The duke with some of his collection
The duke with some of his collection

Under the ultramarine sky of a sun-flooded afternoon in late May, Chatsworth is surely as close to Arcadia as Britain can aspire. The Italianate palace surges out of the emerald-green slopes as if rooted in the soil; fountains shimmer in the sunlight; the cry of children’s voices wafts from knots of picnickers on the grass.

Yet for Peregrine Cavendish, the 12th Duke of Devonshire, there is work to be done. “We have a plan to return Chatsworth to what it was – not exactly but similar – in the 18th century,” he explains, as we talk on a scarlet velvet sofa in Chatsworth’s library, a long, narrow room lined with leather-bound volumes.

The duke’s words take me by surprise. For my visit to Chatsworth is prompted by his reputation as a moderniser. Now in his 68th year, the duke took over the 35,000-acre Derbyshire estate in 2004 when his father Andrew Cavendish, the 11th duke, died. Since then, Chatsworth has evolved from being a destination for those fascinated by British heritage to somewhere that also appeals to lovers of modern art.

Now in its eighth year, the outdoor selling exhibition organised each autumn by Sotheby’s, where the duke is deputy chairman, interrupts those verdant undulations with sculptures by such artists as Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn. That incursion, which boosts visitor numbers by 20,000, is the flagship of a strategy of rolling temporary exhibitions and permanent acquisitions.

Emma McGuire’s ‘XXXX 1.9m’ (2012)
Emma McGuire’s ‘XXXX 1.9m’ (2012)

Currently the garden is hosting the sculptures of British modernist William Turnbull while his paintings are displayed within the house. In the New Gallery, opened in 2011 for temporary exhibitions, a display of botanical watercolours by the duke’s sister Emma Tennant is shortly to be succeeded by the grittier vision of Emma McGuire, whose lithographs of Atlantic City cage fighters will be on show until November 8.

Chatsworth is famous for its collection of Renaissance and baroque art. Rembrandt’s magnificent painting “King Uzziah” is displayed to perfection, surrounded by landscape drawings by the Dutch master, in a small gallery known as the Old Master drawings cabinet. Another of the duke’s innovations, the cabinet has solved the dynasty’s problem of owning the finest private collection of Old Master drawings in Britain after the Queen, yet lacking the light-controlled conditions in which to display them.

Amid all this historic splendour, constellations of contemporary art, ceramics and furniture induce rewarding double-takes. An archipelago of subtle vessels by Australian potter Pippin Drysdale glows within an ornate fireplace; two frail, blond wood chairs by Irish designer Joseph Walsh, which frame John Singer Sargent’s stunning “Portrait of the Acheson Sisters”, are the beginning of a strategy to scatter designer chairs along the route because, as the duke says, “visitors must have somewhere to sit.”

Given his efforts to tug Chatsworth into the 21st century, why is the duke so keen also to turn back the clock? “The defining moment [at Chatsworth] was when the house, garden and park were united as one,” he explains, referring to the era in which his 18th-century ancestors employed architect William Kent and landscape designer “Capability” Brown to transform the estate into an “Arcadian ideal of what the landscape should be like. That is why there was no wall between house and garden; there was a ha-ha [a kind of ditch animals cannot cross, invisible from a distance] so one went into another. It was a huge piece of land art.”

Now he has not only started to return the state rooms “more or less to what they would have looked like” but he has also instigated a 20-year management plan for the park that will see, for example, the removal of all the alders that were planted in the 19th century along the river, spoiling the view to the house.

Quick to smile, the duke is good company, answering questions openly yet thoughtfully in the manner of someone who takes the world and his place in it seriously. (He demurs, however, when asked to comment on the eviction of a tenant farmer who recently went to the tabloids accusing the duke of injustice.)

In 2010, he made headlines when he told a journalist he would surrender his title if the House of Lords was abolished on the grounds that hereditary peerages no longer served any purpose. Asked if he stands by his words, he replies in the affirmative, yet says it is “too complicated” to explain his motives.

Chatsworth House seen from the grounds
Chatsworth House seen from the grounds

As a child, the duke did not live at Chatsworth. “We lived in the village,” he recalls, adding that he would come up to the big house with his mother Deborah. Known as “Debo”, his mother, one of the renowned Mitford sisters, is today well-known as an author after publishing a memoir and books about Chatsworth. “She wasn’t one for cooing over buggies,” he recalls now, affection shining in his blue eyes. “But as soon as we were interesting, she did lots with us.” Such as? “Oh, outdoor stuff – shooting, looking at plants, looking at trees.”

When the family moved into Chatsworth in 1959, its future was imperilled by inheritance tax of 80 per cent. The 11th duke was forced to sell thousands of acres of land and some major artworks. Today, the duke lauds his parents for leaving Chatsworth “in great shape” when he and his wife Amanda took it over in 2004. Nevertheless, he has also embarked on tough, though lucrative, housekeeping. In December 2012, he sold a drawing by Raphael, “Head of an Apostle” – through Sotheby’s, naturally – for £29.7m. Today, he is at joint 120th on the latest Sunday Times Rich List with an estimated fortune of £720m.

His parents admired modern art – both were painted by Lucian Freud – but his own journey as a patron of the new was inspired by his late mother-in-law Joan Heywood-Lonsdale. “She bought [drawings by] Picasso and those sort of artists between the wars and she had a bungalow near Oxford, where I was living, with a black plastic sofa. That was …”, he pauses, and his silence reverberates with the memory of youthful revelation, “ …different from here.”

His first “proper painting” was David Hockney’s “Le Parc des Sources, Vichy” (1970). The British figurative master appealed because he was “exciting, accessible, quite anti-establishment, which I suppose we all were then. New things can be quite threatening,” he continues, revealing an endearing undercurrent of doubt. “I find conceptual art quite hard but I realise that’s my fault rather than the artist’s fault.”

Nevertheless, he seeks out new talent ardently, regularly visiting small fairs and galleries, without the guidance of a professional adviser. (When he learns that I occasionally write about design, he presses me for emerging names.)

Ceramics are his most intense passion. “It started when Henry Wyndham [Sotheby’s European chairman and senior auctioneer] gave me a little pot by John Spearman, eggshell blue on the inside, incredibly fragile and light.” Aside from Spearman and Drysdale, other potters in his collection include Edmund de Waal and Felicity Aylieff, whose monumental pots could as easily be classed as sculpture.

Why is he so drawn to ceramics? “They are very cool, not as in ‘hip’, but as in restful, calm. Yet they are incredibly difficult to make.” As he describes their appeal, I can’t help thinking that those words could equally apply to the duke himself.

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