An inquisitive eye, an acquisitive nature

Mary Leland enjoys a talk by Peregrine Cavendish — the Duke of Devonshire — on his family’s extensive collection

THE talk at Lismore Castle last week by Peregrine Cavendish, the 12th Duke of Devonshire, on ‘Collecting Past and Present’ was hugely enjoyable and informative.

Cavendish, a descendant of that Earl of Cork who made Lismore his residence nearly five centuries ago, didn’t dwell for long on the treasury already garnered for his stately home at Chatsworth in Derbyshire. He reveres it, but his taste and that of his wife Amanda is in thrall to the contemporary. When he spoke about the extraordinary artistic riches of Chatsworth, it was with affectionate expertise.

Cavendish is no evangelist, but it was in revealing his enthusiasm for new ways of seeing new things that personal identification and excitement were obvious. These are not the only excitements of his life, given his significant commitments, ranging from racing to art galleries such as the Wallace Collection. But they colour the context of choice and acquisition, especially as they reflect the modern awareness of his duchess, born Amanda Heywood-Lonsdale.

“When I was a child at Chatsworth I was surrounded by very beautiful and usually very old things,” says Cavendish. “Amanda’s mother understood the new. She had a really brilliant eye and she was able to find the work of artists who were then at the beginning of their careers — like an early self-portrait of Picasso, for example.”

Yet, once the duke’s father Andrew and mother Deborah made Chatsworth their home, the Devonshires weren’t far behind in the contemporary stakes. “Perhaps my father will be best remembered for the series of family portraits he commissioned from Lucien Freud, at a time when that painter was extraordinarily unfashionable. People would agree to sit for him on the understanding that they wouldn’t have to buy his pictures.”

There was an important lesson in that: “The Freud portrait of my mother was not popular, but I loved it from the start. It is not an easy picture, but I realised also that my father had bought these things and stood by them. That gave me confidence to stick by my own taste, my own choices.”

As the choices were shown they brought with them little items of family history. The dukes from first to current unrolled in a script which included the inspired 6th (or Bachelor) Duke and his rebuilding of Lismore Castle.

This, along with so many of his marvellous acquisitions, left the estate physically and artistically improved but in debt to the value of at least e100m and therefore inhibiting spending for several generations. There seemed to be no conflict between the gorgeous William Ashford landscapes (now back in Lismore) and the abstracts of Sean Scully. The collection of Old Master drawings from the 18th century keep their place at Chatsworth but so does David Hockney — his ‘Parc des Sources Vichy’ was acquired by the duke and duchess some years after Cavendish had bought his first Hockney for the price of £18 — “all I had in my pocket!”.

Now with a deepening interest in ceramics, pottery and furniture, the duke is confident that the many thousands of visitors to Chatsworth are increasingly appreciative of the challenges of modern painting and sculpture: “It doesn’t always have to be about something.”

What he and his wife have brought to Chatsworth are for the family. The house is not a museum. But sharing is central to the Devonshire credo. We can remember the loan back to Cork in 2011 of The Book of Lismore from its lodging in Chatsworth; and the ogham stones lining the corridor at UCC were a gift from the 9th Duke of Devonshire. Although the policy is distinct from Chatsworth, the duke’s son, William Burlington, and the Castle Arts Gallery at Lismore present a contemporary exhibition every year, and several installations enrich the castle gardens.

Condensing a perspective of 500 years into a mere 60 minutes, the duke had reminded us that the legacy of responsibility for the privilege of possession is expressed in a commitment to share it with others.

*Forthcoming events at Lismore Castle Arts include a talk on portraits in the Devonshire Collection by Charles Noble, curator at Chatsworth, on May 28.

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