Magazine article The Spectator

Taste and Passion - with a Dash of Luck

Magazine article The Spectator

Taste and Passion - with a Dash of Luck

Article excerpt

Taste and passion - with a dash of luck THE DEVONSHIRE INHERITANCE: FIVE CENTURIES OF COLLECTING AT CHATSWORTH by Nicolas Barker Art Services International £40, pp. 431, ISBN 0883971380, available from Heywood Hill, 10 Curzon Street, London W1J 5HH

Producers of 'period dramas', on film or television, go to tremendous trouble to create the right 'period look'. In the late Victorian town house, everything is late Victorian; in the Regency rectory, everything is Regency; and so on. All of which is, of course, absurd - not as absurd as having late Victorian things in the Regency house, admittedly, but absurd nonetheless. For most well-stocked houses - except those of the mail-ordering nouveaux riches - have always contained a mixture of styles, an accumulation of objects from earlier periods.

If this is true of any house where the contents have been added to over several generations, how much truer it is of Chatsworth, whose owners stopped being nouveaux riches some time in the 16th century. Here we are faced not just with many generations of ownership by the Cavendish family, but with centuries of serious collecting, on a scale that could be matched by few other private collectors in the country. The result is a concentration of paintings, drawings, furniture, sculpture, books, manuscripts, gold, silver and other objets d'art that must represent, to the historian of taste, what the Roman Forum represented to early archaeologists: layer upon layer of inexhaustibly fascinating evidence.

For the casual visitor, guidebook in hand, separating those layers may not be an easy task; a typical guidebook entry will tell you more about what something is than about when and why it was acquired. And no tourist, even in this most touristfriendly of stately homes, can expect to experience the whole range of treasures that Chatsworth holds: the Inigo Jones drawings, for example, or the Hobbes manuscripts, or the present Duke's collection of Lucian Freuds.

But a dazzling exhibition, which has just opened in New York, now makes that experience possible; and those who do not have the chance to see it in New York, or in its other venues in the United States later in 2004-5, can still explore the history of the Chatsworth collections in fascinating detail in the exhibition catalogue. Its author, the bibliophile Nicolas Barker, chose all the exhibits, and has knowledgeable and sharp-eyed things to say about each one. Most importantly, he has organised them in a way that makes it possible to follow, step by step, the accumulation of a great collection from the Elizabethan period to the present day.

As is so often the case in the history of collecting, good taste needed to be combined, at crucial moments, with good fortune. It was fortunate that the first Duke of Devonshire developed a taste for drawings in the 1680s (a period when most rich collectors still thought paintings hugely superior), and more fortunate still that his son, who inherited this taste, outwitted rival collectors and bought one of the best collections of drawings ever assembled (by the son of Govaert Flinck, Rembrandt's pupil).

It was wonderfully lucky that the Cavendish family acquired by marriage, in the mid-18th century, the entire estate of the aesthete Earl of Burlington. Accidents of birth - or rather, failure to bear - also brought about a consolidation of Cavendish family fortunes, when the colossal library of the scientist Henry Cavendish (the son of a younger son) was passed to Chatsworth in the early 19th century. …

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