Idealized Portrait of Girolamo Casio(detail)

Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (1466/7-1516)
Oil on panel

Treasures From Chatsworth: A British Noble House

On view August 14, 2004 to November 7, 2004

Located in the: Special Exhibition Galleries

Treasures from Chatsworth presents a private collection of rarely exhibited objects—precious cabinet paintings, old master drawings, masterpieces of the great gold- and silversmiths, gems and jewelry, natural curiosities, scientific instruments, and important books and manuscripts—assembled over nearly 500 years. Chatsworth, home of the Cavendish family as well as the Earls and then Dukes of Devonshire since the 16th century, contains one of the most important private art collections in England and the world's greatest private library. The 175 pieces in this exhibition illustrate the growth of the Chatsworth collection and successive generations' changing tastes, and engage visitors in a glimpse of life within a British great house. This major traveling exhibition has been organized by Art Services International, with other venues at Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, the Society of the Four Arts, Palm Beach, and others to be determined. Nicolas Barker, formerly Deputy Keeper at the British Library and a fellow of the British Academy is guest curator of the exhibition. William R. Sargent, PEM Curator of Asian Export Art, is coordinating curator for the museum’s presentation of Treasures From Chatsworth.

“We are pleased to present the achievements of this pioneering family of collectors and engage visitors in experiencing the life within a British great house,” says PEM director Dan Monroe. “The family created an environment in which outstanding artistic and cultural creativity represents the changing tastes of successive generations transformed by their passion for exploring and expanding the world.”

The Exhibition Treasures From Chatsworth is a dazzling collection reflecting five centuries of artistic connoisseurship and intellectual pursuits. The works in the exhibition are organized by generation to highlight the interests and roles played by successive family members. Bess of Hardwick, one of the most formidable figures of Elizabethan England, rose from near poverty to become one of the wealthiest women in England. She married four times, each time increasing her wealth and status, and established a dynasty for her Cavendish successors.

Bess of Hardwick constructed the first Chatsworth in the mid sixteenth century. Building on his mother’s achievements, the first earl of Devonshire used influential connections at court, and wealth from his estates at home and from investments overseas, to procure a title from King James I. A rare map of Virginia (1612) and a letter from Queen Elizabeth I, are some of the early treasures he contributed to the collection. The second earl died young, but his wife served as a patron to writers, including the great Elizabethan playwright, Ben Jonson, whose books are preserved at Chatsworth. Their son took a prominent part at court and in theatrical masques—plays in which members of the aristocracy and royalty performed. Inigo Jones’s designs for the masques are included in the exhibition.

One of the family’s crowning achievements as art collectors is their world famous holdings of drawings by Renaissance masters. The fourth earl, who rebuilt Chatsworth in a palatial style, was the first to collect Old Master drawings, including works by Il Guercino, one of Italy’s most celebrated artists of the 17th century. His son, the second duke, expanded the collection greatly, acquiring drawings by some of the world’s great artists including Raphael, Titian, Dürer, Rembrandt, and Rubens. Also featured from his period is a cabinet made by André-Charles Boulle, the great French furniture maker. The sumptuously decorated piece is veneered with ebony, brass, and tortoiseshell with gilt bronze fittings, and was owned by the second duke.

In the 18th century the third Earl of Burlington left to his heirs a remarkable collection of European paintings, elaborate furnishings, and a library of architectural drawings by Palladio and Inigo Jones. The fourth duke’s cousin, Henry Cavendish, was the greatest chemist of his time and a pioneer in the study of electricity. His exquisitely made instruments are on display, as are his science books, including Copernicus's revolutionary discovery of the solar system and the first atlas of England. The fifth duke and his wife, Georgiana (the great-great-great-great-aunt of Diana, Princess of Wales, and nearly as famous in her day), added many important books to the Chatsworth library. The duchess also collected mineral specimens, a practice considered avant-garde for the period.

Their son was devoted to Chatsworth, and enlarged it considerably. He also wrote an entertaining guidebook to the house, and enhanced the collection with illuminated medieval manuscripts and magnificent bindings, fine silver, ancient and modern sculpture, and fabulous objects such as the jeweled Kniphausen hawk and Henry VIII’s microscopically carved rosary. The seventh duke collected gorgeous hand-colored books cataloguing birds and flowers. Items from Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Ball in 1897, the Ascot Gold Cup, and other sporting events represent the next generation’s interests.

With the Eleventh Duke of Devonshire (who died May 3, 2004, at the age of 84) and the Dowager Duchess, the collections at Chatsworth entered a new stage. The number of great color-plate books was doubled, and works by contemporary artists, including Lucian Freud, one of England's most important late 20th-century painters, added. Their son, formerly Lord Hartington, is now the Twelfth Duke of Devonshire.

The Catalogue
A fully illustrated, 450-page catalogue accompanies the exhibition. In addition to individual entries and full-color illustrations of all objects in the exhibition, the catalogue also includes a foreword by the late Duke of Devonshire. Essays by Nicolas Barker discuss the chronology of the family, the growth of the Chatsworth collection, and the significance of British connoisseurship. Diana Scarisbrick, independent curator and recognized scholar of jewelry and gems, contributed an analysis of the jewels in the collection, highlighted by the Devonshire Parure, a suite of jewels made to be worn at the coronation of Czar Alexander II of Russia in 1856. The catalogue also includes a family tree, biographical information, a bibliography, and an index. It is published and distributed by Art Services International, Alexandria, Virginia.

The exhibition of Treasures from Chatsworth at the Peabody Essex Museum is made possible through the generous support of Affiliated Managers Group, Inc. and Welch and Forbes LLC.

Further Reading