Priceless collection of art hanging in a cottage

Curator Hannah Obee at Chatsworth.
Curator Hannah Obee at Chatsworth.
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Paintings by the likes of Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Sir Thomas Gainsborough once hung on the walls of William Shimwell’s home during the Second World War.

But he was not an art dealer, wealthy industrialist or politician – he, and his small cottage, were the secret custodians of the art collection of the Duke of Devonshire.

The intimate art gallery came about when the Duke, keen to protect his collection from the ravages of war, moved his priceless haul from the capital to the Chatsworth estate in 1940.

And now, for the first time, many of the paintings which secretly hung in a small cottage in the estate’s grounds, are on display in the grandeur of Chatsworth House.

Ten of those on display, including portraits by Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence, Van Dyck, and Lambert Doomer, were once under the custodianship of Mr Shimwell – known as Willie – who worked his way up from messenger boy to head of household at the country estate.

Remarkably, the location of the art was kept secret by staff from the close-knit community.

Exhibition curator Hannah Obee said: “What’s really strange is that no one knew the paintings were there in the cottage. It’s quite something on a small country estate for people not to know what’s going on.

“Willie was devoted to the family. He would have been completely focused on security, doing what was best for the collection and the family.

“You can imagine he would have been quite proud to have been charged with the care of these items.”

Plans to remove the collection to a safe haven began as early as September 1938, when Edward, the tenth Duke of Devonshire, asked his keeper of collections to draw up a list of the most important paintings in the family’s London home that could be moved to safety in the event of war breaking out. The collection was first moved to the family’s Eastbourne estate, Compton Place, for a short time but after the threat of war rescinded, it was returned to London.

It was sent to Eastbourne again after the outbreak of war in September 1939, but remained there for less than a year, as following the evacuation of Dunkirk in June 1940, it was considered perilous to leave the collection in the south.

In July 1940, the entire collection was moved to its new home at the Chatsworth estate.

Miss Obee said: “By this point a girls’ school had already moved into Chatsworth and it was decided to put the collection on the estate rather than bring it to the House.”

It was split into two groups of equal value for two sites – the first being the former estate office in Edensor, which is now flats. Charles Roose, who worked at the estate office in 1940, still lives on the estate.

Miss Obee said: “He remembers very clearly a carpenter from Chatsworth, Billy Elliott, fitting iron bars to the windows to protect the paintings.” The rest of the collection found a new home in Mr Shimwell’s cottage.

Miss Obee said: “Willie’s story is fascinating. When he was seven or eight he starting taking telegrams from Chatsworth to the local post office. By the time he was 20 in 1916 he had worked his way up to become the private secretary of the Duke.”

He even travelled to Canada with the family when the Duke was installed as the Governor General in 1916.

At some point during the war, Mr Shimwell moved into the main house, but the artwork stayed in its private gallery.