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Alongside a centuries-old collection of Old Masters, Delftware and Chinoiserie, the Devonshires continue to commission contemporary art 

What makes a great house great? There’s no easy answer to that question. Britain’s landed estates have always expressed the power and prestige of their aristocratic owners. Yet historically, they were also essential economic hubs and drivers of taste. New fashions (baroque architecture and Chinese ceramics) and technologies (window glass and indoor plumbing) were as likely to emerge in the countryside as the city.

Around the time of the industrial revolution, as Peter Mandler has explained in his book The Rise and Fall of the Stately Home (1997), rural estates began an erratic but irrevocable decline. The low point was the mid 20th century, when high death duties and wartime requisitions forced many families to abandon their ancestral seats. From a certain point of view, it was high time: the landed gentry had embodied all that was regressive in British culture. Absent a conservation plan, however, it was a recipe for art historical carnage. Some houses were pulled down. Contents were sold off. 

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Gwyn Hanssen, Pigott Echo, 2018. Courtesy: Chatsworth House Trust; photograph: Glen Segal 

It was during this crisis that ‘Duchess Deborah’, as she was affectionately known, entered the picture. The sixth of the celebrated Mitford sisters, in 1941 she married into the Devonshire family, owners of Chatsworth, in Derbyshire – among the grandest of all British country houses. When her husband unexpectedly inherited the dukedom (and a huge tax bill) in 1950, she faced facts and took action. 

The Duchess had the insight that an estate could be more than an emblem of the past; it could once again be an economic engine. While other country houses were falling into disuse and stasis, the Duchess led Chatsworth into uncharted waters, opening a farm shop and other commercial enterprises. She and the 11th Duke commissioned adventurous art – including strikingly bold family portraits by Lucian Freud – and re-imagined the house as a tourist destination.

Today, Chatsworth is one of the most-visited attractions in Britain, and a complex mix of past and present. Well-trained guides recount the story of the Devonshires, who first took up occupancy in the early 17th century; but out on the grounds, there is an annual selling exhibition of monumental contemporary sculpture called ‘Beyond Limits’, a collaboration between Chatsworth and Sotheby’s. In some ways, the house today closely approximates the way estates operated hundreds of years ago: symbolic and economic capital are inextricably intertwined there.

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Felicity Aylieff, Chinese Ladders, 2008. Courtesy: Chatsworth House Trust; photograph: Simon Broadhead

It’s against this backdrop of that the art patronage of the current Duke and Duchess, Peregrine (‘Stoker’) and Amanda Devonshire, must be seen. In particular, it helps to explain their choice to emphasize ceramics. These were already all over the property: garnitures and figurines, porcelain and Delftware, tall tulipières and tiny teabowls. For the most part, the objects serve a supplementary role, providing punctuation to the lavish phrasing of processional rooms. With this precedent in mind, Devonshires have acquired a huge number of contemporary ceramics, many created specifically for the house.

In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that Edmund de Waal should have received their first major commission. He was not then the prominent figure he is today (that happened largely thanks to his best-selling 2010 book, The Hare with the Amber Eyes), but his work already embodied the fusion of antiquarianism and avant gardism they were seeking. De Waal’s 2007 installation at Chatsworth is entitled A Sounding Line. It consists of unadorned thrown porcelain vessels in many subtly different glazes, arranged in what he calls a ‘site-sensitive’ manner. The arrangement echoes not only the existing ceramic collection, but also the visitors who walk past it in a continuous stream. Bearing silent witness to this passage, it nonetheless suggests (as is implied by the title) the chiming music that would once have filled the rooms.

Other sets of vessels soon joined De Waal’s. A stately vignette by Gwyn Hansen Pigott, who was the first contemporary potter to create multi-pot configurations, calls to mind the paintings of Giorgio Morandi. Several groupings by the Australian potter Pippin Drysdale, which seem to glow from within; they are positioned here and there around the house, in a fireplace, on a mantle, atop a writing desk. There is an enormous painted vessel by Felicity Aylieff, currently installed in an imposing position atop the house’s grandest stair. 

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Pippin Drysdale, Evensong (Devil’s Marbles), 2016. Courtesy: Chatsworth House Trust; photograph: Simon Broadhead

On an upper floor of the house is the Devonshire’s most ambitious commission to date, Jacob van der Beugel’s North Sketch Sequence. Completed in 2014, it is the result of four years of technical and architectural research. It’s a complex work but, in brief, it is intended as an abstract portrait of the Devonshires derived from their mitochondrial DNA (plus one section based on fundamental human genetics, representing Everyman). This genetic code has been translated into small ceramic tiles, and inset into the paneling of a long corridor. The gesture equally brings to mind De Stijl architecture and a climbing wall – two very different images of aspiration and transcendence. The artist says that he wanted to capture ‘chemical structure, relationship to others, lineage, as well as facets of persona […] all visualized as one interwoven experience’.

Most recently, Chatsworth saw the arrival of Sowing Colourby Natasha Daintry. Another arrangement of multiple porcelain vessels, it superficially echoes De Waal’s inaugural installation at the house. Yet the differences are more striking than the similarities. To begin with, it is configured vertically rather than horizontally, in a progression of sizes based on the mathematical Fibonacci sequence, and is ranked in depth, creating a sense of spatial recession. While De Waal’s pots are serenely white, Daintry’s are gloriously polychrome, like a rainbow brought indoors. Then too, her vessels are slipcast using industrial techniques, rather than thrown, allowing for incredible thinness and translucency. (The largest pots, on the work’s bottom tier, are beyond even the scale achieved by skilled mould-makers in Staffordshire.) And if De Waal was thinking about chamber music, Daintry channels another ephemeral aspect of the property, its gardens. The work’s title refers to blossoms unfurling from deep roots; the artist says the phrase struck her as a‘zen koan butting the rational (sowing, a conscious controlled act) and the irrational (colour, fugitive and its own wilderness) up against each other’.

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Natasha Daintry, Sowing Colour, 2018. Courtesy: Chatsworth House Trust 

Like the royal family itself, great houses like Chatsworth have been forced into a protracted negotiation with modernity. Their vulnerability has rendered them less controversial to some degree; indeed, they now act as a proxy for British identity writ large. The UK tends to see itself in oppositional terms, traditional yet progressive, pastoral yet cosmopolitan. Lately these contradictions have flared into bitter polarization. As the ceramic installations at Chatsworth show, however, it’s possible for these opposites to combine, at least at a symbolic level. These works are quiet ruptures in the house’s historic grandeur, each offering a moment of resolution, reflection and, yes, a touch of grace.

Main image: Pippin Drysdale, Evensong (Devil’s Marbles), 2016. Courtesy: Chatsworth House Trust; photograph: Simon Broadhead