The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire’s 3000 Old Master Drawings have been famous but out of sight for nearly 300 years within their vast art collection at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire. Amassed from 1680s onwards – largely acquired by the 1st and 2nd Dukes, – their drawing collection contains every great artist you could name: Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, among them.
Theirs is the greatest private collection outside of The Queen’s. Yet, astonishingly these works have never before been displayed at Chatsworth. Why? Such light-sensitive works could never be shown in poor conditions, or they would be damaged irreparably.
Now, tucked away in one of the oldest parts of the house (which has been refurbished for the purpose), the Devonshires have created an intimate, sensitively lit space in which they reveal 12 drawings in the show 'World Class: Masterpieces from the Devonshire Collection’, curated by Hannah Obee. One of Obee’s favourite works is Leonardo’s ‘Leda and the Swan’, c.1503-1504, which she explains went on a remarkable journey: ‘The drawing travelled to an exhibition in Italy just before the outbreak of World War II. The then Duke desperately tried to retrieve it, but had no luck, so there it remained until the end of war in dank dungeons in a castle just outside of Milan. When the drawing was returned to the Duke and inspected after the War, it was astonishingly intact apart from one little white mark on Leda’s stomach that hadn’t been there before. The fact that it survived such cataclysmic events, and only assumed one blemish, is fascinating to me.’
This small but perfectly formed exhibition brings together some of their most precious drawings. Each work tells a fascinating story, whether it’s Rubens’ drawing of the peasant girl he fell in love with, or Titian’s captivating landscape of a horse bolting on sight of a serpent in the water.
This show is the first in a series of drawing exhibitions there and forms part of Chatsworth’s larger art programme, encompassing the likes of Sir Anthony Caro RA this spring and summer to the late Barry Flanagan RA in the autumn (to receive the autumn issue of RA Magazine, click here to subscribe).
The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire talk about their favourite works in the show, Raphael’s ‘Seated woman reading with child’, c.1512-1514 and Rembrandt’s ‘An Actor in His Dressing Room’, c. 1638: