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The Ultimate Attic

By Sallie Brady

The Duke of Devonshire is cleaning house, and collectors, dealers and curators are descending on his Chatsworth estate for a historic auction conducted by Sotheby’s.

Forget the 2009 Yves Saint Laurent/Pierre Bergé sale. For anyone who is passionate about any aspect of the English country house, be it architectural, decorative or historical, this is the sale of the century. From October 5–7, Sotheby’s London will host “Chatsworth The Attic Sale,” held on site at Chatsworth, one of England’s grandest country estates, which for centuries has been the ancestral home of the Dukes and Duchesses of Devonshire.

Destined to be an historic sale—hold onto that £45 catalogue—this isn’t just your average “attic,” but then again, the Devonshires aren’t your average homeowners. Among England’s richest, most socially prominent, and politically powerful nobles, the Devonshires have a long history of working with the best architects, artisans and tastemakers of their day—think William Kent, Gerritt Jensen, James Wyatt, his nephew Sir Jeffry Wyattville, John Gregory Crace. Luckily, an inability to toss out anything of quality appears to be a genetic trait, one result of which is the contents of this fantastic sale, which were recently discovered under decades’ worth of dust in Chatsworth’s stable block. Peregrine Cavendish, the present and 12th Duke of Devonshire (also deputy chairman of Sotheby’s), says he is having the sale to make room—he and his wife are keen collectors of contemporary ceramics and sculpture.

While the 1,500-lot auction (with estimates starting at £20 for a teacup) contains serious furniture, porcelain, the odd 1910 motorcar and other household treasures, the real highlight is a rare collection of architectural fixtures and fittings that had been removed from the family’s various houses, including the lost London palace of Devonshire House. Here are chimneypieces, doors, frames, ornamental carvings, all deliciously fresh to market and bearing impeccable provenances. What has museum curators, private collectors and dealers drooling is the fact that the pieces were left as they were. “The condition is fantastic,” says Jeremy Garfield-Davies, a London-based architectural historian and independent advisor who previewed the sale. “They have not been restored, overpainted or over-gilded. You can see the strength of the carving.”

Then there’s the fact that the Chatsworth pieces are legal. Owner of English grand homes that are listed, or landmarked, as we say Stateside, are forbidden to modify listed rooms. The postwar days of English lords selling off spectacular salons to pay death taxes or raise money for a leaky roof are over. Which means that if you fancy a William Kent fireplace, you’ll have to buy the house and enjoy it where you found it. “There isn’t going to be another sale like this,” says Garfield-Davies. “Yes, there will be attic sales, but to buy a portion of an interior that would otherwise be heavily listed is not going to happen like this again.”

Among the most important of the architectural offerings are pieces salvaged from Devonshire House. Built in 1733–34 by the third duke of Devonshire, this London palace occupied an entire block (across from today’s Ritz hotel) and was constructed as the ultimate symbol of wealth, style, power—pure bling. William Kent, fresh from designing rooms at Kensington Palace for King George I, was the absolute “it” designer of the day, and his gilt doorcases, entablature, mirror frames and fireplaces would fill Devonshire House. In this setting, two generations later, the legendary Georgiana, fifth Duchess of Devonshire (played by Keira Knightley in the 2008 film The Duchess) threw all-night masked balls and gambling parties, swanning up and down the palace’s gilt staircase with a crystal balustrade.

But by the close of World War I, the social and political London scene had changed greatly for aristocrats, and the Cavendish family sold Devonshire House. Before it was demolished in 1925, Evelyn, the ninth duchess, who had a deep appreciation for architecture and antiques, had all of the interiors photographed and the rooms painstakingly disassembled before the contents were shipped to Chatsworth. The theory is that the family wanted to save these pieces for a future London home or interior. “It was remarkable,” says David Macdonald, a Sotheby’s London furniture specialist. “Under all of this soot were these incredible pieces with little paper labels written in pencil, saying ‘Red drawing room, left door.’ We found Kent’s fireplaces wrapped in newspaper.” The photographs and a series of watercolors that were done in the 1820s helped Sotheby’s accurately place the architectural salvage in specific rooms. That, along with other detective work that made extensive use of Chatsworth’s records, makes the catalogue a valuable piece of scholarship.

Among the Devonshire House pieces that are sure to be hotly sought after are three William Kent 1735 George II carved white marble chimneypieces from the saloon, the green drawing room, and the ball room, all estimated at £200,000–300,000; a George II carved giltwood and gesso architectural frame from the state dining room (est. £30,000–50,000); and a George III gilt-bronze mounted mahogany bookcase, made according to a Thomas Hope design, with a secret door that the fifth duke, William, Georgiana’s husband, and his live-in mistress, Lady Elizabeth Foster, commissioned for his bedroom in 1805 (est. £60,000–80,000).

While Devonshire House is a highlight of the sale, there is much, much more, and the catalogue goes duke by duke from the 16th to 21st centuries. Among the earliest offerings are bits of 15th-century carved oak Gothic tracery from Bolton Abbey (est. from £700). Next up are treasures from Chatsworth. On a recent tour with head curator Matthew Hirst, it was remarkable to see that a collector could go home with the same William and Mary oak paneling and doors (estimates from £700) and exquisite circa-1700 Samuel Watson cedarwood carvings (estimates from £1,000), that are found at Chatsworth. The first duke, who built Chatsworth as we know it today, set out to create a palace with state rooms that would impress King William and Queen Mary when they stopped by for a visit. They never made it, but master carver Watson’s pieces remain, “and some of those that are in the sale actually do appear in Watson’s design books that we have here at Chatsworth” says Hirst. Other pieces in the sale that have familiar-looking siblings at Chatsworth are a William and Mary inlaid walnut cabinet attributed to Gerrit Jensen (est. £8,000–12,000), with similar seaweed marquetry to a Jensen Chatsworth piece and a Queen Anne beveled glass wall mirror attributed to John Gumley (est. £2,000–3,000) that echoes the two massive, signed Gumley mirrors in the Devonshires’ home.

Of course, anything related to Georgiana is of interest for various reasons. For fans of the stylish duchess, there’s her late 18th-century shell collection (est. L3-5,000). But for collectors of fine French furniture, there are various suites of caned seated furniture and tables she commissioned from François Hervé (estimates from £1,200), a name she no doubt obtained from gal pal Marie Antoinette. Georgiana’s son, the sixth duke, known as “the bachelor duke,” inherited his mother’s thirst for the latest fashion and set out to update the Cavendishes’ residences in the latest grand style. Numerous Regency pieces from his era are being sold, including a large gilt-bronze freestanding nine-light candelabrum from 1825, in the manner of Thomas Messenger & Sons (est. £30,000–50,000) that once sat in Chatsworth; and his 1820 “granite carpet”—eight pieces of pink and black speckled slabs (est. £10,000–15,000) that he placed in his study.

The auction even makes its way into the present century with pieces from the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, the former Deborah Mitford, who is offering personal bits of china, jewelry, and walking and shooting sticks, with gentle estimates in the £50­300 price range.

The sale will be on view October 1–4 at Chatsworth in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, which is an easy two-hour train journey from London.

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: October 2010

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