In a family with two Nazi sympathizers, a novelist, and a Communist-bent civil rights activist, being a Duchess may be considered a remarkably average profession. Deborah, the last of the Mitford sisters, and also the Duchess of Devonshire, died in September 2014. Hundreds of personal items from her estate were auctioned at Sotheby’s in London last Wednesday for a total of around £1.8 million, bringing to light the tastes and life of the British aristocrat.
Deborah, known to her friends as “Debo”, married Andrew Cavendish, the later Duke of Devonshire, which led to her acquiring her royal title. She masterminded the transformation of Chatsworth House, the family’s 18th-century mansion, into a profitable tourist attraction that now hosts more than a million visitors a year. She was also famously devoted to her chickens and regularly hosted parties where live hens would strut about the dinner table. She was once photographed feeding her chickens while wearing a Balmain ball gown and pearls.
Among Deborah’s friends included President Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Lucian Freud, Evelyn Waugh, Alan Bennett, members of the Royal Family, Hubert de Givenchy, Oscar de la Renta and Cecil Beaton. In fact, an exhibition of Beaton’s photographs of Deborah and her glittering social circle will also be shown at Chatsworth from 19 March 2016 to 3 January 2017.
Among some of the highlights from the sale include:
A true first edition of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited with a personal inscription by the author. Sold for £52,500.
The Duchess’s collection of Elvis Presley epherema, including a novelty Elvis telephone that dances and sings when it rings. Sold for £4,375
A pair of paintings by the famous landscape painter John Atkinson Grimshaw. Bolton Abbey by Moonlight and A Wooded Landscape were among the Duchess’s favorite paintings. Sold for £52,500
A set of 12 wine glasses acquired from the Buckingham Palace gift-shop with a gold snake entwining every stem. Sold for: £4,375
A diamond and ruby brooch in the form of a butterfly. A present from Andrew. Sold for: £62,500
A diamond brooch designed by Andrew for their Diamond wedding anniversary in 2001, formed in the shape of a heart pierced by an arrow. Sold for: £40,000.
A Japanese gilt-decorated Guardian figure from the Meiji period. It was acquired by the Duchess’s grandfather Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford, probably presented by Emperor Meiji of Japan. Sold for £62,500.
Deborah’s archive of personal correspondence – letters, books, manuscripts and documents relating to the Mitford sisters – has been left to Chatsworth House Trust, together with her collection of couture clothing, and is planned to be accessible by the public in due course.
Henry Wyndham, Chairman of Sotheby’s Europe and Auctioneer for much of the sale, noted that the Duchess “represented the last of a special era” and that she “would have been quietly amused by the whole event, but most of all would have been pleased to see her belongings find brand new homes where they’ll be treasured”.
The Mitford sisters remain prominent figures in the history books for charming and shocking the world with their gracious wit and scandalous affairs.