For two centuries the opulent Devonshire House had reigned over London’s Piccadilly, but in 1925 this private residence was reduced to a pile of rubble. Its destruction signalled the diminishing presence of the English aristocracy in the capital, for between this date and the outbreak of the second world war London went on to lose six more of its great private palaces.
Increased taxation and the loss of political influence at the close of the first world war drove many aristocrats to rebalance their investments. In 1920 the Duke of Devonshire sold Devonshire House for one million guineas to Shurmer Sibthorpe and Lawrence Harrison. The joint owners were wealthy industrialists with a new vision for urban development of key London sites, centred on apartment blocks and cinemas, and within a few years they had razed William Kent’s original structure and replaced it with an eight-storey apartment block.
At the time of the proposed demolition, Sibthorpe said of Devonshire House, “Archaeologists have gathered round me and say I am a vandal, but personally I think the place is an eyesore.”
It was at Devonshire House that Georgiana, 5th Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), set the fashions of the time and indulged her weakness for gambling, amid the prominent political and literary figures who made up her social circle. A valuation in 1798 shows that the contents of the house were worth £29,285 11s 1d, surpassing the £22,321 10s 6d worth of contents held at the family’s main residence at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.
All that remains of the site is the wine cellar, now the ticket office of Green Park underground station, and the impressive sphinx-topped gateway that stands at the entrance to Green Park itself. Meanwhile, the contents, all carefully photographed and catalogued, have languished in the storerooms of Chatsworth ever since.
In October, however, many of these items will again see the light of day in Sotheby’s Chatsworth Attic Sale. Among the 20,000 objects, ranging in estimate from £20 to £200,000, are elaborate architectural fragments, including a George II carved marble chimneypiece (c.1735) designed by Kent himself, and smaller fittings and pieces of furniture that once decorated the lavish interior of Devonshire House.
The Sotheby’s Attic Sale takes place at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, October 5-7, with items available to view in advance, October 1-4.