Duke of Devonshire, saviour of Chatsworth, dies, aged 84

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The Independent Online

The Duke of Devonshire, one of the leading figures in the revival of the fortunes of the country house in postwar Britain, has died, aged 84. The duke, who was a junior minister in the government of his uncle Harold Macmillan in the 1960s and a patron of artists including Lucian Freud, Elisabeth Frink and Angela Conner, died at Chatsworth, the family seat in Derbyshire, late on Monday night.

He was born Andrew Cavendish in 1920, the younger son of the 10th duke. When his elder brother, William - husband of the future President Jack Kennedy's sister Kathleen - was killed in the Second World War, he became heir presumptive to the Devonshire possessions, which included large landholdings in Derbyshire, Sussex, the West End of London, Scotland, and in Ireland at Lismore, Co Waterford.

The critical moment in the family fortunes came with the death in rapid succession of his grandfather, the ninth duke, and, in 1950, of his father. The cumulative death duties presented a daunting prospect. The decisions that Andrew Cavendish, now the 11th Duke of Devonshire, took were decisive in preserving his family's possessions, but also in creating a climate where the preservation and enjoyment of great country houses all over Britain, is now regarded as part of daily life - an industry in its own right.

In the early 1950s, a time of austerity and high taxation, houses such as Chatsworth, the finest classical country house in England, seemed to be unsustainable dinosaurs. At first it seemed impossible that the duke, and his wife, Deborah, one of the celebrated Mitford sisters, could take on Chatsworth - which had seen hard service as a girls' school during the Second World War - and make it into a living house again.

In settlement of death duties, the duke ceded some of the finest treasures in the collection to the nation, along with Hardwick Hall, also in Derbyshire, the prodigious Elizabethan house built, like Chatsworth, by Bess of Hardwick.

With Hardwick in the hands of the National Trust, the Devonshires focused their attentions on Chatsworth. In the succeeding five decades they set the standard in the opening of a country house and its grounds to the public, creating the fashion for the country house shop (selling Chatsworth-branded merchandise); the cheap but good-quality country-house restaurant; and the farm shop - selling organic meat and vegetables from the estate.

In creating a modern role for a venerable country house, the duke made the collection of paintings, books, statuary and precious stones available for exhibition internationally. A selected "Treasures of Chatsworth" exhibition was put on in London in 1979-80. A touring exhibition in the United States of objects from the house - "The Devonshire Inheritance: Five Centuries of Collecting at Chatsworth" - opened last month in New York.

The duke, who was a keen student of his family's involvement in British politics, was Minister of State at the Commonwealth Relations Office and for Colonial Affairs in 1963-64 under the Conservatives. Latterly he was a staunch ally of the Countryside Alliance.

He was also well known in the racing world, becoming a national figure in 1967-70 when his brilliant race mare Park Top caught the public imagination as one of racing's first stars of the television age - in the manner of a Brigadier Gerard or a Desert Orchid.

The duke kept up his interest in the sport, and had a fancied runner in last Saturday's 2,000 Guineas, the Bachelor Duke. The colt was named in memory of the 6th Duke of Devonshire, one of the most intriguing figures of the Victorian age, whose extraordinary legacy at Chatsworth was so treasured by his successor, and whose inspiration the 11th duke followed in making Chatsworth a country house for its age and saving it for the enjoyment of all.