Chatsworth House Crosses the Pond

Treasures from the English stately home spend the summer at Sotheby’s New York.

The summer’s most talked about art exhibition comes with a twist: It isn’t at a museum or an art gallery. 

Treasures From Chatsworth: The Exhibition,” a knockout presentation of 45 masterworks from the storied English stately home Chatsworth House, unfurls at auction house Sotheby’s New York (1334 York Ave., 212.606.7000) from June 28 to Sept. 18. You can’t bid on anything, try as you might. But admission is free.

Think of the show as 500 years of contemporary art. Because, yes, many of the works on view by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt van Rijn, Canaletto and Lucian Freud were newly created when members of the Cavendish family snapped them up for the big house in Derbyshire, seat of the Duke of Devonshire. 

Duke or no duke, Chatsworth is no ordinary homestead. With more than 125 rooms, gardens laid out by Capability Brown and a luxuriant 500-year history, Chatsworth House is everything Downtown Abbey aspired to be, including real. Among the glittering who’s who of Chatsworth residents are Mary, Queen of Scots and John F. Kennedy’s sister Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, whose husband, heir to the estate, was killed during World War II. Deborah Cavendish (1920–2014), wife of the 11th duke, was one of the six fabled Mitford sisters who wafted through English literature, politics and high society. Scottish supermodel Stella Tennant is the niece of the current duke and duchess.

To salute Chatsworth’s summer holiday in Manhattan, we’ve compiled the Chatsworth Chronicles. Hum a few bars of “Jerusalem” (or the Beatles) to get in the mood, and read on.

Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, England. (©Chatsworth House Trust)

Chapter One: The House 

In her 2010 memoir “Wait for Me!,” Duchess Deborah observed that Chatsworth’s original 16th-century house had the good fortune to be rebuilt between 1686 and 1707, “a time when it was impossible to invent anything ugly.” With a facade of local stone and a design that distilled the best of golden-age English architecture, the house is a seamless fit with the landscape. The 17th-century author Daniel Defoe declared it “the most beautiful place in the world.”

Chatsworth House is undeniably one of a kind. Not only is it well-stocked with lavishly appointed sitting rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms, libraries and other functional spaces, Chatsworth also boasts state rooms: imposing, art-filled backdrops designed as eye-catching pass-throughs, built on the off chance that King William and Queen Mary might stop by. (They never did.) 

As Duchess Deborah saw it, the house’s charm derived from the undirected way it grew over the centuries, with a congenial jumble of styles and periods tossed together by generations of acquisitive inhabitants. “You find a hideous thing next to something beautiful,” she wrote. “[Yet] each generation of Cavendishes had an unerring talent for employing the best people to build, to decorate, to garden and to buy.”

Historic homes, of course, reside in the real world. By 1950, social change, staggering estate taxes and bygone extravagances had come home to roost, threatening Chatsworth’s future. Following massive sales of land and art, a charitable trust was established, turning the house and surrounding parklands into a magnificent museum open to the public. But the house is still home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, who oversee the property and pay rent for their rooms. “Chatsworth was built to show off the people who lived there, and now the house shows off itself,” says Peregrine Cavendish, the 12th and current duke. 

The tiara from the seven-piece set of Victorian jewelry known as the Devonshire Parure. (©Devonshire Collection, reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees)

Chapter Two: The Art

The breadth of Chatsworth’s holdings, considered one of Europe’s finest art collections, is, well, breathtaking, from ancient Egyptian steles to a 21st-century computer portrait by artist Michael Craig-Martin. Because the collection was assembled by a family and not a city or a nation, it’s been shaped—and, at its best, enriched—by the personal tastes and quirks of its owners, characteristics inherent in exhibition objects like the Devonshire Parure, a spectacular seven-piece suite of High Victorian jewelry worn by the 6th duke’s niece at the coronation of Tsar Alexander II in 1856, and a ruby red Peeress Robe sported by Duchess Deborah at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

Anthony van Dyck’s portrait drawing of artist, draughtsman and collector Jan Snelleck. (©Devonshire Collection, reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees)

Highlighting the show are stellar examples of Old Master drawings and ancestral portraits, two of the collection’s aesthetic superpowers. Leonardo da Vinci’s mythological pen, ink and wash drawing “Leda and the Swan” was created while the artist was at work on the “Mona Lisa,” circa 1506. Rendered a century and change later, Anthony van Dyck’s striking drawing “Portrait of Jan Snelleck” is a fine example of how—and why—the influential Flemish artist was a revolutionary portraitist.

“Woman in a White Shirt”: Lucian Freud’s unconventional commissioned portrait of Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire. (©Devonshire Collection, reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees)

For a seismically different approach to portraiture, there’s “Woman in a White Shirt” (1958–60), Lucian Freud’s psychologically charged rendering of Duchess Deborah. Naturalistic and raw, the painting shocked early audiences and still unnerves viewers. Peregrine Cavendish has called the picture “the most beautiful thing at Chatsworth, and not just because it is of my mother.” Duchess Deborah, in turn, recounted an exchange between her husband and a local visitor shortly after the painting went on view. “Who is that woman?” the visitor asked. “It’s my wife,” said the duke. “Well, thank God it’s not mine,” came the reply.

Tony Award nominee David Korins’ rendering of the immersive exhibition gallery for the Chatsworth treasures at Sotheby’s New York. (Courtesy David Korins)

Chapter Three: The Setting

Besides hosting the Chatsworth show, Sotheby’s is celebrating its 275th anniversary, an excellent reason for a serious revamp of the former cigar factory that’s been its New York home since 1982. Designed by Shohei Shigematsu of OMA, the architectural firm founded by Rem Koolhaas, the new exhibition space is appropriately Chatsworthesque in scale, reimagined with 40 airy galleries of varying size that fill the building’s first four floors. An inviting summer retreat, in other words, for the 45 notable visitors from England.

The objects are showcased in a witty installation featuring blown-up details from Chatsworth—ball-and-claw chair feet, grazing sheep, you get the idea. The installation is the brainchild of creative director David Korins, who’s known for his set designs for “Hamilton,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and the 2019 Academy Awards, among other projects. 

Welcome, then, to the show with everything.