In The Frame
In The Frame
In The Frame

JFK to Evelyn Waugh: the Duchess of Devonshire's friendships unveiled

by The Art Newspaper  |  26 February 2016
JFK to Evelyn Waugh: the Duchess of Devonshire's friendships unveiled
The Duchess of Devonshire, December 1949, courtesy of The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s
She was the youngest of the six aristocratic Mitford sisters who later became the Duchess of Devonshire, presiding over the stately pile of Chatsworth for half a century. But a forthcoming auction at Sotheby’s of items from the personal collection of Deborah Cavendish (née Freeman-Mitford), or Debo, is less valuable “in market terms” than for the insight it offers into the life of “an extraordinary woman”, says Harry Dalmeny, Sotheby’s UK chairman.

Among more than 450 lots from the Derbyshire vicarage where the duchess spent the last decade of her life, estimates range from £300-£500 for a lobster-shaped brass inkstand and £500-£1,000 for a trove of Elvis Presley memorabilia to £40,000-£60,000 for George Clausen’s oil painting of a potato harvest, The Potato Patch: October Twilight (1900). While fine art is thin on the ground, celebrity autograph hunters may find surprising bargains in the duchess’s library.

  • The Old Vicarage, where Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, spent the last ten years of her life.
  • A late Victorian brass novelty inkwell in the form of a lobster (est £300-£500). Courtesy Sotheby’s
  • Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking inscribed to the duchess by Madonna (est £70-£90). Courtesy Sotheby’s
  • One of 50 pre-publication copies of Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (est £15,000-£20,000). Courtesy Sotheby’s

John F. Kennedy, with whom Debo danced as an 18-year-old debutante, signed a book of the US president’s portraits “L.O.”, short for “loved one”, the Mitford girls’ nickname for him (est £1,500-£2,000). The Pop star Madonna dedicated Debo a copy of Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking (est £70-£90). And the British TV gardener Alan Titchmarsh gave her two of his books with a drawing of an egg “by Lucian Fried”, a nod to the gifts of Chatsworth eggs she brought the painter Lucian Freud (est £200-£300). But the trophy is probably one of 50 pre-publication copies of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Bearing the note that it was “issued privately for the author’s friends; no copies are for sale”, the novel is priced at between £15,000 and £20,000.

The collection of Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire, will be on view at Sotheby’s London from 27 February until 1 March, before the auction on 2 March.

UPDATE: The sale total was £1.8m (with fees) with 94.4% sold by lot; the top lot, a Japanese lacquer and ivory mounted guardian figure, Meiji period, fetched £62,500 (est £20,000-£30,000).

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