Britain’s Duke of Devonshire Muses on Art
By: Stephen Short
January 3, 2017
These are busy times at Britain’s historic 14,165-hectare Chatsworth Estate which again finds itself thrust into the media limelight. The world awaits the March debut of House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion, an exhibition and aesthetic extravaganza curated by Vogue Editor-at-Large Hamish Bowles and sponsored by Italian fashion giant Gucci, whose head designer Alessandro Michele appears to have commandeered the estate as mood board for the next three years (more on that in the March issue of #legend). Separately, a 13-part series of short digital programmes, Treasures from Chatsworth, organised by auction house Sotheby’s and sponsored by Savile Row tailor Huntsman, explores the diverse and magnificent works of art in the Devonshire Collection. The programmes offer an insight into the history and significance of the art through interviews with the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, the curators, keepers and contemporary artists such as Michael Craig-Martin and Jacob van der Beugel. Among other gems, the duke, Peregrine “Stoker” Cavendish, reveals how he experienced hiding from the gas man over an unpaid bill when visiting Lucian Freud to have his portrait painted at Freud’s studio in London’s Paddington.
For more than 16 generations the Cavendish family has commissioned and collected contemporary art. Their passion for the present as well as the past is what makes Chatsworth one of the world’s greatest collections. The seat of the 12th Duke of Devonshire and home to the Cavendish family since 1549, Chatsworth is where the past and present co-exist, and where visitors encounter works by Leonardo da Vinci and Damien Hirst, breath-taking monumental sculpture, cutting-edge portraiture and a remarkable design process. The legacy of commissioning inspiring contemporary pieces lives on. #legend spoke to the Duke of Devonshire about his relationship with the art world.
Chatsworth has a glamorous exhibition in March. Do you consider fashion as art?
I think that fashion is closely allied to art. Couture clothing demands a high level of craftsmanship and this is something that will be a major feature of our forthcoming exhibition, House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth. Fashion designers over the years have established their skills as artists in their own particular medium. Yes, I do consider fashion to be art.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about collecting art?
It’s not nearly as difficult to collect art as different people think. You can start collecting on a modest scale so long as you choose a discipline you are prepared to learn about and there are many different categories of collection which can be hugely enjoyable and not particularly expensive.
In the Devonshire Collection, is there one piece that you find most surprising or unexpected and why is that?
The violin on the door of the State Music Room is a brilliant trick, expertly carried out. The first time that you see this trompe l’oeil work across the room, it is impossible to believe that you are not looking at a real violin hanging from a hook on the back of the door.
One trend has been the collecting of performance, film and video art. Do you have any at Chatsworth or a plan to acquire it?
We have a digital image of our daughter-in-law, Laura Burlington, by Michael Craig-Martin which constantly changes in colour randomly and across the various different features of her face. Otherwise, there is at the moment no film or video art here but I am sure William and Laura, my son and daughter-in-law and the next generation to collect at Chatsworth, will add works of this sort.
You recently commissioned Jacob van der Beugel? What drew you to his work?
Jacob was one of five artists who we chose to interview for this significant commission and he was our choice because of the inspired way he spoke about his ideas for this installation. He has certainly more than lived up to the exciting ideas he told us about in the interview.
Is there a work you’ve desperately wanted but couldn’t get and still want?
The art market is a constant parade of beautiful and desirable objects of all sorts, inevitably there are many works we would like to acquire for the collection at Chatsworth. Although our funding for acquisitions is modest by present-day standards, both my parents, Amanda and I, and William and Laura, have been able to acquire interesting things to ensure there is always something new to look at.
Where do you stand on Asian contemporary art in China and Hong Kong?
Our son William has acquired some contemporary Chinese works of art. He and Laura have spent more time traveling the art circuit than we do and we would be supportive to continue to add works from China and Hong Kong.
Which is your Mona Lisa piece that consistently attracts the most traffic?
We have a very diverse range of interesting and individual pieces in the collection, but our market research shows that it is the landscape around Chatsworth which unifies the house, the garden and the park; that is the biggest driver of our visitors to our front door.
Are there Russian artworks at Chatsworth, or Russian jewellery?
There is a considerable amount of Russian art at Chatsworth, mostly from the 19th century. Tsar Nicholas I was a good friend of the 6th Duke and they exchanged gifts on several occasions. Perhaps the most notable are the suite comprising of a clock, a pair of tazzas (shallow cups) and a table, all of which are covered in malachite.
What’s the most enlightening book you have ever read about art?
Michael Craig-Martin, On Being an Artist.
Tastes change as we mature. How would you characterise the change in your taste in art?
When we started collecting, we chose, almost exclusively, paintings and prints but as time has gone by we have added furniture, contemporary silver and contemporary ceramics.
Do you have a visitors’ book with artists’ drawings that has itself become an artwork?
We have a visitors’ book with a lot of signatures of artists but no drawings. I am not sure if this an art book or not, but it is certainly of great interest to our archive.
What’s the most memorable compliment ever offered about Chatsworth’s art?
The fact that so many contemporary artists are so enthusiastic that their work should be represented in our collection, to me, justifies our pride in the continued accumulation of contemporary art here.