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Dowager Duchess of Devonshire – obituary

The Duchess at Chatsworth in 2005 Photo: REX

The Duchess at Chatsworth in 2005 Photo: REX

The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire was the devoted chataleine of Chatsworth and the last of the Mitford sisters.

First published in the Telegraph 24 September 2014

The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who has died aged 94, was the youngest and last of the celebrated Mitford sisters, and the chatelaine of Chatsworth, the “Palace of the Peak” in Derbyshire, which from the 1950s onwards she made into both a glorious public spectacle and, really for the first time, a consummately stylish private home.

She was born Deborah Vivien Freeman-Mitford on March 31 1920, the sixth daughter of the eccentric 2nd Lord Redesdale, well-known to readers of Nancy Mitford’s novels as “Uncle Matthew”. “Debo” (as she was always known) was repeatedly assured throughout her childhood by her eldest sister Nancy that “everybody cried when you were born” on account of her being yet another girl.

Debo took refuge in quaintly odd pursuits. Another sister, Jessica (“Decca”) Mitford, described her spending “silent hours in the chicken house learning to do an exact imitation of the look of pained concentration that comes over a hen’s face when it is laying an egg, and each morning she methodically checked over and listed in a notebook the stillbirths reported in the vital statistics columns of The Times”.

As the youngest in a family of seven, Debo was constantly and mercilessly teased, despite the bellowing championship of her father. She was passionately fond of the country and country pursuits, and did not suffer from the brilliant, restless boredom so well-documented by her sisters. None of the girls was sent to school, as their father thought education for girls unnecessary; a succession of governesses was employed, one of whom, Miss Pratt, had her charges playing Racing Demon daily from 9am until lunchtime.

As a girl Debo was a fine skater, and was invited to join the British junior team; but the idea was vetoed by her mother. As an adolescent she witnessed several scandals surrounding her sisters — Diana’s divorce and remarriage, Jessica’s elopement, Unity’s involvement with Hitler — as well as the disintegration of her parents’ marriage.

She was famous for having chanted as a child, in moments of distress: “One day he’ll come along, the Duke I love.” When she married Lord Andrew Cavendish in 1941, however, he was a mere second son. Debo wrote to her sister, Diana Mosley, then in Holloway prison: “I expect we shall be terrificly [sic] poor but think how nice to have as many dear dogs and things as one likes without anyone to say they must get off the furniture.”

Debo remained surrounded by dogs for the rest of her life. In The House: A Portrait of Chatsworth (1982), the delightful and bestselling book she wrote, in between doing a lot of sums to illustrate that 365 ordinary-sized residences could fit into The House, with its 7,873 panes of glass and 53 lavatories, the Duchess took care to inform the reader: “It’s a terrible place to house-train a puppy.”

In 1944 Andrew’s elder brother was killed in action, and in 1950 the 10th Duke unexpectedly died. The Devonshires were left with 80 per cent death duties which took 17 years to settle. In 1959 they moved to Chatsworth, uninhabited since before the war.

When she had first seen the house after the war she had thought it “sad, dark, cold and dirty. It wasn’t like a house at all, but more like a barracks.” It had not been redecorated for decades, and during the war had been home to a girls’ boarding school.

But Debo embraced her role of chatelaine gaily, as she set about redecorating the house. “Debo has become the sort of English duchess who doesn’t feel the cold,” reported Nancy, disconsolately.

The Duchess was both beautiful and deceptively literate, although exceptionally modest. Lucian Freud painted her when she was 34, and Debo used to delight in the story of how an old woman was heard remarking, as she stood before the painting: “That’s the Dowager Duchess. It was taken the year before she died.” When the painting was completed, Freud allowed the Duke and Duchess to see it at his studio. “Someone else was already there,” she later recalled. “Andrew looked long at the picture until the other man asked, ‘Who is that?’ ‘It’s my wife.’ ‘Well, thank God it’s not mine’.”

She also sat for Annigoni, to whom she found herself apologising for her face: “I know it’s not the sort you like.” The artist replied, not very graciously: “Oh well, it doesn’t matter, it’s not your fault.”

The Duchess kept aloof from her family’s literary and political pursuits. She visited her Fascist sister Diana in prison, and her Communist sister Decca in California, keeping a light touch with both.

After visiting Decca and doing the rounds of her Communist friends, Debo sent Decca a photograph of herself and her husband, dressed in their ducal robes for a coronation, garlanded with orders, chains and jewels, staring stonily ahead. Beneath the photo she wrote: “Andrew and me being active.”

Nancy used to address letters to her sister “Nine, Duchess of Devonshire”, her contention being that Debo never developed beyond the mental age of nine. Certainly the Duchess always maintained that she never read books and that her favourite reading matter was the British goatkeepers’ monthly journal, Fancy Fowl magazine and Beatrix Potter.

The epigraph in her book The House is taken from Hobbes, who was tutor to the 2nd and 3rd Dukes of Devonshire: “Reading is a pernicious habit. It destroys all originality of sentiment.”

Debo and Paddy 2008

Debo and Paddy 2008

Paddy and Debo 2008

Paddy and Debo 2008

Chatsworth, however, was always filled with literati, and Patrick Leigh Fermor, a great friend, was determined that Debo was a closet reader, who sneaked books the way alcoholics sneak whisky. As a writer, she was a natural storyteller with a knack for the telling phrase and a delight in human eccentricities.

Certainly The House is a wonderfully rich and beautifully written work. It is organised around a Handbook of Chatsworth written in 1844 in the form of a letter from the “Bachelor Duke” (the 6th) to his sister and is full of very funny accounts of the foibles of earlier dukes and duchesses. Among other stories, it chronicles the war waged against woodworm by the wife of the 9th Duke (the former Lady Evelyn Fitzmaurice). Believing concussion to be the answer, the formidable beldame kept a little hammer in her bag to bang the furniture where they lurked.

The Duchess showed acute commercial flair in raising money for the Chatsworth estate, making a nonsense of her sister Nancy’s generalisation in Noblesse Oblige that aristocrats are no good at making money. She presided over the bread, cake, jam and chutney industries which grew up to feed the farm shop, which was described by the late Hugh Massingberd in The Daily Telegraph as “every greedy child’s idea of what a shop should be”.

Although the house had been open to the public ever since it was built, it was not until 1947 that the revenue from visitors went towards its upkeep. In 1973 the Duchess set up the Farmyard at Chatsworth, “to explain to the children that food is produced by farmers who also look after the land and that the two functions are inextricably mixed”. A little boy from Sheffield watched the milking, then told the Duchess: “It’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ll never drink milk again.”

Visitors to Chatsworth are able to buy items such as souvenirs, books, porcelain, knitwear, while the Farm Shop sells estate produce. A mail order business was established, along with cafés, restaurants and a commercial catering business.

Chatsworth Carpenters was an especially successful venture. The Duchess, in her gardener’s apron, was for many years a familiar sight at the Chelsea Flower Show, where she was to be seen busily selling furniture fit for a stately home to the owners of small town gardens.

The 11th Duke once observed: “My wife is far more important to Chatsworth than I am.” He added: “She is on the bossy side, of course; but I’ve always liked that in a woman.” She dealt heroically with her husband’s philandering nature and his weakness for alcohol, and the marriage was a happy one.

Despite living in a house overflowing with masterpieces by such artists as Rembrandt, Veronese, Murillo, Poussin and Reynolds, the Duchess always maintained that Beatrix Potter was her favourite artist, and Miss Potter’s enchanted world may indeed be the key to appreciating the genius loci of Chatsworth.

The Duchess was an ardent conservationist of vernacular architecture and was president of the Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust. She also chaired the Tarmac Construction Group and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

Her devotion to making Chatsworth a viable financial concern was well rewarded in 1981 when a charitable trust, capitalised by the sale of certain treasures, was established to preserve The House for posterity.

In 2001 the Duchess published Counting My Chickens… and other home thoughts, a collection of sharply observed musings on Chatsworth, gardening, poultry, dry stone walling, bottled water, the United States, Ireland, the Today programme, the Turner Prize and other topics. On the modern fashion for hiring business consultants, she wryly observed: “He arrives from London, first class on the train… Most probably he has never been this far north, so the geography and the ways of the locals have to be explained, all taking his valuable time. After a suitable pause of a few weeks (he is very busy being consulted) a beautiful book arrives, telling you what you spent the day telling him.”

After her husband’s death in 2004 she published a poignant tribute in Memories of Andrew Devonshire (2007). Other publications included In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor (2008); Home to Roost … and Other Peckings (2009), a collection of occasional writings; and Wait for Me!… Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister (2010). She was also a contributor to The Spectator and The Daily Telegraph. Her last book, All in One Basket, which brought together two earlier volumes of occasional writings, was published in 2011.

The Duchess claimed to buy most of her clothes at agricultural shows, adding: “After agricultural shows, Marks & Spencer is the place to go shopping, and then Paris. Nothing in between seems to be much good.”

Her dislikes included magpies; women who want to join men’s clubs; hotel coat-hangers; and drivers who slow down to go over cattle grids. She regretted the passing of brogues, the custom of mourning, telegrams, the 1662 Prayer Book, pinafores for little boys and Elvis Presley (“the greatest entertainer ever to walk on a stage”).

In 2003 she published The Chatsworth Cookery Book, introducing it with the words: “I haven’t cooked since the war.”

Debo Devonshire was appointed DCVO in 1999.

She is survived by her son Stoker, the 12th Duke of Devonshire, and by two daughters.

Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, born March 31 1920, died September 24 2014.

Related articles:

Listen to the 2010 BBC Radio 4 interview on Woman’s Hour here.

Never Marry a Mitford

The Duchess of Devonshire talks about Patrick Leigh Fermor

Our archive of articles about or including Debo

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Chatsworth Celebrates the Many Lives of Deborah Devonshire

As you will know by now Deborah Devonshire (one of the famous Mitford sisters), the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire is one of Paddy’s closest friends. Their communication by letters over more than half a century forms the basis for the collection of letters edited by Charlotte Mosley – ‘In Tearing Haste’ – of which I have written before. The seat of the Dukes of Devonshire is Chatsworth in Derbyshire and this year Chatsworth will be staging a special exhibition to celebrates Debo’s 90th birthday. I thought it worth posting details for those who may be interested. For more information please  read the press release below or visit www.chatsworth.org .

In an epic year, Chatsworth is staging a special exhibition throughout 2010 in honour of the 90th birthday of Deborah Devonshire (on March 31), now Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and the last surviving of the famous Mitford sisters.

Andrew and Deborah Devonshire

 Feb 18, 2010 – Sister, mother, wife, Duchess, writer and celebrated national treasure.  Over the years Deborah Devonshire’s path has taken her in many directions creating a life story which is nothing short of fascinating. In an epic year, Chatsworth is staging a special exhibition throughout 2010 in honour of the 90th birthday of Deborah (on March 31), now Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and the last surviving of the famous Mitford sisters, marking the nine eventful decades of her life, illustrating her many interests and achievements.  

Memories of the Dowager’s Mitford ancestry, and her famous siblings, will be evoked with many unique items never seen by visitors before, including numerous letters, plates from the much loved Berlin dinner service sold by her father and purchased by her husband, the Cavendish/Devonshire family tree and the beautiful Renoir painting left to Chatsworth by her sister Pamela.

Visitors will experience a rare insight into the remarkable life of Deborah, illustrated with mementos and keepsakes personally chosen by her Grace including early diaries, the Dowager’s childhood ice skates (skating was an early passion), her nature notebook and a copy of her wedding invitation.  Deborah’s passion for all things outdoors quickly becomes clear.  A keen supporter and participant in all country pursuits, the exhibition will include the Duchess’s gun and game books.  Two of her beautiful handmade walking sticks are also featured, and her love of poultry reflected in a wooden chicken sculpture and her rosettes and prizes for eggs.

Deborah comments: “Putting this exhibition together has meant thinking back over the nine decades of my life so far, and trying to gather together mementos and photographs that will interest visitors to Chatsworth this year. I hope people will enjoy the wide range of things on view, from Paris dresses and works of art I love, to family photographs and a telephone from the gift shop at Graceland. I have been lucky enough to know many fascinating people and be involved in local and national organisations and good causes, and the displays will reflect these.”

In the 1950s, the Dowager had the huge task of restoring Chatsworth after the depressing war years (it had been leased to a girls school), and making it fit for the growing number of visitors, and as a family home. The wallpaper patterns that she used then will be shown alongside the books she wrote later in life, celebrating Chatsworth’s house, collections, garden, food and landscape. Her growing family is represented by glamorous private images of her and her young children by Norman Parkinson.

As Duchess, she was involved in many significant public and state events, and chose to take on many public responsibilities, charitable concerns and interests. The robes she wore to the Queen’s coronation in 1953, at which her son, the present Duke, was page to his grandmother Mary, widow of the 10th Duke, will be on display, alongside presentation objects from public engagements over the last 60 years.

Having known many famous artists and writers, there will be displays of early work by Lucian Freud, sculpted heads of some of the Dowager’s more illustrious artistic friends, by Angela Conner, and the special edition of one of his books given to her by Evelyn Waugh, with blank pages to avoid the bother of actually having to read it.

Deborah continues: “I have known Lucian Freud for well over fifty years, and he remains a great friend and a fascinating person. Being painted by him, when I was in my thirties, was a slow process, as he is not a lightning artist, but I think the result is full of insight – I certainly get more like the picture the older I become.”

Her tastes and style are represented by a number of exquisite couture gowns and other clothes and hats; favourite works of art by Atkinson Grimshaw, Tchelitchev, Jo Self, Epstein, Frink and others; a selection of the jewelled insect brooches she was given by her husband over many decades; and mementos of her hero Elvis Presley, including the Elvis telephone, and a section of fence from Graceland.

After 54 years in charge of Chatsworth [and its estate], Bolton Abbey and Lismore Castle in partnership with her husband, the late Duke, the Dowager’s retirement has not been quiet. Memorabilia relating to her latest books, and forthcoming memoirs, will be on display, together with new photographs taken for the exhibition, including a special image of the Dowager with her seventeen great grandchildren.

Chatsworth re-opens on March 14 and the exhibition runs until 31 October 2010. Entrance is free with house admission. For more information please visit http://www.chatsworth.org

The Duke of Devonshire’s obituary from The Independent

Andrew Cavendish was the 11th Duke of Devonshire, Debo’s beloved husband and a close friend of Paddy for over half a century. Paddy and Andrew shared many long walks and expeditions together some of which are detailed in the book of letters ‘In Tearing Haste’ whilst the most comprehensive account of one of their shared journeys is ‘Three Letters from the Andes’ published in 1991 during which Paddy described his own responsibilities as ‘looking after the primus stove’. 

First published in The Independent Thursday, 6 May 2004 

 Rescuer of Chatsworth and reviver of the family tradition of patronage 

“I am a very rich duke, a most agreeable thing to be, even in these days,” said the hero in Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel The Pursuit of Love. Her brother-in-law Andrew Cavendish, when he succeeded five years later as 11th Duke of Devonshire, had every reason to disagree. 

Andrew Robert Buxton Cavendish, landowner: born London 2 January 1920; MC 1944; styled 1944-50 Marquess of Hartington, succeeded 1950 as 11th Duke of Devonshire; Mayor of Buxton 1952-54; President, Royal Hospital and Home (formerly Royal Hospital and Home for Incurables), Putney 1954-91; President, Building Societies Association 1954-61; President, Lawn Tennis Association 1955-61; Chairman, Grand Council, British Empire Cancer Campaign 1956-81; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations 1960-62; Minister of State, Commonwealth Relations Office 1962-64, and for Colonial Affairs 1963-64; PC 1964; Chancellor, Manchester University 1965-86; Steward, Jockey Club 1966-69; President, National Association for Deaf Children 1978-95; Chairman, Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association 1978-81; President, RNIB 1979-85; Patron in Chief, Polite Society 1991-2004; Vice-President, London Library 1993-2004; KG 1996; married 1941 The Hon Deborah Freeman-Mitford (one son, two daughters, and two sons and one daughter deceased); died Chatsworth, Derbyshire 3 May 2004.  

Born a second son on the second day of 1920, he grew up with no expectation of becoming a duke. His father’s premature death in 1950 left him with huge death duties to pay, and the extra liability of palatial Chatsworth, at a time when smaller houses were going down like ninepins. How he overcame all these difficulties, making Chatsworth habitable and a source of widespread enjoyment, discovering in the process new ways of helping all manner of people and institutions, as well as reviving the family tradition of enlightened patronage, is one of the success stories of our time. 

The Cavendish family roots were in Suffolk, but “Bess of Hardwick”, founder of the dynasty, was born in Derbyshire, in 1518. Successive marriages, the second to Sir William Cavendish, enabled her to expand her property. Quarrels with her fourth husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, led her to leave the house she had built at Chatsworth, and build another, even larger, at Hardwick itself. Her sons built on this foundation, the second becoming father of the first Duke of Newcastle, the first buying back Chatsworth and created Earl of Devonshire in 1618 (the title came not from any territorial connection, but because it had just become vacant by the death without issue of the previous holder). 

They were royalists in the Civil War, when the family wealth was diminished – save in the library, watched over by Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher. The fourth Earl, of imperious disposition, fell out with the Stuarts and retreated to Chatsworth, which he rebuilt and enlarged. He supported William III, who elevated him to be the first Duke of Devonshire. His son, Steward of the Household to Queen Anne and later to George I, was the first great virtuoso of the family, and built up the collection of old master drawings at Chatsworth. He was the first, too, to succeed on the Turf, buying Flying Childers, “the fleetest horse that ever ran at Newmarket”. 

The second Duke’s son and grandson were both Lord-Lieutenants of Ireland, and between them remodelled the grounds at Chatsworth, the fourth Duke commissioning James Paine to build the new stables. By his marriage to the only daughter of the great Earl of Burlington, architect and connoisseur, more came to Chatsworth, from the Boyle Irish estates to the drawings of Inigo Jones. His son, husband of the famous Georgiana Spencer, was himself a notable figure. Their only son, the sixth Duke, the greatest collector of all, made Chatsworth what it is today. 

“He appears to be disposed to spend a great deal of money,” said the family auditor to his father. “So much the better,” was the memorable reply. “He will have a great deal of money to spend.” He did, enlarging and beautifying Chatsworth with the help of Jeffry Wyatville and Joseph Paxton. He bought wonderful books, marble and antiquities, including a fifth-century bronze head of Apollo, commissioned sculpture from Canova, and for him Paxton built the splendid conservatory at Chatsworth, forerunner of the Crystal Palace. 

But he remained the “Bachelor Duke”: dying childless in 1858, he was succeeded by a cousin who had fortunately inherited much himself, including the wealth and books of the scientist Henry Cavendish and the Compton family estates on the South Coast. He himself invested in industry, built up Eastbourne and gave Cambridge the Cavendish Laboratory. His son reverted to politics (he was the only person to refuse the premiership three times) and horse-racing. The ninth Duke became Governor-General of Canada during the First World War, when Chatsworth was inevitably neglected. All the plants in Paxton’s conservatory died and it had to be pulled down, but gradually life returned to normal. 

So Lord Andrew Cavendish grew up between the wars, when the hereditary peerage had not become a political plaything and leisure was a way of life, not a profession. Devonshire House in London had gone, pulled down to make way for a motor showroom, and so had Chiswick House (now in the care of English Heritage), but the family still owned four other great houses besides Chatsworth and Hardwick. The footmen still wore full livery (lemon coat, dark blue breeches and white stocking) if there were more than six to dinner. 

It was 1938 when his grandfather died, aged 69. Andrew’s father was Under-Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs and abroad, and Andrew was about to leave Eton for Trinity College, Cambridge. He had taken neither very seriously. His father worried about this, as about his occasional flutters on and off the Turf. But an old friend said to him, “Surely you wouldn’t like your son to get good reports?”, and Newmarket turned youthful diversion into an abiding passion. Neither overcame an earlier, deeper and even more long-lasting love of books and reading. A year later his elder brother William, now Marquess of Hartington, came of age, with a series of parties – the last at Chatsworth in August 1939. Then came the war and goodbye to all that. 

Both brothers went into the Coldstream Guards, to be “sorted out” like many others by drill, boots and sergeant-majors. Caterham was varied by escape to London, where Andrew would take Deborah Mitford, the youngest of the six daughters of Lord Redesdale, out to dinner; in April 1941 they married. Then came posting abroad, via North Africa to Italy, where he first saw action; unable to sleep the night before, he read Nigel Balchin’s The Small Back Room, just out, from cover to cover. In the fierce fighting north of Rome in July 1944, he was awarded the MC. His company captured a hill south of Strada, and held it despite being cut off on all sides. The citation records his “endless cheerfulness, energy and disregard of danger”; he himself said, “I got it for being cheerful”, a characteristic self-depreciation. 

That same spring his elder brother married Kathleen Kennedy, sister of the future President of the United States; only four months later he was killed in action in France. This was a crushing blow, still remembered with pain almost 60 years later. Used, by gentle warning from his father, to accept the minor, less demanding role of a younger son, he now found himself pitchforked into new responsibility. When he left the Army, he dutifully stood in the Conservative interest for the neighbouring seat of Chesterfield in 1945 and again in 1950. 

Adjusting to post-war austerity and high taxation was another problem. His father, well advised like his forebears by Currey & Co, made over the estate, the gift dependent on his living for five years. In November 1950, 14 weeks short of this term, he died, aged only 55. 

His estate was then valued at £5.9m, and at the current rate of 80 per cent death duties came out at £4.72m. It was clear that huge economies would have to be made; the question was how to make them without diminishing the sources of revenue needed to maintain what was left. The 11th Duke and his Duchess counted their assets: they were both 30, young, energetic and, untrammelled by conventions now out of date, were prepared to do something different. Time was on their side, and Chatsworth, hitherto more a place just to visit, proved to be the key to the future. Continue reading