Tuesday, October 05, 2010

History Unveiled: Attic Sale at Chatsworth

C.S. Lewis had it right. As he shows in Narnia, cupboards are the most fascinating things. You never know what’s behind them.

That’s certainly true of an item for sale at Chatsworth, one of the estates that has so many resonances for Regency buffs. Not only is Chatsworth the supposed original model for Jane Austen’s Pemberley, but it was also the Derbyshire seat of one of London’s leaders of the ton and Empress of Fashion, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, 1757-1806. Jane Austen wasn’t the only writer that found Chatsworth admirable, either. Some eighty years earlier, Daniel Defoe described it as “the most pleasant garden and most beautiful palace in the world”.

You may wonder what this has to do with cupboards. I should really say bookcases, because one very famous bookcase is for sale at Chatsworth. This was the bookcase through which Prince George, later to become Regent and then George IV. The mahogany bookcase had a secret door and was used to conceal another door behind it through which the prince gained access to his mistress/wife Maria Fitzherbert. The location of the bookcase? Devonshire House in Piccadilly, often called “The Lost Palace of London”. Obviously the Prince must have been a frequent visitor.

The Prince's passion for Mrs Fitzherbert was described in this manner: “He cried by the hour … he testified to the sincerity and violence of his passion and his despair by the most extravagant expressions and actions, rolling on the floor, striking his forehead, tearing his hair, falling into hysterics and swearing that he would abandon the country, forego the crown, sell his jewels and plate and scrape together a competence to fly with the object of his affections to America.”-- Lord Holland.

The last words call to mind another British Monarch, Edward the VIII, who also wanted to defy the Royal Marriages Act to marry his mistress, a divorcee and an American, but was forced to abdicate. The parallel is interesting, as both women had been married twice before.
Despite all his excesses, the Prince's passion for Mrs Fitzwilliam must have outdated their separation in 1810, because after the King's death on 26 June 1830, they found that he had kept all her letters. It makes for fascinating speculation to imagine how history would have been different if either the Prince’s marriage had been accepted as legal, or if he had abdicated as his descendent had. Would marriage to her have curbed some of his excesses?

The bookcase, which didn't have the curtains originally, was designed by Thomas Hope and made by Marsh and Titham. It was relegated to the nursery when it was moved from Devonshire House to Chatsworth. I wonder if any of the children ever discovered the secret door and speculated on who could have used it.

The secret bookcase/door is not the most expensive item on sale at Chatsworth. The honour belongs to a chimney marble piece of carved marble, one of the architectural fixtures designed by William Kent estimated at £200,000-£300,000. The chimney piece was taken from the saloon at Devonshire House where Georgiana held so many of her famous evenings and where mourners came to bid their last farewell to her after her death. Picture marble chimney piece. I can’t help thinking of Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice when he raves about Lady Catherine’s chimney piece. Perhaps it, too, was designed by William Kent?

Other items for sale are chairs that belonged to Lady Georgiana and a snuffbox that features a miniature of Georgiana and her daughter based on the Joshua Reynolds painting that currently hangs in Chatsworth.

This fascinating auction is being held as we speak, from October 5th to 7th.

Meanwhile, I’ve decided that my next Regency or Jane Austen inspired novel will feature a bookcase similar to that belonging to the Regent.

Monica Fairview


CarolB said...

Our local BBC News featured this sale on tonight's programme. The bookcase looked fantastic close up- if only I'd had the room and money!
Apparently the Kent fireplace had been home to a family of hedgehogs for some time.
Asked why he was getting rid of all these things, the current Duke said they didn't have anywhere to put them all. :)


monica fairview said...

Oh, I wish I'd seen it! Yes, imagine having the money to be able to own a piece of history like that.

Sarah Mallory/Melinda Hammond said...

Fabulous, Monica - and such a bookcase is bound to appeal to writers or historical romance on so many levels! I do hope there will be a tv documentary about the sale at some point (can't imagine the Duke missing that trick).

Monica Fairview said...

Isn't it a dream for us writers? I do hope there'll be a documentary, Melinda.