Tag Archives: Chatsworth House

Happy International Cat Day!

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Do cats deserve a day of their very own in the international calendar? Of course they do. A couple of years ago, wandering art museums in Amsterdam and Haarlem, I wrote about the many dogs that appear in Dutch paintings.  I mused that for me, the dogs served as a window into long-ago times and places.  Cats are the same. It’s hard to identify with people wearing heavy black robe-like garments relieved only by starched white ruffs and collars. But  these same people had pets they loved.  The cat above, looking out at the world from the safety of her person’s lap, has the same smug look as any cat of mine. I can understand people who appreciate their feline friends enough to immortalize them in art.

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Cats in Dutch paintings are often up to no good.  The one above is about to make off with a plucked bird while the unsuspecting housewife is looking the other way.

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Cats often gaze longingly at the food artfully arranged in Dutch still life paintings, and they add some “life” to still lifes that consist mainly of dead animals ready to be consumed.

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Children have always liked cats.  This ceramic pet, complete with a bib and abandaged leg, sits in the now-quiet nursery at Wightwick Manor, a wonderful Arts and Crafts home in England. He looks a little anxious. I have a feeling his broken ear and broken paw happened when he got tossed across the nursery in some long-ago game.

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I have a soft spot for all cats, but especially for the calico and tabby  varieties. They remind me of the pair that patiently wait for me at home.

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Of course I’m always on the lookout for friendly cats on my travels. This handsome fellow was in York, England.

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What about big cats? I love them too.  The fierce creature above is on an exterior wall of the very grand Pitti Palace in Florence.

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Chatsworth House in England has a pair of regal lions who lord it over the Sculpture Gallery. I think part of our fascination with big cats is that we feel we understand them just a bit, especially if we live with their small domesticated relatives. Our pet cats give us a little insight into both long-ago places and wild places on this earth.

In my post “Dogs in Dutch Art,” I quoted a striking poem by David Graham:  “The Dogs in Dutch Paintings.”  A couple of months ago I received a lovely comment from the poet, who had just happened upon my post.  The main reason I keep posting is to remember where I’ve been, what I’ve seen, and what I was thinking at the time.  That must be part of what motivates a poet, too.

Posts about dogs in art are at  https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2013/10/01/dogs-in-dutch-art/ ‎and https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2013/10/03/more-dogs-in-dutch-art/

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Farewell to My Favorite Duchess, Deborah Mitford Devonshire

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Deborah Devonshire, known as “Debo” to her large family, died today at the age of 94.  She was the youngest of the famous (and notorious) Mitford sisters.  Deborah was considered a little dim by her lively eccentric family, but she was really as bright as the best of them; she just bloomed a little later.

One sister had a longstanding affair with a leader of the French Resistance in World War II, and wrote brilliant comic novels about English aristocratic life.  One sister married a Guinness, but soon left him for the leader of the British Fascists and spent the war years in prison with him. One sister became obsessed with Adolph Hitler and actually became his friend; she shot herself when England declared war on Germany and eventually died of her injuries.  One sister eloped with a man off to fight in the Spanish Civil War, then left that husband for a Communist and spent the rest of her life in the United States as a Communist sympathizer and agitator. Another sister led a quiet country life.  And then there was Deborah.

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During World War II, she married the younger son of an aristocratic family.  She expected a quiet country life, poor but happy. He unexpectedly became the Duke of Devonshire when his older brother, who had married Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, was killed in combat in World War II. (Debo became a friend of President Kennedy; she attended his inauguration, which she playfully insisted on calling his “coronation.”) With the Dukedom came huge estates and grand country homes, nearly impossible to maintain.  The world was changing, as dramatized in the TV series Downton Abbey.

For the Devonshires, the solution to keeping Chatsworth, one of  the grandest and most historic stately homes in the country, was up to Deborah.  She rose to the challenge. She spruced up the house and made it ready for a steady stream of paying tourists.  She decided that tourists liked to eat and to buy things.  Soon she had restaurants and elegant shops selling everything from keychains to custom furniture.  She created a children’s farm so that city children could have hands-on experience of running a farm and seeing where the food in the grocery store came from.  She created a farm shop with her own Chatsworth brands of every kind of food grown on the vast estate. Her shops were “local and organic” decades before those terms became trendy.

When the Duke died, Deborah became the Dowager Duchess. She graciously moved out of the grand house and into a smaller house in the village.  There, to the end of her life, she wrote vastly entertaining memoirs and books about country life.  She listened to Elvis records:  she was a great fan.  She raised her beloved chickens and still oversaw every aspect of the thriving Chatsworth businesses that she had created almost single-handed.  May she rest in peace.

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The photos above are from a story about Deborah’s  life and death in the Daily Mail at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2768095/BREAKING-NEWS-Last-Mitford-sisters-Dowager-Duchess-Devonshire-died-aged-94.html

Why Do Americans Love Downton Abbey?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I like the show for the sheer Englishness of it.  The show actually depicts a long-vanished England, so there’s an element of nostalgia, too.  And the England depicted never did really exist except for a very tiny minority of aristocratic people and the comparatively small number of ordinary people who served them in their grand country homes.  So there’s a large element of fantasy.

Even today, as England becomes more and more diverse, I love the uniquely English expressions, habits and ways of looking at the world. For example, here is a sign that stands outside the very old, very ornate gate of the private driveway of Chatsworth House, in Derbyshire:

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The hand-lettered sign reads “Dead Slow. Hoot.”  What does it mean?  I could not think of any legitimate reason that as a lowly tourist, I could drive up to the private gate and demand entry.  But I think the sign means that drivers are to approach the gate as slowly as humanly possible, and then  to sound their horns to be let in.  The word “Hoot” implies, of course, a decorous tap, not a prolonged blast. Apparently there is no automatic opener and no card-recognition system on the 18th-century gate.  Someone will have to run out, confer with the driver, and swing the gate open.

Notice also the gathering of people and animals beside the gate.  The wearing of practical rain gear and the watering of dogs are hallowed activities in the countryside of England. So is the visiting of stately homes–it has been a favorite pastime at least since the days of Jane Austen.  In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet famously changes her fate when against her better judgment she tours Mr. Darcy’s estate, Pemberly, and comes face to face with Mr. Darcy himself. Many people believe that Jane Austen based Pemberly on Chatsworth House.

I just read that the “real” Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle, is completely sold out of pre-bookable tickets for the coming opening times, mid-July to mid-September.  There are some tickets available to walk-ups, usually after 2 pm.  However, if I were traveling to England this summer, I would not let that worry me. I would go instead to Chatsworth House, and then I would go to at least a dozen other stately homes.  They’re all over England, and each has its own story every bit as fascinating as the fictional one so many of us love.

I’m going to write in coming posts about English country houses I have visited.  Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe–with the British Isles thrown in!