She’s one of Britain’s most celebrated chatelaines, a prolific nonfiction writer and an entrepreneur who helped spark the country’s current craze for farmers’ markets and organic produce. But looking back over nine decades, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire sees her talents differently.
“Skating is the only thing I’ve ever been able to do!” says Deborah Cavendish — otherwise known as Debo and the youngest of the famed Mitford sisters — with characteristic self-deprecation, on the eve of a new exhibit marking her 90th birthday later this month.
This story first appeared in the March 12, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The show, “Celebrating Deborah Cavendish,” opens Sunday at Chatsworth, the 1,800-acre Derbyshire estate that’s been in the family for five centuries. The aforementioned ice skates are on display, along with photos of the young duchess gliding across a lake near St. Moritz and other artifacts from her extraordinary life.
Among them are the robes and red velvet, fur-trimmed dress she wore to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. “The dress was ancient and the velvet was so soft that touching it was like touching nothing at all,” she says of the 18th-century piece. “I had to ask the Queen’s permission to wear it, because it was off-the-shoulder,” a fashion no-no at the time.
There is also an army of bejeweled bug brooches, many of them purchased by her late husband, Andrew, from the London jeweler Armour Winston, and her aquamarine and diamond engagement ring. Affectionate notes, sketches, and couture jackets from her old pal Hubert de Givenchy hang alongside dresses by Jean Patou, Oscar de la Renta, and Balmain, as well as hats by Lanvin and Philip Treacy.
There’s even a niche dedicated to Elvis memorabilia — she’s been a fan for years — and which contains some of her diaries, which include recollections of dancing with John F. Kennedy, whom she describes as “rather boring, though nice.” (The late duke’s elder brother Lord Harrington married Kennedy’s sister Kathleen but was killed in World War II and Andrew became the heir. He died in 2004.)
In addition to honoring the Dowager Duchess’ birthday, the exhibit marks the reopening of Chatsworth to the public after a $21 million overhaul (the first since the 1830s). David Mlinaric, the British interior designer who specializes in historic interiors, oversaw the decoration of the private and public areas of the house, the core of which was built during the Tudor era.
Mlinaric chose eau de nil moiré and satin-striped fabric for the walls and window dressings of one particular room dedicated to another famous Duchess of Devonshire, the gambling, rock- and mineral-collecting, fashion-forward Georgiana. Georgiana’s mineral cabinets, filled with chunks of rock and crystal she hauled home from her trips to the Alps, and the famous portrait of her by Gainsborough are also on view.
Elsewhere in the estate, traditional paintings of Devonshire family members are accompanied by a Michael Craig-Martin video portrait of Laura Burlington, wife of the current heir, the Earl of Burlington. The 44 colors in Craig-Martin’s work change constantly, so the image is never the same. “Sometimes I love what I see, and sometimes it’s my worst nightmare when I see myself with pink or orange eyes,” says Burlington during a walk-through of the gallery. (Craig-Martin says the picture reflects “what it is to be a living person, changing all the time.”)
Chatsworth’s refurbishment was long overdue, says the current duke, Peregrine Cavendish. Though these days, he admits, the estate, which is owned by the Chatsworth House Trust, is not really about his family.
“It’s the house, the garden, the park and the people that make it what it is. I am proud of Chatsworth and lucky to have grown up here,” he says. Then, sounding much like his mother, he adds, “I used to roller-skate around the rooms.”