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Duchess of kitsch

The youngest Mitford sister cut a glamorous figure. But her possessions, which are being auctioned at Sotheby’s, reveal surprisingly non-U tastes

Anthony Gardner | February 29th 2016

A very battered copy of that very old-fashioned story

The most interesting lot in Sotheby’s “Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire” sale is also the most nondescript: a battered book whose dark blue cover has faded to grey. It is one of 50 pre-publication copies of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” sent to the author’s friends, and it bears the inscription:

Debo & Andrew
with love from
Evelyn
A very old-fashioned story

The estimated price is £15,000-20,000.

The book is significant both as a souvenir of the fascinating literary-aristocratic circle inhabited by Waugh and the Mitford sisters (of whom “Debo” was the last survivor) and as a commentary on a radically changing world. Its narrator looks back from drab, utilitarian wartime Britain to an era of grandeur and gaiety. But, as the sale starting on Wednesday shows, the Duchess was a pre-eminent example of someone who refused to allow drabness to get the upper hand. Thoroughly practical and down-to-earth, she helped restore her husband’s mouldering ancestral home, Chatsworth, to something approaching its former glory, and invented that most tempting of day-out destinations, the stately farm shop, in the process.

Farm animals dominate the sale-rooms, which are arranged as an approximation of the Old Vicarage on the Chatsworth estate where the Duchess spent her final years. Pictures of Jacob sheep, Tamworth pigs and – above all – poultry crowd the walls. Hens were the Duchess’s particular passion (Bruce Weber photographed her feeding them in a Balmain ballgown), and their many incarnations here range from a pair of Qing Dynasty ewers to a terracotta Buff Orpington.

The 469 lots represent only a fraction of the Duchess’s possessions: “The family have kept an enormous amount,” says Sotheby’s English and Continental expert, David Macdonald, “particularly of her jewellery. But they felt the residue should be shared with other people.” What is astonishing is how much clutter she kept even when she downsized to the vicarage. There are legions of desk accessories, from magnifying glasses to matchbox-holders; a small forest of walking sticks; a dozen decanters.

Debo's collection of Elvis ephemera

The auction is such a gallimaufry that to define the Duchess’s taste is almost impossible. On the one hand, she and her husband were notable art collectors and patrons, whose friends included Lucien Freud. (“He painted me when I was 50,” she told a television interviewer, “and it bore no resemblance to me at all – but now I’m 80 it’s a very good likeness.”)  The most important paintings here are Sir George Clausen’s highly atmospheric “The Potato Patch: October Twilight” (£40,000-60,000) and two spooky John Atkinson Grimshaws being sold as a pair, “Bolton Abbey by Moonlight” and “A Wooded Landscape with a Woman Walking on a Path in the Moonlight” (£25,000-35,000). More affordable are two Jacob Epstein pencil sketches of his son Jackie (£2,500-4,000) and any number of charming pictures of dogs, such as “A Jack Russell Terrier Standing on a Red Chaise Longue” (English school, £100-150). There are also portraits by Henry Lamb, Derek Hill and Duncan Grant (pictured top).

But at the other end of the spectrum, the Duchess had an unashamed delight in kitsch, finding room for illuminated plastic ducks, a pair of “Evergleam” aluminium Christmas trees, and a whole cabinet of Elvis Presley memorabilia – the crowning glory being a telephone with an Elvis figurine which gyrates and sings “Jailhouse Rock” when it rings. Though she only discovered Presley’s music after his death, she described him as “a genius” and visited Graceland no fewer than three times.

Portuguese and Italian leaf-moulded pottery, 20th century

As for changes in public taste during her lifetime (1920-2014), nothing speaks of them more eloquently than the absurdly low estimates for beautiful pieces of antique furniture, such as the Edwardian mahogany desk (£500-1,000) belonging to the Duchess’s mother. But the power of provenance is hard to quantify, and ordinary buyers hoping to pick up a sprinkling of the Mitford-Devonshire stardust are likely to be disappointed. Will a copy of Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking”, inscribed to the Duchess by Madonna, really go for £70? Or a diamond bumblebee brooch, given to her by her husband, fetch only £1,000? Possibly – and Tamworth pigs might fly.

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