Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Extraordinary Housewife: The Duchess of Devonshire 1920-2014

The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, the last surviving of the fabulous and famously infamous Mitford sisters, has died.

The Duchess Counts Her Chickens

My favorite photograph of the Duchess of Devonshire is  one where she is wearing red satin Balmain while feeding her chickens taken by Bruce Weber.

Chickens had been a part of the Dowager Duchesses life since she was a young girl of 6 and she had her own flock.  Her mother bought the food for the chickens and she sold her mother the eggs.  Chickens also feature prominently in the titles of some of the books by the Duchess of Devonshire:

Counting My Chickens... And Other Home Thoughts

All in One Basket

There is also Home to Roost: And Other Peckings...  

The Duchess of Devonshire, a Buff Cochin Cockerel and Oscar de la Renta

One day a Buff Cochin cockerel, of steady temperament, found himself freshly washed and sitting in a rectangular glass container on a dining table at Chatsworth.  Oscar de la Renta would be visiting Chatsworth and the Duchess of Devonshire decided against the usual floral table arrangement for chickens.  

"We put eggs in a beautiful pair of wine coolers made by the silversmith Paul Storr."  Newly hatched baby chicks were put into little china baskets surrounded by hay to keep them warm.  "They were only a day old, which was very handy, as they knew no different and thought it was all perfectly normal."
The Duchess of Devonshire

The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire Had Pluck

When Andrew, the second son of Edward Cavendish, the 10th Duke of Devonshire, was born he was not meant to inherit the title of Duke of Devonshire or Chatsworth with its 297 rooms, 112 fireplaces, 32 kitchens and workshops, 17 staircases and 1.3 acres of roof.  But when Andrew's older brother, William Cavendish, The Marquess of Hartington, died during the Second World War, Andrew and his wife Deborah, became the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.  They inherited Chatsworth where no one had lived for years and had become a dreary girls school.  And when Andrew's father died leaving the estate with an 80 percent death tax, Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire rallied, became known as the Housewife Duchess and turned Chatsworth into a working farm and a visitor destination.  

When the Duchess of Devonshire was 85 years old, Andrew died and their son Peregrine 'Stoker' became the 12th Duke of Devonshire.  The Dowager Duchess moved into the Old Vicarage in a village on the estate.  It was in deplorable condition but typical of the Dowager Duchess, she took on the renovation with gusto.  She surprised herself by painting the entrance hall apple green, hung a powder room with silver wallpaper and a portrait of Elvis, put a cherry red wood burning stove in the fireplace and heated floors which her dogs adored.

When she opened her newly renovated home for a garden party in aid of the village church, the Dowager Duchess overheard one of the ladies commenting, " I'm very disappointed.  I came to see chandeliers and all I found was Habitiat."

The Duchess of Devonshire's book are still available for purchase at Amazon here.

xo, Juliana

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