Chatsworth House Style review

The Telegraph

By admin In Features

Visitors to Chatsworth “see the formal tip of the iceberg… they totter out into the fresh air exhausted after three furlongs of red carpet, a 101 stairs up and 62 down.” So noted the late Deborah “Debo” Cavendish, aka the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, about her majestic family seat in Derbyshire, home to the Cavendish family since the 16th century. However, with its new exhibition House Style, Chatsworth is aiming to add a touch of glamour to the traditional red-rope-and-gift-shop stately home experience.

The idea for a fashion exhibition at Chatsworth came about after Laura Roundell — a former model and fashion buyer married to the heir to the estate — was searching the house’s textile rooms with her mother in law, the current Duchess of Devonshire, for a christening gown. After unpacking dusty boxes filled with everything from livery and coronation robes to Jean-Philippe Worth couture , she invited her friend Hamish Bowles, the International Editor-at-Large of American Vogue, to curate the best pieces into a show.

The result is the largest exhibition Chatsworth has ever held, some six years in the making and taking over almost every room in the house. It’s sponsored by Gucci, as part of a three-year collaboration that has also seen the design house shooting a new ad campaign in the Capability Brown-designed grounds. Patrick Kinmonth and Antonio Monfreda, the creative duo behind the 2012 Valentino retrospective at Somerset House, have added an air of drama to proceedings, via touches such as a disembodied gold hand clutching an Order of the Garter Star, awarded to all the Dukes, and a miniature theatre which will dramatise the set designs of 16th century architect Inigo Jones.

One particularly fascinating cabinet tells the story of the Chatsworth in a series of objects, from the belt buckle of the formidable Bess of Hardwick — who became the wealthiest and most powerful woman in England after Elizabeth I, and oversaw the building of the house in 1552 — right through to the nose ring sported by Stella Tennant, the granddaughter of Andrew Cavendish, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, during her days as a punky supermodel in the Nineties.

Along the way, we’re also treated to the solid-gold dog collar made for the 6th Duke of Devonshire’s spaniel Tawney, and a pair of slippers emblazoned with pictures of Elvis that were owned by Debo; the youngest Mitford sister, who died in 2014 at the age of 94, was apparently a big fan.

Wool jumpers made by Lords, commissioned by the 11th Duke of Devonshire.

Among all the adornments and accessories are various letters, photos and scrapbooks. Intimate highlights include a polaroid of Adele Astaire — Fred’s sister and dance partner who married Charles Cavendish, younger brother of the tenth Duke of Devonshire, in 1932 — mugging for the camera in a tuxedo T-shirt; and a heartbreaking letter from John F Kennedy’s beloved sister Kathleen (“Kick”), who married Billy Cavendish in 1944. The duke-to-be was killed in action four months later, and she died in a plane crash not long after.

But the show’s very best moments are the ones that make use of Chatsworth’s incredible art collection, which spans 4,000 years. In the house’s candle-lit chapel — where Damien Hirst’s gold sinew-bearing sculpture Saint Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain stands below Antonio Verrio’s 17th-century ceiling painting The Incredulity of St. Thomas — you’ll find a haunting collection of christening gowns, ghostly wedding dresses and chic funeral attire.

Magic also occurs when the fabrics and fittings of the rooms interplay with the clothes. The sumptuous turquoise “Georgiana” corridor, filled with portraits of the 18th century Duchess of Devonshire known as the “Empress of Fashion”, is the perfect place to display the giant green Galliano ball gown that could’ve been worn by the famously flamboyant Duchess herself, but was actually part of a Mario Testino shoot that Stella Tennant did for Vogue in 2006. Meanwhile, in the Harry Potter-esque library, floats a Stephen Jones fascinator made from the pages of a Robert Burns poetry book, which the caption tells us “was made for Stella Tennant when walking in Scotland”. Let’s hope it wasn’t a windy day.

Fashion fans will adore the extraordinary items such as Christian Dior’s sugared-almond pink 1953 “Carmel” gown, or Hussein Chalayan’s rare paint-splattered paper dress, but it’s the quirkier, more personal objects that shine a new light on the family. It’s only a shame that, for the most part, they’ve chosen not to include famous photographs of the clothes actually being worn. Quirkiest of the lot are a series of woollen jumpers embroidered by the 11th Duke of Devonshire — clearly a pioneer of the slogan sweatshirt trend — with memorable phrases such as “Never Marry A Mitford”, “Bollocks” and his racehorse “Gay George” (apparently named by “an innocent Irish farmer”). One wonders why they didn’t reproduce these particular slogans as T-shirts in the giftshop.

There are so many treasures to behold that it’s difficult to believe they’ve all been languishing in the attic for so long, and will no doubt be carefully packed away in tissue paper again when the exhibition is over. Stately-home purists might not like the show — my guide, Diana, tells me that some visitors even grumble about the putting up of Christmas decorations at Chatsworth — but there’s no denying that these stitches in time breathe new life into a world previously preserved in aspic.

House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth runs from Saturday to October 22. Tickets are on sale now: chatsworth.org

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