From a novelty Elvis Presley telephone purchased at Graceland and once installed in the Blue Drawing Room at Chatsworth, to a vast collection inspired by her love of hens, and one of just 50 pre-publication copies of Brideshead Revisited inscribed by her friend Evelyn Waugh - each item in a sale to be held at Sotheby’s auction house in London on Wednesday gives an insight into the extraordinary life of Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire.
Following her death at the age of 94, Deborah - the last of the famous Mitford sisters - was described by Prince Charles as a “unique personality with a wonderfully original approach to life”, and this is evident in the 450-plus items that will be offered for sale.
Among the lots are items from the home where she spent the last ten years of her life, The Old Vicarage in the village of Edensor on the Chatsworth Estate, plus artworks, pictures of Deborah and her sisters, her beloved collection of Elvis memorabilia and extensive items from her library - including a copy of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, inscribed by Madonna, who visited the Duchess for afternoon tea in 2007. Together, they are expected to make anything from £500,000 to £700,000.
Her family said the Duchess was “very clear” on how her estate should be organised following her death, with precise instructions for a large number of personal legacies and specific bequests to the Chatsworth House Trust. The remainder was left to the family.
“Given the kind of person she was, and the rich and varied life she led, there are more belongings than we can together accommodate,” the Duchess’s family said. “We are keeping items that are particularly precious to us, but we have made the decision to consign the remainder to Sotheby’s.
“Our mother was always fascinated by the auction process, so we feel sure she would be delighted at the prospect of this sale and would be very happy to know that some of her possessions were to go to new homes where they will be cherished and enjoyed.”
David MacDonald, Sotheby’s specialist in charge of the sale, said the objects the Duchess surrounded herself by at the Old Vicarge “were often moving, funny, or both, and usually had marvellous stories attached”.
He added: “This auction paints a vivid picture of Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, featuring mementoes, objects and pictures that tell the story of her remarkable life. A friend to many of the people who shaped her generation, she herself was a writer, an entrepreneur, a patron of the arts, and a much-admired beauty who also had the knack of absorbing the influences of other designers and decorators to develop her own style.”
Henry Wyndham, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe: “I am sure the Duchess would have been quietly amused by this auction, and would undoubtedly have enjoyed correcting our cataloguers on the breed or species of animal which feature in many of her pictures.
“She would also have enjoyed telling the stories her possessions carry with them, as many of the lots have been ‘touched’ by the great and the good of the 20th century, among whose number Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire must certainly be counted.”
Celebrating a glittering life
Rarely seen photographs of the Duchess and her glittering social circle will go on display at Chatsworth next month.
Sir Cecil Beaton was an early house guest of the Devonshires when they moved to Chatsworth in 1959, and captured many candid and relaxed portraits of his friend, Deborah, and her friends.
In ‘Never a Bore: Deborah Devonshire and Her Set by Cecil Beaton’, the photographer’s insightful and witty commentary on many of his subject will recreate the essence of the Duchess’s world. The exhibition, which opens on March 19, features round 65 photographs from The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, on loan from Sotheby’s, along with items from the Chatsworth archive.