Hidden Chatsworth: Debo and the beautiful people

After its annual spring clean, Chatsworth House opens next weekend with a brand new exhibition of rarely seen photographs.   Picture: Scott Merrylees
After its annual spring clean, Chatsworth House opens next weekend with a brand new exhibition of rarely seen photographs. Picture: Scott Merrylees
  • A collection of rarely seen photographs of the late Dowager Duchess, Deborah Devonshire, and her glittering social circle are about to go on display at Chatsworth. Stephen McClarence takes a look.
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Here they all come – Jackie Kennedy and John Betjeman, Noel Coward and Adele Astaire, Evelyn Waugh, Gary Cooper and Lord Mountbatten. Here come writers, artists, aristos, arty aristos, smart-set socialites (not too many Socialists), bright young things, dimmer old things. Here come the rich, the famous, the glamorous, the amusing, the effete... all gazing at us across the decades in Chatsworth’s latest exhibition.

The 60 or so guests at this grand photographic house party were captured by Sir Cecil Beaton, best remembered for his fashion and society pictures, as official photographer at the Queen’s Coronation, and as a waspish diarist. He was a regular guest at the Derbyshire stateliest-of-all-possible-homes, where Deborah Devonshire – Duchess of Devonshire, subsequently Dowager Duchess, often known as Debo (she colonised the letter D) – cultivated a social set that puts today’s “celebrities” deeply in the shade.

The exhibition, which opens next Saturday (March 19) and launches Chatsworth’s new season, is called Never a Bore, a reference to a typically sweeping remark by Beaton himself: “Perhaps the world’s second-worst crime is boredom; the first is being a bore.”

The Duchess, famously, was never a bore. I interviewed her twice. The first time was back in 2003 to talk about her newly published Chatsworth Cookery Book.

When, I wondered, had she last actually cooked a meal herself. “Not since the war, I suppose,” she said, smiling. I suggested that some people might say this rather disqualified her from writing a cookery book. “They could say that,” she said, smiling even more, “but they’d be awfully beastly if they did, wouldn’t they?”

Her charm comes across in some, but not all, of Beaton’s pictures of her. A doe-eyed 1949 portrait, for instance, makes her look uncharacteristically passive. Much more appealing is a picture showing her sitting in Chatsworth’s gardens in 1960, her back to the camera and glancing round with another smile.

It’s relaxed, informal, almost a snapshot – very different from Beaton’s usual flamboyantly staged portraits, which often edited out sitters’ physical flaws and hyped up their glamour. And it shows, reassuringly, that even a celebrated photographer can sometimes take slightly fuzzy, out of focus pictures.

Few of the other 60 or so portraits – many unseen publicly for half a century and on loan from Sotheby’s – were actually taken at Chatsworth. The people they show, however, were all associated with the Devonshires – as family, friends or house guests invited by the Duchess, who died 18 months ago. Beaton himself first visited Chatsworth as a house guest in 1959. He and the Duchess soon established a rapport. “When you read their letters to each other there was genuine affection there,” says Hannah Obee, Chatsworth’s exhibitions curator.

One of the pictures shows them at the White Ball hosted in London in 1969 by Prince Rupert Loewenstein, financial manager of The Rolling Stones. With everyone dressed entirely in white, it may have lacked the surreal splendour of a ball in Venice in 1951, which Beaton captured in over-the-top pictures of guests dressed as Cleopatra and the Queen of Africa. The Duchess later wrote: “The women were more beautiful than anything I ever saw and the men more revolting.”

Beaton had a reputation for ambition; he was reputedly never a man to stroll in the social foothills if a bracing bit of climbing was on offer. He was a pioneer of photographers seen (like David Bailey, Patrick Lichfield and Lord Snowdon) as personalities in their own right. “Before me,” he wrote, “photographers were nobodies, hidden under the black cloth.”

He was at ease with aristocracy and landed gentry and photographed the three Sitwell siblings – Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell – looking... well, possibly peacefully sleeping, possibly peacefully dead.

When he first photographed Edith in the 1920s, he described her as “a tall, graceful scarecrow with the white hands of a medieval saint”. Later a famous picture showed her staring hawkishly into the camera, her hands bristling with rings as big as knuckledusters. Beaton noted: “In spite of her cadaverous appearance, her complexion is as fresh as a convolvulus.” Not without reason did the French writer Jean Cocteau nickname him “Malice in Wonderland”.

The Sitwells figure in one of the archive letters also on show, adding to the exhibition’s value, as Hannah Obee says, as “a window on the lives” of the Devonshires. One letter, from 1957, is from Evelyn Waugh to “Dearest Debo”. It’s written on headed notepaper from Renishaw Hall, the Sitwells’ Derbyshire family home.

Waugh – pictured by Beaton as a cigar-smoking country squire – had just visited Chatsworth. He wrote that Renishaw, with its “household of aged bachelors”, was “a sombre contrast” to Chatsworth – “no television, no telephone in the public rooms, no bonfires, no gin before half past noon. The talk is mostly of medicines.”

Waugh was apparently a demanding house guest, asking for Malvern water on his bedside table at Chatsworth and claiming, probably jokingly, to have discovered a full chamber pot under his bed. He subsequently sent the Duchess a book as a gift.

“It had a note with it: ‘You won’t find a word in these pages that you won’t like’,” says Charlotte Johnson, the exhibition’s research assistant. “It was a completely blank book.”

Other letters include one from Jackie Kennedy after a Chatsworth stay in 1978. She was clearly captivated by “the poetry of the place and your feeling for it – one feels your spirit everywhere, from palatial rooms that you have made cosy to surrounding hills where you beg for dead trees to be spared so that owls will have a place to nest. How I miss that billowing pillowing bed...”

Beaton had photographed Jackie Kennedy back in 1951 when she was “coming out” as a deb – a simple, gentle picture that’s a fine contrast to the glitz and glitter of his portrait of socialite Stephen Tennant.

As a young man, Tennant was (literally) one of the brightest of the “young things”, dying his hair mauve and decorating his home with fishnets, gold conch shells and pink satin.

Beaton described him as “a tall, gangling young man with the face of a charming codfish” and photographed him lounging on a decadently silk-swathed silver bed.

The Duchess visited Tennant many years later, in 1973, and he wrote afterwards to “my dear Deborah”, in wild writing, with every other word underscored for emphasis: “Please tell all your friends that Mr Palmer Pet Stores in Camden Town has some glorious Italian Lizards for sale – I’ve bought 8 – I long to buy them all and free them in my garden, but they are expensive... You are a delicious family, all of you...”

“For us now, it all appears so glamorous and beyond what we can comprehend,” says Charlotte Johnson.

“But behind it there are all the friendships that built up over the century. It’s not about wealth and status, it’s about the affection these people had for each other, about the warmth and camaraderie.

“It’s easy to see the title before you see the person.”

The Duchess kept up many of these friendships – with the artist Lucian Freud (“dear little Lu”), for instance. Even towards the ends of their lives, says Hannah Obee, she would take him fresh eggs when she was in London.

The Duchess’ warmth is what people always remember. “She was an incredibly special person,” says Johanna Warren, the exhibition’s project manager. “I never heard anyone say anything nasty about her.”

The second time I interviewed the Duchess, six years ago, she mentioned how she described her occupation on official forms. “I used to put ‘housewife’,” she said. “Because that’s what I was: the wife of a house... well, three houses as it happens.” They were Chatsworth, Bolton Abbey in North Yorkshire and Lismore Castle in Ireland.

No, she was never a bore.

• Never a Bore: Deborah Devonshire and Her Set by Cecil Beaton is at Chatsworth (www.chatsworth.org) from March 19 to January 3, 2017.