How Debo Made the English Country House Fabulous

With her eclectic decorator’s touch, the youngest Mitford sister turned Chatsworth House into one of Britain’s favorite stately homes.  

Simon Upton / The Interior Archive
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There is a story that the late Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire—the youngest of the six Mitford sisters, who married the 11th duke, Andrew—liked to tell about a visit from her friend Oscar de la Renta. Debo, as she was affectionately called, had run out of ideas about how to arrange flowers in the dining room for his meal at Chatsworth, the couple’s palatial home in Derbyshire, three hours by car from London.

“So I brought a buff cochin cock, winner at the Royal Show, and a black bantam hen indoors,” she wrote in 2002: “They sat quietly on wood shavings on the dining table in two small glass tanks. As luck would have it some Welsummer chicks hatched that morning, so they arrived cheeping away in hay-lined baskets next to Paul Storr’s 1820 silver ice pails with eagle handles, which were piled high with white and brown eggs.” Says the late duke’s former secretary Helen Marchant: “It was fabulous: The eggs in the silver pails were stacked into the shapes of an old-fashioned blancmange.” 

The art of table decoration, Debo style: witty, elegant, with a kink that transformed the dowdy into the divine. “Those eggs. Those chickens. That shot by Bruce Weber of her feeding them corn in Balmain,” says Debo’s grandson William, the Earl of Burlington. “Like all great storytellers, my grandmother understood the power of myth.” Above all, she was a “doer,” he adds. “My grandmother did things the only way she knew, which was by getting on with it herself. She belonged to the postwar generation of ‘make do and mend’—a funny contrast be-cause she'd say this dressed in Schiaparelli.

Born in 1920, Debo was brought up in an extraordinary, original-thinking family whose members all went on to contribute significantly to a period of dramatic flux in England, when everything, from politics to the economy, and even society, was being challenged by World War II and its aftermath. As the daughter of David Freeman-Mitford, Lord Redesdale, she was considered minor aristocracy, a debutante at ease with dukes but by no means destined to marry one, which she did, in 1941. Bold, creative, and controversial, her siblings included Jessica, who became a prominent Communist and author; Diana, who had a well-documented affair with British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley; and Unity, who befriended Hitler. Nancy was the most successful of the writers in the family, with best sellers like Love in a Cold Climate. Debo, even by her own description, was always considered the most conventional. The irony is that when she died, a year ago in September, it was Debo who commanded the biggest reputation of all the Mitfords.

Partly this was derived from her chicken fascination, popularized by some of the world’s great fashion photographers. It can also be attributed to the 13 books Debo authored, which included amusing collections of letters. Perhaps more than anything she is remembered for the imprint she left on one of the most important stately homes in England and its influence on the aesthetics of the English country house.

“What is so appealing of Debo’s style to us Americans is the idea of approachability,” says interior designer Michael Smith, whose most high-profile commission has been the Obama White House. “The combination of exquisite grandeur with a rolling up of the sleeves, an ease—Debo encapsulated this,” he says. “The American equivalent is Bill Blass’s serving meat loaf on 18th-century platters. It’s this notion of being so sophisticated that you can be informal. Debo understood that humanism is very important to decorating.”

Adds British architect and interior designer Ben Pentreath, “She captured better than anyone else that grandiosity needed to be combined with nonchalant carelessness, that rich portraits and dusty silk lampshades need a simple clay flowerpot of white geraniums to bring a dash of life to what could otherwise so easily turn into a museum.”

But it wasn’t just the surface aesthetic that Debo affected. During their 46-year tenure at Chatsworth, the late duke and duchess turned around the fortunes of one of England’s most well-known historic estates, which incorporates several villages and 35,000 acres of land, all revolving around the honey-stoned, almost 300-room baroque palace, first constructed in 1551 and stuffed with world-class collections of art.

The odds were stacked against the couple. After World War II, an inheritance tax of 80 percent decimated the family’s wealth. The Devonshires’ exquisite Elizabethan home, Hardwick Hall, about 20 miles away, was handed over to the nation in lieu of payment of death duties. Also relinquished was the Memling triptych (at one time guests in Chatsworth’s library would lean against it, exhausted from dancing, before it was transferred to the National Gallery in 1957). To ensure the family would not have to sell off valuables again, Andrew set up the Chatsworth House Trust: The Devonshires would pay rent to live in the house, but should death duties again be owed or the next generation decide to live elsewhere, Chatsworth would survive for the nation, with the estate’s upkeep sustained by visitor fees. His foresight proved remarkable: In 2000, 19 years after the trust’s founding, its accounts moved into the black, with Chatsworth transformed into one of England’s most well-loved attractions. More than 600,000 people visit annually.

For both the duke and Debo, however, it wasn’t meant to happen like this. Andrew inherited his title and its responsibilities in 1950, after Edward “Eddie” Cavendish, the 10th Duke of Devonshire, died unexpectedly following a heart attack. It was a double whammy since Andrew’s older brother, William “Billy” Cavendish, the Marquess of Hartington, had been killed in action in Belgium in September 1944. (Billy’s wife, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, sister to John F. Kennedy, died in a plane crash four years after her spouse.) Throughout its 460-year history, Chatsworth had been used as a temporary home, on a yearly circuit dictated by “the season.” Thus Andrew and Debo’s move into Chatsworth in 1959 represented just the second time that the house was permanently occupied.

“At a time when country houses were being sold and demolished, one a week, as once-great families retreated from the burden of running a rambling pile at the center of a feudal estate, the duke and duchess’s decision to move back into Chatsworth was a seismic moment of resistance against what felt like a hopeless tide of destruction and decay,” Pentreath says.

“I was about 12 when we moved in,” recalls Peregrine “Stoker” Cavendish, Andrew’s son. “I remember how dark it felt, how cold and unlived in.”

Compare that to the home today, teeming with children and grandchildren. Since Andrew’s death, in 2004, Stoker, as the 12th Duke of Devonshire, has run Chatsworth with his wife, Amanda. Now the home is in the hands of the next generation, says Stoker’s son, William, with his mother’s endeavors to nurture Chatworth’s interiors and fortunes less talked about than his grandmother’s but no less effective. For while establishing the Chatsworth House Trust was a critical achievement, it was Debo who gave Chatsworth its public-facing flair, which she underpinned with her unique commercial nous. “She didn’t have meetings. She had no corporate structure; she never did a return-on-investment calculation,” says Stoker. “It sounds amateurish, but it worked. She turned Chatsworth into a business.”

This included the establishment of two restaurants (“when there was no such thing as catering, just a cold tap,” remembers Stoker) and the creation of the Chatsworth Estate Farm Shop, in 1977 (a model later copied by everyone, from those running Daylesford to the Prince of Wales). “Deborah and the late duke saved not only an icon of English heritage but more importantly the local community,” says Martin Brudnizki, the interior designer of the Ivy in London and the Soho Beach House Miami: “You can feel the legacy in the villages around Chatsworth. Everyone, including farmers drinking in the local pub, believes in that great house.

I first came to Chatsworth when I was 16—on July 6, 1990, for William’s coming-of-age party. I was a friend of his sister Jasmine’s. With Capability Brown-designed parkland that rolls into a long, unfenced valley backed by moody English moorland, the house was lit up by floodlights. There were beautiful people (Stella Tennant, Debo’s granddaughter), amusing people (Andrew Parker-Bowles, thrown from the bucking-bronco machine), and kedgeree at 3 a.m. There were gate-crashers (Jerry Hall) and fireworks synchronized to Beethoven’s Fifth. Prince Charles lent his Arabian-style tent (he couldn’t come, owing to a broken arm from a polo match). There were dancers on floating pontoons in the garden’s 314-yard-long canal. I didn’t talk to a boy all night, but I was swept off my feet. The moment I remember best of all was inside the private Blue Drawing Room, where I found myself when my feet started to hurt. The room was covered in Lucian Freuds—one of them a 1956 portrait of the duchess. (“Someone heard an old lady say, sadly, to her friend, ‘That’s the Dowager Duchess. It was taken the year she died,’” recounted Debo in her 2002 book, The House: “I was thirty-four when it was painted, but the old lady had a point.”)

Six years after the party, I started working as a researcher for Debo’s sister Jessica, who was revising her 1963 best seller, The American Way of Death. For a year I was copied on a series of letters exchanged between the two sisters about the relative merits of English undertakers compared with their Texan counterparts’. “My mother never stopped writing letters,” remembers Stoker: “Twenty a day—more sometimes. She always had a block of paper on her knee. And millions of notes. It wasn't a Filofax, but that's how she ran Chatsworth, and it worked.

If I felt like Cinderella on the night of that party, then today—on a brisk morning, with the wind blowing cold off the moors—I feel like Alice in Wonderland stepping into a fantastical world of 17th-century brocades and 15-foot-tall four-poster beds. I pass through 12-foot-high doorways and wander through rooms sequestering Egyptian stelae from 1340 b.c. and Tintorettos. Somewhere in the collection is a pram made for a goat to pull, and the pantomime-size coronation chairs of Queen Adelaide and William IV. While there are numerous Old Masters that I recognize on sight (Rembrandts, Gainsboroughs, Halses), there is something equally mesmerizing about the less predictable quirks: the Michael Craig-Martin digital portrait of William’s wife, Lady Burlington, which constantly changes in electronic spells of neon; a geode revealing a heart of amethysts that Debo gave her husband.

The scale is hard to grasp. Chatsworth is a house measured in acres not square feet. Debo talked of how a bag put down in a rare part of the house might be lost for months, how “children can roller skate for miles without going out of doors.” Curtains for one room—the South Sketch Gallery—required sewing by hand a quarter of a mile of fabric.

“I don’t always know the quickest way to get from one place to another,” admits Stoker, the current duke, who has done lots to enhance Chatsworth since moving there, in 2004. So I reach for the facts: There are 1.3 acres of roof, 297 rooms, 17 staircases, 558 doors, 397 windows, 26 bathtubs, and 112 fireplaces. Today half of Chatsworth has been restored by the current duke and duchess as part of a master plan costing upwards of $16.5 million. The project has been under way for six years, with work on the North Wing slated to start next year. They have added 14 windows to the sketch galleries and a new permanent gallery for ceramics in what were formerly bathrooms and service rooms.

Lost in a sea of numbers, I ask William, the next heir, to tell me his favorite bit of the house. “The plunge pool,” he says. “I only found it eight years ago, in a disused room in the North Wing. One of my ancestors, the “Bachelor Duke,” may have had it for health reasons. I like to think it was his little modern luxury, like people today might want a home cinema.”

John Makepeace, the British furniture maker dubbed “the Chippendale of his generation,” says the unpredictable mix of objects gives the house spirit. “The commissioning of contemporary art and the applied arts alongside the historic collections is a wonderful example of lively and continuing patronage started by the late dowager.” Says William, “Chatsworth has museum-like qualities to it, but it is not exactly a museum. It is in trust but has been allowed to evolve. That’s what makes it special. Each generation has made its imprint.” And what is his grandmother’s? I ask. “She gave it heart.” Debo insisted that, despite its grandeur, Chatsworth always be called “the house,” “a constant reminder of what the huge building is for: a place for people to live in.”
 
His parents didn’t complete their project of modernization, or “dentistry” as Stoker calls it, overnight. It took years to overhaul Chatsworth, to update its miles of wiring and plumbing and install some 17 new bathrooms. (“Who is my sister going to wash in all those baths?” inquired Debo’s sister Nancy of a friend.)

When advised to take on an interior decorator in 1958, Debo refused for two reasons: “The first was that I cannot imagine living with someone else’s taste, and the second was that I cannot see the point of paying someone to do something I can do myself.” She was a Mitford, after all, with the strength of her convictions.

At Chatsworth, “you find a hideous thing next to a beautiful thing, and since taste is intensely personal you would probably disagree with me as to which is which,” she said. “It is a decorator’s nightmare.”

The eccentric combinations the duchess cultivated were also what made Chatsworth homey, with her innate good taste finessed through her friendships with the likes of socialite Nancy Astor; decorators Nancy Lancaster and John Fowler (of Colefax & Fowler); and Debo’s sisters Nancy and Diana, who were strongly influenced by their sojourns in France. “My mother liked it all jumbled together because that’s how private houses are,” says Stoker: “But Chatsworth has become more complicated than that. I was brought up to believe this was a private house, opened up to visitors, and not a museum requiring labels.

The rooms open to the public today are already organized more logically than they were in his mother’s time, with all the 19th-century Canova marbles now together in the Sculpture Gallery, rather than as Debo had them, mixed up with a titanium fan from an RB211-524G jet engine made by apprentices at Rolls Royce. With the new presentations (arranged by the current duke and duchess working with a team of specialists, including Jonathan Bourne, Peter Inskip, David Mlinaric, and Annabel Westman), it’s certainly easier to understand the history of the house. It’s also much easier to grasp the narrative of the different generations and how their individual passions affected the permanent collections. One still feels Debo’s divinely irreverent touch: The 1989 Cottage Garden is a delight, with domestic furniture cut out of privet, box, and yew.

But there is also a deeply intelligent, contemporary identity that the new incumbents have given Chatsworth, with work by Edmund de Waal (one of the current duke’s interests) and a brilliant new North Sketch Gallery, the walls of which are entirely covered in ceramic tiles denoting the family’s DNA sequencing by Dutch conceptual artist Jacob van der Beugel. By the duke’s own admission, there’s now a stronger division between the public and private sections of the house. Yet the public spaces still represent very strong personal tastes. This includes witty contradictions in the new temporary art shows and the annual fall Sotheby’s “Beyond Limits” sales exhibition of monumental contemporary sculpture.

“Every generation wants to do new things,” says the duke. “But my wife and I also realize we can’t be as radical as we’d always like.” He describes a letter of complaint received from a regular visitor to the house after the first Sotheby’s show, in 2005. When the guest wrote a second time, the duke called her. “She said she came to Chatsworth for sanctuary, that she didn’t want to be challenged by a large piece of orange metal in the garden,” says the duke. “I took that on board, that people get nervous about change. But change is also the character of this house.” Yet, he says, “Whatever happens, there are some things that will remain in place just as my mother intended.”

I want to ask what exactly: the photo of Elvis in his gold suit on the mantelpiece of Debo’s former study or the Burlington Corridor’s curtains, which shrank in the wash? But something holds me back—perhaps a little old-fashioned respect for the discretion of a duke. Like everyone who visits, I long to slip beyond the looking glass into the inner sanctum of this house, into the parts off the public route, and hear the sound of life. I want to again find that sitting room, where I got lost in a Freudian dream. But then that’s the enduring appeal of Chatsworth—the tension between the visible and invisible, the public and the private, and the mythmaking spaces created in between. “Debo would have loathed the current trend for wealthy owners to turn their houses into hotels, perfection oozing like a well-tuned motor from every core,” Pentreath says. “There is, of course, no humor in such places, and all she wanted to do was to make a place in which to have fun and which could equally happily laugh at itself. And isn’t that, after all, the very essence of the Englishness that she so perfectly and humbly represented?”

Public and private group tours of Chatsworth can be arranged from March to November. For somewhere to stay, we recommend the nearby Devonshire Arms at Pilsley (Pilsley, Derbyshire; 44-12/4658-3258; devonshirepilsley.co.uk), elegantly redecorated by Amanda Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire; chatsworth.org.