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Remembering Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire (1920-2014)

PUBLISHED: 17:00 03 November 2014 | UPDATED: 20:21 23 October 2015

The Dowager Duchess at home in Edensor  Photo: Bridget Flemming

The Dowager Duchess at home in Edensor Photo: Bridget Flemming

Chatsworth Photo Library

Pat Ashworth looks back on treasured memories of past meetings

The wedding of the 11th Duke and Duchess of DevonshireThe wedding of the 11th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire

I love going to Chatsworth. I let out a sigh of pleasure at the beauty and familiarity of it from the instant I rumble over the cattle grid at Edensor to the moment I round the bend and sight the House in all its glory. Having had the privilege for so many years of interviewing members of the Devonshire family, I feel a personal sadness at the passing of the Dowager Duchess, whose company I greatly enjoyed and from whom I learned so much.

I remember in particular and with great affection a late October day in 1999, with autumn winds blowing and yellow maple trees radiant as sunbursts, when she took me on a privileged tour of the garden. We went from the Cascade with its clear, tumbling water – ‘I had a furious letter from a woman this summer who said, “How disgraceful to allow children to paddle in the Cascade!”’ she said with relish – to marvel at Paxton’s genius in the Emperor Fountain, that stunning jet of water visible like some mysterious spiral of smoke to walkers on Baslow Edge.

We talked of Paxton’s genius and of Capability Brown, men who could imagine a future landscape. We saw her own capacity for that in the famously beautiful Serpentine Hedge of 1500 beeches that she planted in 1953, and the double row of 208 red-twigged limes that exquisitely frame the house from the Canal. A garden was an ever-changing thing, she said. ‘The one who made the change always had the foresight to see what it would like when settled long years afterwards.’

We drove up to the Carriage House, but not to a space marked grandly, ‘Reserved for the Duchess’: she parked her vehicle casually amongst visitors’ cars on the grass, and we strolled with the dogs just as everyone else was doing. ‘Sometimes they recognise me, if there’s been a television programme, and if they do, then they’re terribly kind and polite,’ she said. ‘But I like to know what people really think.’ Upstairs in the house on one occasion, accompanied by the dogs and unrecognised, she had been berated by a visitor who told her sternly, ‘You know, that’s not playing the game. Dogs aren’t allowed in here.’ She told him, ‘Well, these dogs work here actually’ and says in the man’s defence, ‘He was only trying to look after the place, which is really nice.’

The 11th Duke and Duchess of DevonshireThe 11th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire

Over the springy Salisbury Lawns with their ancient mix of wild flowers, we headed for the Jack Pond and one of the Duchess’s favourite water sculptures, Revelation, by Angela Conner. It stands in the centre of the water, a giant, tulip-shaped form which appears at first to be still. ‘It takes five minutes to unfold. We just have to sit and wait,’ the Duchess said.

A small appreciative crowd gathered. As the extravagant metal leaves jauntily, audaciously unfolded, they revealed a great golden globe looking for all the world as though it had fallen from some distant galaxy. There was a concerted gasp. We watched hypnotically as it closed again, releasing a torrent of water like an afterthought. The Duchess’s pleasure at our pleasure was undisguised. ‘Once you start watching it, you can’t move. You have to see it do it over and over again,’ she said. The man next to us had worked out the engineering behind it, based on water pressure. He thought Paxton would have appreciated it and so did we.

Our last encounter for this magazine was in her bright and book-laden sitting room at the Old Vicarage. ‘It’s not half bad, is it?’ she said in contentment of the favourite furnishings she brought from the House – which she had deemed ‘too big for one old woman’ – and the view of her garden. At 90, she had just completed a punishing but exhilarating schedule of public appearances following the instant success of her warm, witty and very candid autobiography, Wait for Me! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister.

The books were everywhere, awaiting signing: six enormous crates in the hallway and mountains of loose copies geometrically arranged so that she could pick them up one by one without dislodging the others. We drank tea. And she talked of letter-writing (she drew on 12,000 letters for the memoir), and of the family nature of Chatsworth that means it has never been a museum, the ‘dogs and children that mess up a property. They keep you in your place. You can’t get away with anything. I have a great-grandchild of 12 who gets first in science every term and I have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.’

The 11th Duke and Duchess celebrating their Golden Wedding anniversary in 1991  Photo: Ron DugginsThe 11th Duke and Duchess celebrating their Golden Wedding anniversary in 1991 Photo: Ron Duggins

The author of a succession of hugely enjoyable and informative books, and with a brilliant mind, she was always self-deprecating about her prowess as a writer and claimed to be totally uneducated, famously summing up her brief experience of life as a weekly school boarder in Oxford, thus: ‘I arrived at the school on a Wednesday and went home for the weekend on Friday. By that time, I had fainted in geometry, failed to understand the point of netball and been sick several times.’

She was a mimic, putting on an authentic Yorkshire accent as she told me about the child from Sheffield who came to see one of the early milking demonstrations in the farmyard. ‘I don‘t think he’d been in the countryside before,’ she observed, ‘and I said, “What do you think of that?” He said, “That’s the most disgoosting thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m never going to drink milk again.”’

I recall with the greatest pleasure an interview with her in 2002, when her book, The House, was published, an update on one she had written 20 years earlier at the request of Harold Macmillan. Her office at Chatsworth overflowed with books and paintings, photographs and objets d’art; there was tea on the table and a warm glow from the fire and from eccentric lamps in the shape of owls, ducks and sheep, ‘dismissed as kitsch by those who prefer something more expensive,’ she said with mischief. She always talked of the mish-mash of ‘things that have landed here from other houses and been put back in other houses’, so that Chatsworth had ‘never been overwhelmed by art of a certain date or style, which makes it more interesting really.’

So many books, so many exhibitions, so many opportunities to stand with her in front of paintings or sculptures in a place so drenched in history. The depth of the collection was so extraordinary, she said, ‘that until you’ve lived here for 40 or 50 years, you have no idea what there is to be called on.’ I remember an exhibition in 2000 marking 50 years since the Duke’s succession to the title and the couple’s 80th birthdays. She took great pleasure from two exhibited works by one of her favourite artists, Elizabeth Frink: one, Dog with Paw Raised, a scribbled drawing in black crayon depicting a frisky, almost cartoon dog; the other a wise, lean hound in bronze. ‘Isn’t she clever with animals?’ she observed. ‘I much prefer them to her humans, though I’m in a minority.’

And I recall standing with her in front of the portrait painted by Lucien Freud, Woman in a White Shirt (1956-7). It is a rebellious-looking Deborah Mitford, a face slashed with lines that is undoubtedly the face of a young woman but which seems to preface old age. ‘Freuds are a bit of a shock but they are so brilliantly clever,’ she reflected then, on the occasion of the exhibition two years after her husband’s death in 2004, Memories of Andrew Devonshire; an extraordinary 20th century life.

‘The person grows into what he has painted. It looks like an old woman, as I look now,’ she commented. The two workmen who carried the portrait into the Duke’s London house famously asked what the subject of the painting was, and on being told by the Duke, ‘That’s my wife’, one replied, ‘Well, thank God it’s not my wife.’ We regard Annigoni’s portrait of her, painted just two years earlier and hanging on this occasion next to the Freud. The chin, hair and eyes are exactly the same but this is a regal, romantic Duchess in high-necked blouse, pearls and a softly draped wrap. ‘That’s artists for you, and that’s what’s interesting for people to see,’ was her comment.

Always she spoke of how fortunate she was to live at Chatsworth, despite the sheer hard work of the years from 1959 when the Duke inherited the estate on the sudden death of his father and the couple took on the burden of death duties and the revival of the estate. The absurdity of living in a house with 297 rooms was never lost on her, as the opening to her book, The House, suggested: ‘We live in furnished rooms. There are a great many of them and they are very well furnished.’

In one of our interviews, she observed, ‘I never take it for granted. Coming home from being away, I’m always struck by the beauty of the place. Every day when I wake up in the morning, I realise how lucky I am.’ How lucky I was, too, to have been given the opportunity to see Chatsworth through her eyes.

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