Early this month Sotheby’s held a champagne-and-canape viewing for the sale of possessions of the late ‘Debo’, Duchess of Devonshire. The lots were arranged to suggest room sets, with tables laid, sofas positioned by rugs and blown-up photographic backdrops, one showing the dining room of the dower house where the duchess spent her last years. Another by Norman Parkinson shows her in 1952 in the private dining room at Chatsworth in Derbyshire, the seat of the Devonshires of which she was châtelaine for more than half a century. In a dark velvet New Look gown she looks to one side. Behind her is a portrait of Henry VIII, copied from a lost Holbein, at her feet two elegant greyhounds lie asleep, while below Sotheby’s legend reads: ‘Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire: the last of the Mitford sisters’.
The viewing was arranged to make people feel as much as possible as if they were at an aristocratic country house weekend, rather than in a glorified warehouse at a posh version of Flog It! With upper-class insouciance the diamond brooches were shown alongside the cups and saucers, the well-worn chintz, table lamps and signed copies of the works of Alan Titchmarsh. Anyone hoping for crumbs from the great collections at Chatsworth was disappointed. This was the contents of the duchess’s final home, a former vicarage in the estate village of Edensor, which was built in the 1830s to be solid and comfortable, albeit afflicted with ‘hideously elongated debased Italianate windows’, which upset Nikolaus Pevsner. It was no palace.
The sale was chiefly about its subtitle: Debo as sixth, youngest and last of the Mitford sisters. Between them they spanned the entire range of upper-class extremism, from Decca the ‘ballroom communist’ to Unity, remembered tersely in the Dictionary of National Biography as ‘Nazi sympathiser’. Diana married Oswald Mosley and spent the Second World War in Holloway, Nancy was the novelist and Pamela the one everybody forgets about. Debo was known to her older sisters as ‘Nine’ because they thought that was her permanent mental age, and when the others talked of meeting Mr Right, Decca recalled that her youngest sister used sometimes to murmur ‘the Duke of Right’. It was that interwar world of eccentric, shabby chic grandeur that was to pass under the hammer on its way out of living memory.
With shrewdly low estimates, yesterday’s auction attracted considerable interest and Sotheby’s pushed the associational value of lots for which in truth that was often the only value. Nine Victorian kitchen chairs, estimated at £600-800 went for £4750, after a certain amount of teasing from the rostrum: ‘Keep thinking of sitting on those chairs’ the auctioneer urged the competing bidders as the price crept up: ‘I literally feel like I’m strangling a kitten here,’ he remarked as he drew them on, before finally bringing the hammer down. Lot 185 ‘a collection of Continental leaf-moulded pottery and porcelain … 20th-century’ was apparently mostly Portuguese Bordallo Pinheiro ware, which is still made. Divertimenti will sell you a side plate for £9.95. Debo’s collection fetched £10,000. There was a distinct Charles and Diana style divide of interest between objects associated with the duchess and those of the late duke, whose portrait was knocked down somewhat humiliatingly at £500. His handsome George III writing desk went for a reasonable £1375 but the pair of ‘Her Grace’s bespoke hen boxes’ (‘pine and plywood’), fetched £10,625 and her ‘novelty egg cruet’, estimate £100-150, reaching £7500.
The sale finished at 7 p.m. having raised £1,777,838. As the hammer came down on the last lot, a late 18th-century diamond brooch in the shape of a butterfly ‘A gift from Andrew, 11th Duke of Devonshire (1920-2004) to Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire (1920-2014)’ which went for a comparatively modest £6,000, the room erupted in an extended round of applause. What or who exactly was being applauded is hard to say, though Sotheby’s and the vendors have every reason to congratulate themselves and no doubt those who went on their way clutching a hen box or a hairbrush touched with the glamour of the last of the Mitfords were happy too.