Much excitement this week when Sotheby’s announced the sale of very carefully chosen pieces belonging to the late Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire on the 2nd of March. As the last surviving Mitford sister, the duchess had lived sufficiently long to know Churchill, Hitler, John F. Kennedy, Lucian Freud and Madonna socially. She was photographed by Cecil Beaton, Norman Parkinson, Bruce Weber and Mario Testino.
As chatelaine of Chatsworth House, the Duchess was like Boadicea and delighted in welcoming coach parties to an estate that could have been sold to offset death duties. She and the 11th Duke, Andrew Cavendish, brought Chatsworth back to life. Her friend the Prince of Wales acknowledged that her farm shop in the village of Pilsley was a model for his own Duchy Originals. Though the duchess was social, she was first and foremost a countrywoman.
The Mitford sense of the absurd inherited, I’d surmise, from her eldest sister Nancy allowed the Duchess to delight in the follies of modern life and her books cast a beady, wry eye at the blunting of nuance and the decline in impeccable manners. I recall a very uncomfortable interview with the BBCs Kirsty Wark when the duchess’s magnanimity was severely tested by insensitive questions about her late sisters. The lady batted her tormentor aside like a midge.
The duchess’s final ten years as dowager were spent in the delightful Old Rectory at Edensor. She conceded Chatsworth to the new generation with dignity and allowed the present duke and duchess to ring the changes that every new generation must make. In short Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire was a woman of immense style, great wit and an elegant mind.
Mercifully, the Mitford Archive has been passed to the Chatsworth House Trust and all the bequests the late Duchess made to her family, friends and the estate have gone the way she wished them to. I was particularly pleased to hear that her couture collection has passed to Chatsworth and await the exhibition that will doubtless follow. Despite referring to the fashions modelled by her granddaughter Stella Tennant as ‘pointless clothes’, the duchess clearly shared Nancy Mitford’s passion for Parisian couture.
The present duke is the vice chairman of Sotheby’s so a sale was not unexpected. But as auctions of the estates of celebrated figures go, I predict the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire will prove as popular as she was in life. I said the lots were carefully chosen and believe nothing that belongs at Chatsworth has been offered to public auction. The family jewels were returned to Chatsworth when the late Duke died but there are still important pieces that will headline the sale.
The aquamarine and diamond 1930s dress clips that were a wedding present from the 10th Duke and Mary Duchess will leap over the upper estimate many times over. Even though dress clips are not the most practical pieces of jewellery, they are redolent of the Mitford sister golden era in the 20s and 30s. The diamond heart brooch that the 11th Duke commissioned to celebrate their diamond wedding anniversary doesn’t thrill quite so much.
Of course the jewels can’t compare to the record-breaking sales such as the Duchess of Windsor’s or Elizabeth Taylor’s. The Windsor jewels practically add a nought every time they come back to Sotheby’s for the quality and ingenuity of the pieces. I don’t think collectors are as enamoured of the Duchess of Windsor whereas the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire was a woman who inspired great affection and admiration. This alone will make the duchess’s famed collection of insect brooches – bejewelled bees, spiders and dragonflies – soar above the estimates.
The yellow gold Breguet watch dated 1870 has double Mitford magic having been a gift from Nancy to Debo. One of the most covetable items in the sale is a rare advance copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited inscribed to Debo. Doubtless the sale will go far beyond my budget but a copy of the catalogue will find a place next to the famous 1999 Marilyn Monroe estate sale at Christie’s.
I shall be one of the first in the queue at Chatsworth to see the exhibition accompanying the sale entitled Never a Bore: Deborah Devonshire and Her Set by Cecil Beaton. The exhibit goes up on the 19th of May and will remain at Chatsworth until the 3rd of June 2017. Not coincidentally, Sotheby’s owns the Beaton archive so it is a win-win for all concerned. I shall be heading home to Derbyshire as soon as the exhibition goes up and sincerely hope there is a book to accompany Never A Bore.
Perhaps it was the contrasts in the lives of the Mitford sisters that made them so fascinating: a Francophile authoress of caustically witty novels, the mother of the Blackshirts, a fascist devoted to Hitler, a quiet countrywoman, a communist and a Duchess. What do we have to compare today? The Delevingne sisters who seem to be celebrated for their ability to take selfies with their tongues out who inhabit planet fashion and cannot see beyond it.
The Mitfords were entirely of their era and were raised in that magic period between the world wars that continues to dazzle nostalgic coves like you and I. My claim to fame is that I met three of the Mitford sisters: the Duchess, Lady Mosley and Jessica when I was in my salad days growing up in Derbyshire. Clapping eyes on any one of them was like coming face to face with Cleopatra.