounds of Chatsworth House.
  • A piece of contemporary sculpture on the grounds of Chatsworth House.

One or Britain's great stately homes, Chatsworth House, sprawls across the low-lying hills of the Derbyshire Peak District in northwest England like an inviting mirage.

This 175-room mansion, founded in the mid 1500s and rebuilt in the 18th and 19th centuries, is surrounded by 105 acres of gardens with miles of paths, a huge maze and gravity-fed fountain ("the waterworks"). Below wends a river, crossed by a neo-classical bridge. Above, and in every direction, sheep still graze on the grassy slopes.

Yet while the tableau is old-world, Chatsworth House, operated by the 12th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, is no ancient relic. Rather, it's a happening, even oddly modern destination that is showing the public as well as the "museum world" how art and history can be made relevant and attractive in the 21st century.

The duke (his common name is Peregrine Cavendish) met our small group at the entrance. Age 64, he's tall and gangly and casually, if elegantly, dressed. He appears affable and easy-going. After welcoming us to what has been the home of the Cavendish family (and its successive dukes) since the 16th century, he speaks briefly about what is one of the world's great private art collections.

Yes, here in Chatsworth House you see paintings by the European masters - Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Van Dyck, Hans Holbein and others. An entire sculpture gallery, assembled by the 6th Duke of Devonshire ("the Bachelor Duke") is devoted to the finest neo-classical sculpture. You'll find - in their appropriate rooms, and along with the art - furniture and wood carving, ceramics, wall hangings, ceiling paintings, gems and jewelry, clocks, scientific instruments and much more - pieces produced by a who's who of English craftsmen and artisans over five centuries.

Among Chatsworth's many features are the Painted Hall, with scenes from the life of Julius Caesar; Great Stairs, presided over by a leaping god Mercury; the Regency-era rooms to which Mary Queen of Scots was confined in the 1500s; the State Bedchamber, with its recently restored "state bed" with original canopy; and a marble chapel, unaltered since 1693. There's also the Oak Room, with panelling imported from a German monastery; a library with 17,000 antiquarian volumes collected by the Bachelor Duke; the Great Dining Room, where Queen Victoria dined as a child; and the Grotto, filled with Roman-era busts and bas-reliefs, including the Diana Bathing.

Yet there's much here that is new - even unnervingly so. On our visit, a towering sculpture of a pregnant woman with a partially exposed womb - The Virgin Mother, by bad-boy English artist Damian Hurst - loomed near the entrance. And the vast garden is filled with contemporary sculpture - including several pieces conveniently used as jumps during international horse trials organized by the horse-loving duke.

Inside, alongside Renaissance paintings such as the Adoration of the Magi by Veronese, are the likes of Skewbald Mare - in fact, the rear end of a brown-and-white horse, by modern English painter Lucien Freud. Another Freud work, Large Interior , shows an elderly woman looking away from a nude on a couch.

In a magazine article, the Duke explains that he seeking, in Chatsworth, "the layered look" - in short, the integration of old and new. In some of the sumptuously decorated rooms you find contemporary touches that tell you the house is lived in, and that the Duke and Duchess are, in their own way, decidedly up to date.

After lunch in the Chatsworth café, I ambled into The Orangery - a gift and gardening shop, where I bought the big-selling paperback Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman.

Georgiana (1757-1806) was the wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire and a beauty of whom it was famously said: "When she appeared, every eye was turned towards her; when she was absent she was the subject of universal conversation."

Her relationship with the duke - tempestuous at best, intolerable at worst, though, according to Foreman, with an undercurrent of affection - was depicted in the recent movie, The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes.

Importantly - and barely touched on in the movie - is the fact that Georgiana was an outspoken champion of liberal politics (the Whig party) of her day, and on that basis alone was a pioneer. She was also an addictive gambler who caused husband and friends no end of financial grief. And she tolerated a live-in woman friend with a troubled past - a relationship that turned into a ménage à trois. "Bess" Foster also had children with Georgiana's husband, and married him after her death.

And while Georgiana spent much of her adult life at Devonshire House in London, her presence is still felt at Chatsworth, particularly in the wonderful portrait by Thomas Gainsborough showing a fashionable woman in all her splendour. Adding to the frisson is the fact that Georgiana, born into the aristocratic Spenser family, is the direct antecedent of Diana (Spenser), the Princess of Wales.

Today Chatsworth House is overseen by a charitable trust, of which the present duke is a member. And while he and his wife (who have three grown children, including a son who will become the 13th Duke) have their own set of rooms, they actually pay rent.

It costs $11 million a year to keep up the house (roughly 75 staff are employed permanently, rising by 300 in summer). In summer the adult entrance fee is about $30, and less for seniors, teens, children and families.

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