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Last week, I took tea with Deborah, 11th Duchess of Devonshire. Or, more precisely, I took tea surrounded by her belongings in a depot in Greenford, a holding warehouse owned by Sotheby’s just off London’s North Circular.
It was a peculiarly homely affair. In a windowless room I found a small set dressed to recall the vicarage in Edensor village on the Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire, where she moved after the death of her husband Andrew, in 2004, and lived until her death 10 years later, at the age of 94.
I sat on a cottage-style wooden chair furnished with a tapestry cushion, sipped tea from cornflower-decorated “Hammersley” bone-china teacups, and ate scones from a service commissioned by the duke to celebrate the couple’s golden wedding celebrations in 1991, and presented to local couples who shared the same anniversary. The 12 plates retained by the Duchess were decorated with a brown relief of Chatsworth, the glorious 297-room home into which she and her husband finally moved, in 1959. The move followed the deaths of Andrew’s elder brother Billy, killed in action in 1944, and his father, just five years later and 14 weeks before the estate would have been exempt from the punitive death duties they inherited (80 per cent of the estate’s worth, and a debt of about £7m).
The couple’s inheritance was mighty — in addition to Chatsworth they were bequeathed a further 40,000 acres, including Lismore Castle in Ireland, Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire and a large portion of the West End — and one almighty headache. They made the final payment on their debt in 1974, despite having given away several works of art — a Holbein cartoon of Henry VIII, Hans Memling’s “Donne Triptych”, and “The Philosopher” by Rembrandt among them — and another family property, Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, handed over to the National Trust in 1959.
Yet rather than crumble under the burden, the two transformed Chatsworth into a profitable business and a model modern aristocratic estate. Today, it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Britain; an estimated 500,000 visitors roll up its drive every year to admire the stately rooms and art collection, which includes several Old Masters, and to eat in the farm shop, an innovation undertaken by the duchess in 1976 and which, by 2004, was bringing in about £5m a year. On his death, the duke was estimated to be worth about £1.6bn.
No great works feature among the 400-odd lots that will make up the Sotheby’s sale “Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, the Last of the Mitford Sisters”, when it goes under the hammer on March 2. A melange of objects, the collection comprises things that were neither returned to the Chatsworth estate after her death in September 2014, nor distributed as gifts in her will. Some are of cultural significance, others barely worth a penny: the sale’s proceeds will go to the family.
There are no pieces of priceless antiquity, no ancient family heirlooms — even the couture gowns have been returned to Chatsworth. Instead, I found a table, reconstructed in the estate workshop from bits of old furniture scrimmaged from the attic, a chair cushion emblazoned with a high-street snap depicting afternoon tea at Lismore — a gift from one of her grandchildren. And a miscellany of artworks: a 1959 portrait of the duchess painted by Duncan Grant (guide price £2,000-£3,000); botanical paintings by her daughter Emma Tennant (£1,000); a sweet picture of the Old Vicarage, a gift to the Duchess from the Peak District Artisans (£600); and a seemingly infinite brood of chicken statuettes and sculptures.
The collection mixes high and low: I was shown a scarlet butterfly-shaped Asprey box (£800), inscribed with the initials DD, containing a butterfly brooch (guide price £25,000) and a Chanel paste camellia (worth about £400). The duchess would scatter multiple jewels along her sleeves. There are numerous Elvis mementoes, including a phone that plays an incessant, plangent recording of “Jailhouse Rock” when it rings. The duchess was an ardent fan: the rest of the family not so much. “The phone drove me absolutely bats,” says the 12th Duke of Devonshire, known by all as Stoker, of his mother’s favourite whimsy. “It was quite funny once. But when it rang a lot, which it did because she was always on the telephone …this was before mobiles …it was really, really unacceptable.”
The sale’s value lies in its name. Known as a prestige sale, it persuades buyers of an item’s worth through the power of its association. “How do you price an Elvis carrier bag from Graceland? It’s very hard to quantify,” says David MacDonald, the specialist in charge of the Sotheby’s sale, who has catalogued each and every item. “I suppose, for us, it’s that every now and again you get a wonderful name that comes along — the Windsor sale that we had, the Jackie Kennedy sale we had — and this is like that. There is just some magic about her. All of these objects are a microcosm in telling the story.”
“Provenance is really the name of the game,” says Henry Wyndham, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, and a friend of the duchess’s since the early 1970s, when he was first invited to Chatsworth to augment Stoker’s cricket team. “David and I have had to make an assessment of what the sale might make and we really haven’t a clue because you just don’t know what the Debo/Devonshire factor is. A teacup may be worth £100, but you might get somebody who used to go to Chatsworth and have tea with them pay £1,500. People have an intimacy with Debo that they don’t have with other figures. I think that’s the key to it. She seemed very accessible to people.”
There’s never been any shortage of interest in Deborah Devonshire. As a duchess, she fascinated as a woman of immense status and as the co-architect of Chatsworth’s rehabilitation; among locals in Derbyshire, 600 of whom are employed on the estate, she was considered akin to royalty. As a Mitford, she formed one-sixth of the sisterhood who seduced, satirised and scandalised the 20th century.
As the youngest Mitford, she was the baby sister, always trying to catch up with the others: Nancy, the scathingly witty novelist; Diana, the sapphire-blue-eyed beauty who left her husband for Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Fascist party; Pamela, described by her one-time suitor John Betjeman as the “most rural of them all”; Unity the Nazi, besotted with Hitler, who died in 1948 of complications arising from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head; and Decca, the communist and civil-rights activist. There was also a brother, Tom, killed during the war. The youngest sister’s sale offers admirers a last good look at a family whose surname inveigled into every corner of social intercourse and political discourse, and a rare opportunity to take home a piece of “Mitfordiana”.
But which facet of the Debo name is more important? Or more valuable? “I think it’s both,” says Wyndham. “If you’re asking me from a personal point of view, then I see it more as a Devonshire sale than as a Mitford. But I think the public will view it as a Mitford half and a Devonshire half. Because it’s the end of an era, isn’t it? All that generation have gone.”
Living into her nineties, and very active until a few months before her death, Deborah Devonshire was one of the last spokespeople of a rural-based social elite, instructed by social protocol and shaped by personal loss. With her particular pronunciation, mangled vowels and peculiar obsession with pet names, she personified both the gilded pleasures of the 1930s social whirl and the tragedies that followed thereafter. She came out as a debutante on the eve of the second world war, in 1938, and saw scores of her contemporaries die in action.
When she married Andrew Cavendish, the second son of the ducal line, in 1941, she imagined a quiet married life of subdued luxury. Instead, aged 21, she found herself unexpectedly thrust into the role of the chatelaine, and spent much of her adult life fighting to preserve the vestiges of feudal aristocratic order, all the while steering Chatsworth into the modern age. On moving in, her first undertaking was to install central heating and 17 new bathrooms in rooms that “had never seen running water”, as she wrote in her memoir.
The couple amassed a peerless collection of artworks and an impressive coterie of house guests: the Prince of Wales, Alan Bennett and Lucian Freud were frequent visitors. In her memoirs, she described Evelyn Waugh as “a difficult guest and when he drank too much, impossible”, Cecil Beaton once condemning her border planting as a “retina irritant”, and Rose Kennedy as thinking “Chatsworth was a hotel” that “could produce anything on demand”.
Yet for many she was still seen as “Debo”, the baby sister. It was a role she did little to contradict. Terrific self-publicists, the sisters enshrined their legacy in individual and often contradictory accounts of their childhood, each acutely aware of the Mitford lore and gossip that surrounded their name. Debo was especially dutiful in archiving their correspondence for future study.
The legacy she so carefully preserved must now evolve without her. The Mitfords are less enthralling for new generations and, in an age of social media, enthusiasm for the activities of the aristocratic elite has been eclipsed by enthusiasm for reality-star selfies. Yet for fans of Mitfordiana the sale has some juicy lots. An oil painting, “By the Window” (£1,000-£1,500), by Nancy, so dismissive of her book-hating sister she nicknamed her “Nine”, to reflect her reading age, depicts a view from the nursery window at Asthall Manor, one of the sisters’ childhood homes and the seat of so much Mitford fabulation.
Ironically, another lot, a pre-edition of Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (£15,000-£20,000) exposes Debo as an early Waugh reader and occasional editor. “She did once recount saying something like, ‘In 1930 women wouldn’t have worn Cartier clips …’ ” says MacDonald, of her contribution to his oeuvre. “But, I don’t know if that’s Brideshead.”
A book of John F Kennedy portraits (£1,500-£2,000) is dedicated to the duchess by the former US president with the sign-off “L.O”, a sly reference to the sisters’ habit of calling him “Loved One”. JFK was a childhood friend: he danced with Debo at her coming-out ball and his sister “Kick” married her brother-in-law Billy.
As her sisters’ influence flickered out, Debo’s role became more expansive. Unity and Diana may have outraged the 1930s, but it was Debo who commanded a 10-page editorial in Vogue in 2010, shot by Mario Testino and co-starring her granddaughter, the model Stella Tennant, and her beloved brown-and-buff crossbreed hens. And it was Debo who was subject to a BBC Radio 4’s “Woman’s Hour” special on her 90th birthday.
She warmed to it, writing books and accepting requests for interview even when that meant being asked, tiresomely often, to repeat the story of how she had once had tea with Hitler. And she retained the slightly mocking Mitford humour, sending journalists away with tall tales about Decca bringing a rat to her coming-out ball, or falling into a grave as a child, that would leave them scratching their heads. Despite her insistence that she was apolitical and found talk of politics “boring”, she was a life-long Conservative voter who harboured a particular disdain for Blairites. “A lot of the things she said were to tease, in a kind way,” says Stoker. “And as she became better known, people quoted her and believed every word she said. Her teasing was her great carapace.”
In her role as a Devonshire, Debo routinely described herself as a “housewife”, another powerfully disarming way of underwriting her part in the renaissance of Chatsworth. Yet she was a savvy businesswoman and an excellent publicist, with an instinct for selling a story, be it her own, or the house’s.
“My father did the strategy and she did the detail and the PR,” says Stoker. “She gave it the spirit and the touch and the friendliness. She gave it the appeal of being accessible and she did that brilliantly without really any help from anybody.” She mocked the notion of media training. “She just didn’t get that at all,” says Stoker. “And she would never have a decorator, she would never have a garden designer.” After all, who needs a decorator when you can call on Freud to paint a bathroom mural?
Friends say she would have enjoyed the sale and watching the auction of her more idiosyncratic possessions: the chimney pot she repurposed as an umbrella stand, for example; or the signed postcards from Elvis, Madonna and Alan Titchmarsh …“She wasn’t particularly precious about things,” says MacDonald. “She was used to the tradition of auction, whether it was Mitford debt that forced her father to have a huge house sale, or one of the first Chatsworth estate sales.”
Her interest in money was hard learnt. She was devastated when her father was forced to sell Swinbrook to pay off debts when she 16, and Stoker believes her lasting affection for her childhood home informed the decoration of the vicarage, which she furnished in the same farmhouse style. Yet despite a meagre education — her father didn’t see the point of it — she learnt to balance the books. Her mother made the sisters sit a test in which they were assigned £20 and told to produce a household budget. Nancy spent the lot on flowers; Debo paid attention. She once said in an interview that she would have liked to have been a mogul for Marks and Spencer.
As the sale itself illustrates, perhaps her greatest legacy was her skill in turning privilege into profit. Her belongings have been invested with new lustre and, if the auctioneers are to be believed, her fingerprint can still transform the most prosaic of trinkets. As a businesswoman, she conducted herself with delightful inconsistency and instinct and independence. All accompanied by the jangle of “Jailhouse Rock”.
Jo Ellison is the FT’s fashion editor
Photographs: Emma Hardy/East; Sotheby’s; Estate of Duncan Grant/Sotheby’s; Jo Ellison; Bridgeman Art Library