By Jenna Flanagan
“Free” is probably not the word most New Yorkers would associate with the art auction house Sotheby’s. But maybe it should be. A visit to the company’s Manhattan headquarters does not require a trust fund or even a bank account to get past security. In fact, it will not cost you anything at all and you’re guaranteed to come across some pretty remarkable and opulent works of art inside this hallowed New York institution. Sotheby’s is even experimenting with new ways to attract visitors to York Avenue.
“Most people don’t know that it is open to the public, that our exhibitions of art are A) free and B) they are seasonal so they come and go but we love having members of the public come see the art,” said Tad Smith, Sotheby’s president and chief executive officer. “And interestingly, right before the things are put up for sale, very often Sotheby’s is one of the greatest museums on the entire planet for several weeks in May and several weeks in November.”
Smith added: “Parallel to that we had also spent the last year redoing our space. So we have beautiful new gallery spaces. And so the opportunity first to show people our new spaces. Second to celebrate our 275th birthday, sort of as a thank you to the public. Third to reinforce our roots, which are in England, struck us as a really great confluence of opportunity and that’s how it began.”
That new beginning Smith is referring to is the auction house’s first ever gallery exhibition of selected artwork belonging to an aristocratic British family. To many Americans the name Cavendish probably doesn’t ring any bells, and why would it across the Atlantic? The family’s history, however, is quite impressive. They were part of the British gentry dating back to the 14th century and served King Richard II.
Skip ahead a few generations and in 1618 the infamous Tudor King, Henry VIII, elevated the family to the hereditary or peerage title of Earl. Thanks to their support of the Glorious Revolution decades later, King William of Orange (and of William and Mary fame) named the family Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, a title the Cavendish family still holds today.
So why are their heirlooms being showcased at Sotheby’s? Well, they have quite the collection. In 1553, Sir William Cavendish and his wife, Bess of Hardwick, acquired an estate in Derbyshire. It’s virtually in the middle of England and where they built a house called Chatsworth. The house was subsequently rebuilt and added on to. It eventually became a 126-room, Baroque style manor toward the end of the 17th century, and that’s how the house has remained. Over 16 generations, the Cavendish family has amassed a massive collection of contemporary art of their day. Now, 500 years later, the Devonshire Collection is world renowned as one of the most eclectic, private collections of art work around.
“For people who can’t go three hours north into the English countryside, it was actually to bring those beautiful treasures over here and to see them,” Smith told MetroFocus. “Not unlike museums, Chatsworth has a collection that far exceeds what is currently on display. Any sort of major museum in the art world here in New York or other places very often has literally a treasure trove of things, far more than they have publicly available to view. So any sort of opportunity to bring in the public and show them things that otherwise might not be available to see to me has a great public benefit, and it’s good for the community.”
Since it’s practically impossible to recreate Chatsworth House, its grounds and, of course, its entire collection in Sotheby’s galleries, the 12th Duke of Devonshire, current master of the house, used modern technology and a little bit of panache to bring the experience to life. “Our home was built and decorated to impress, to inspire and to entertain. And one consequence of this was that the house has always been open to visitors who have been welcomed ever since the house was built,” he tells visitors. “We hope you find these works of art and their many stories as exciting and intriguing as we do. We are grateful for the opportunity to share with you our family’s great interest in collecting and commissioning artworks and for supporting innovative and adventurous artists.”
Did we actually meet the 12th Duke of Devonshire during our recent visit? Well, no. But there are QR codes in each gallery space and through your cell phone (and headphones, don’t be rude) the Duke narrates the entire exhibition through modern technology. Walking into the galleries, you’re immediately reminded that while Chatsworth is a stately, lavish-looking structure, it’s also still a family home. A black and white sizzle reel of members of the Cavendish family and their guests relaxing, playing and cavorting on the estate grounds is the very first thing you see. Walk inside and be prepared for more visual stimulation. Three gigantic screens play simultaneous scenes of Chatsworth’s interior, exterior and surrounding gardens. The fourth wall is a digital gallery wall.
“This is actually a section of Chinese wallpaper, hand-painted Chinese wallpaper, which covers the walls in the guest bedrooms in the house,” explained Eva, our docent for the day. “It dates from the 18th century. If you hold the iPads up to this wallpaper, a portrait of the family member appears. And then if you keep your iPad fixed on that portrait of the family member, you’ll start to hear some commentary. You’ll start to hear some audio. And it tells you all about that particular family member that you’re looking for.”
As one might expect, portraiture is an important part of the Devonshire Collection as each Duke and Duchess have sat to have their likeness captured. The family’s commitment to contemporary art patronage also means that each portrait over the years was done by a significant and innovative artist of the time.
But not every portrait looks all that flattering. In the 1950s, the 11th Duke and Duchess were painted by British painter Lucian Freud. His impasto painting style strips away the usual majesty of a Baroque style work we might associate with an aristocratic portrait and leaves the viewer with something more emotional.
“He was very careful not to name his paintings after the sitter,” Eva explained. “So the portrait of the Duchess here is called ‘Woman in White Shirt.’ The portrait of the Duke, just at the side there, is called ‘Portrait of a Man.’ He very particularly made a point of not naming the paintings after the sitter. He wanted you to get past that anyway. He wanted you to look past that title, that shiny glossy image, that outer shell if you like. He wanted you to get past that and look deeper.”
Word has it no one liked these portraits when they were first completed, and they were often covered at dinner parties. Eva says the 11th Duchess was in her 30s when she sat for her portrait with Freud, and she didn’t believe she actually looked like the woman in the painting until just before her death at age 94. Juxtapose that with the most modern portrait in the collection of Lady Laura Burlington, the 13th Duchess to be. It’s a digital portrait by the Irish artist Michael Craig-Martin, and it can’t help but stand out from the entire Devonshire Collection.
“Now this started out as a studio photograph,” Eva said during out visit. “It was then turned into a drawing and then reduced to a minimum number of lines, and then digitized, put onto this LCD screen… this panel that we’re looking at here. Six colors were then added and then computer software, which is installed in this screen, that constantly changes the combinations of the colors. There are around 44 million different color combinations possible. To see them all you would have to stand here for 10 years. So what you’re looking at at the moment is unique to this point.”
The Devonshire Collection is hardly just family portraits. The family has also acquired works by Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrant, not to mention 500 years’ of contemporary sculpture and furniture. In the second gallery, Eva points out three pieces of furniture so beautiful they almost look fragile. Two chairs and a love seat carved from wood in twisting and sloping shapes give each piece its own sense of movement. The seat of each one is upholstered because they’re intended to be used.
“These chairs are so comfortable,” Eva tells us. “I can’t stress how comfortable they are. So they look like instruments of torture actually when you look at the shape of them here. But when you sit on them it improves your posture so it makes you sit absolutely upright. And the curve just coming into the back of the chair there that pushes into your spine pushes your back forward. So sort of pushing you upright if that makes sense. Super, super comfortable. I absolutely love these chairs. Back home at Chatsworth when I’m working, when the house is quiet, there’s no visitors coming through the house, I sit on these chairs because they’re so comfortable. If somebody said to me you could have any one item from Chatsworth, you could take one thing home with you, it would be one of the Enignum chairs. Forget the diamond tiaras. The Enignum chair, that’s what I would take home with me.”
Form is obviously an important part of Chatsworth House, from the landscaping of the gardens to the choice and position of sculptures that adorn it. This includes the 8-foot tall bronze statue called “Walking Madonna” by Elisabeth Frink, which is also on display at Sotheby’s. Chatsworth House and parts of its collection have also been immortalized in film. It was supposedly the inspiration for and stood in as the infamous Pemberley house in the 2005 adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” When Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Bennet is seen wistfully wandering around the sculpture room of Mr. Darcy’s family home, she pauses a moment to admire a statue of a kneeling veiled woman. My docent Eva explains she and those statues are part of the Devonshire Collection.
“This was commissioned by the sixth Duke by a sculptor called Raffaele Monti,” she says. “It was completed in 1847. It’s a sculpture of a veiled Vestal Virgin. Veiled Vestal Virgins were priestesses at the temple of Vesta in ancient Rome, and they guarded the flame in the temple. It was said if that flame ever went out that Rome would fall. So what we’re looking at here is one of the priestesses guarding the flame in the temple. It’s a fantastic piece of work because if you look at her face it looks like there’s a veil covering her face. There’s nothing there at all. It’s an optical illusion. It’s a trick of the eye. It’s simply how the lines of marble are carved. It gives the illusion that there’s a veil covering her face but nothing there at all. It’s a fantastic piece of work.”
While it’s impossible to fully recreate the Chatsworth House experience within a New York art gallery setting, Sotheby’s instead chose to focus on some theatrical aspects with help from David Korins. He’s quite the get, a Tony-nominated set designer for “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” and now the creative director for the Chatsworth experience at Sotheby’s. To get inspired for the exhibition, he spent several days at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, England, and says he was awestruck by the grandeur he found in every corner of every single room.
“I got up very early one morning and kind of meditated in one of the rooms,” Korins remembers. “I just let the environment wash over me and I had a light bulb moment. I thought instead of trying to recreate any certain section of the home or the experience of what it was like to be there, I sort of started zooming in on all the incredible details of the room that I was sitting in. My eye wandered across legs of tables and feet of chairs, corners of molding, house ceilings, matte walls, and I was really struck by just the incredible detail. Things that had been carved, handmade, sculpted over generations and generations and generations, and each one of those tiny details really told the story. And so my idea was to instead zoom in much closer to the architecture and the specific details of the home and blow those things up for the benefit of the visitor in New York City.”
Chatsworth House isn’t only connected to America through its Sotheby’s exhibition. It’s also the home Kathleen Kennedy almost became the Lady of. A tragic love story that is now part of history, the Irish Catholic Kennedy wed the protestant William Cavendish in 1944 against her mother’s wishes. Billy, as she called him, would have become the 11th Duke of Devonshire had he not been shot and killed a mere four months after they wed by a German sniper in World War II. Because Kennedy had become an official Cavendish, she was laid to rest in the estate’s village of Edensor when she died just a few years later in a plane crash. Sotheby’s exhibition now includes letters of condolences written by John F. Kennedy’s own hand.
Believe it or not, even with 500 years of grandeur and a private collection of priceless works of art handed down from generation to generation, Chatsworth House still needs money. “My parents were only thirty years old when they inherited Chatsworth and all the liabilities that went with it. They had 80 percent capital tax to pay on a house in poor condition. Almost everyone they knew told them to abandon Chatsworth and allow it to be taken over by the government. But instead they put all their considerable energy into clearing the debt and then rebuilding the tourism businesses centered on the house.”
The house was put into a family trust in 1981, and the current 12th Duke of Devonshire and his wife didn’t move in until 2006. Eva, our docent, explains: “The Duke and Duchess in no way benefit financially from this trust. They actually rent the rooms that they live in in the house today. They pay market rate for the rooms that they rent, and that money goes into the Chatsworth House trust and that pays for the upkeep of the house today. So this is modern-day aristocracy if you like. The Duke and Duchess today, together with the trustees, act as guardians for the house, keeping it up to date, relevant for the benefit of the public for the future generations to enjoy.”
So that’s it, just a fraction of the collection from a fabled English manor house found right here in New York City. Sotheby’s will host the exhibition through September 18th and after that, if you want to see any of the Devonshire collection (and I didn’t even get into the jewelry that was also on display) you’d have to book a ticket, fly to London and take a three-hour trip north to see Chatsworth House for yourself! Although from the taste Sotheby’s gives, my guess is that it’s probably worth it. But if the cost of such a trip is too much hassle, Sotheby’s president would like to make you a very reasonable offer here in New York. “It’s completely free and the air conditioning works beautifully so please come,” Smith told us.