I first visited England’s Chatsworth in the early 90s with the American Friends of the Georgian Group. We toured the house, walked the gardens, and had lunch in the family dining room with Andrew Cavendish (then Duke of Devonshire) and the charismatic Duchess Deborah (“Debo,” as she was known to friends). I remember the beautiful table setting, the tall Chinese screen from which the waiters emerged, and the commanding portrait of Henry VIII looking over us. But I also remember seeing a dog bed and large bag of dog food under the gilded William Kent console. To experience this extraordinary place in such a personal manner, to have history interlaced with personal anecdotes, makes the bricks and mortar come alive and leaves you wondering what tales the 200-year-old trees there could tell.
Chatsworth was built by the indomitable Bess of Hardwick, the wealthiest and most powerful woman in Elizabethan England next to the Queen. Upon marrying her fourth husband (the Earl of Shrewsbury and the wealthiest man in England), Bess set about building one of the greatest treasure-filled houses in Britain. Through subsequent generations, Chatsworth became the home of the Cavendish family. The Duchess was a mere 30 years old when she and Andrew assumed ownership upon the death of Andrew’s father. His older brother, the heir apparent, had been killed in World War II, leaving Andrew as the next in line to assume the enormous responsibility of stewardship of Chatsworth, a role he and the Duchess performed handsomely for 54 years. Debo, the youngest of the often celebrated and occasionally scandalous Mitford sisters, took her new responsibilities seriously, making Chatsworth and its gardens one of the most successful English Country estates today.
Imagine the task of being the chatelaine of a property with these stats:
- 273 rooms
- 24 baths
- 7,873 windowpanes
- 17 staircases
- 3,426 passages
- 359 doors
- 1.3 acres of roof
- 40,000 acres of land, with 105 acres devoted to the gardens
As we continued our tour in the garden, we listened to the Duchess explain to the American architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen that the trees destroyed in the brutal storm of 1987, which devastated parts of Britain and France, “will soon be replanted for others to enjoy in 200 years’ time, just as we have enjoyed them.” In her own metaphorical terms, “ … the battle with nature, which is gardening,” was tragically in evidence here. I will never forget listening to her explain this to Hugh and the impact it had on me. It was a testament to her far-reaching vision and understanding of the responsibility incumbent upon her and the Duke to secure the future of the Cavendish family home and its grounds as an important historical monument in Britain.
Approaching the West Lawn, the Duchess shared how her idea came about for the design of the garden there. I knew of the story prior to my visit, but hearing it firsthand gave it new meaning. She explained that while viewing some drawings of Lord Burlington’s Chiswick House, it occurred to her that the dome of Chiswick was the approximate scale of the round pool of water on the West Lawn at Chatsworth. From that single similarity, she conceived a plan to re-create the floor plan of Chiswick by planting boxwoods. With the help of her local nurseryman, she accumulated 3,300 golden boxwood shrubs and designed an architectural conceit of a garden. This project was just one example of the determination the Duchess had to see projects like this through to execution—a special skill and one direly needed in order to continue to secure the interest in and relevance of English country houses. Debo’s creativity, inventiveness, and foresight are all part of her legacy at Chatsworth.
In the late ‘70s, Debo opened the Farm Shop at Chatsworth that included garden furniture made in the estate’s joinery, along with a café. While she somewhat jokingly attributed her retail acumen to Ginger and Pickles, the story by Beatrix Potter, that savviness resulted in a substantial annual income for the estate that continues today. The success of the shop at Chatsworth no doubt set the groundwork for other successful farm shops to follow, such as Highgrove and Daylesford.
Debo also turned her attention to writing books about Chatsworth. Later in life, her autobiography, “Wait for Me!” became a best seller. Her matter of fact, honest, and laconic style amassed quite a following, of which I am sure her older sister, novelist Nancy Mitford, would be reluctantly proud and perhaps a little envious. Nancy, who died in 1973, would never see the magnitude of her baby sister’s success. Debo’s exemplary stewardship shone through in her limitless energy that created the Farm Shop, her vision that was evidenced on the West Lawn, and her astuteness for planting trees that would thrive in the future. All of this has contributed to the future of Chatsworth—the place that she simply called “The House.”
By Charlotte Moss
With a lifelong love of gardening, designer Charlotte Moss has long been intrigued with what draws people—especially women—into the world of horticulture. Some have made it their professions, while others have become enthusiasts, patrons, philanthropists, or simply weekend hobbyists. And then there are those who write about all things gardening. In her new column for FLOWER, Charlotte explores some of these women and the journeys that led to their passions for plants and flowers. She also has a forthcoming book with Rizzoli on the subject of gardening women set to release spring 2025.