The Mitford sisters’ literary talents and political affiliations made them a collective icon of British high society as it shapeshifted through the 20th century. Deborah, the late Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, was the youngest of the six siblings and the last survivor, and a selection of her possessions is up for auction on March 2 at Sotheby’s following her death 18 months ago at the age of 94.
Debo, as she was known, married wisely, avoided politics, adored animals and decorated Chatsworth, one of England’s finest stately homes. She remained an icon up until her death, which makes this auction a prime hunting ground for treasures. The duchess herself was no stranger to top-notch hand-me-downs. She decorated Chatsworth partly from its storerooms after moving there in the 1950s, approaching it as the best interior designers do and reacting to what the house’s character had to say.
The duchess was photographed by Mario Testino and Cecil Beaton (the photographic exhibition Never a Bore: Deborah Devonshire and Her Set by Cecil Beaton, will be staged at Chatsworth from March 19, 2016 to January 3, 2017) but it was Bruce Weber who created her most recognisable portrait when he captured her sensationally feeding chickens while dressed in a Balmain gown (first picture). The iconic photograph conveys her personal aesthetics: grand yet farmy, and with a sense of humour. Her collections of ephemera are as idiosyncratic as her style – the dominance of miniature animal figurines in the Sotheby’s catalogue is impossible to overlook, their unapologetic kitsch trumped only by her girlish collection of Elvis memorabilia.
The sale promises treasures for the buyer with contemporary tastes too. Two collections of leafware pottery (£400-£600 and £200-£300, second picture) will catch the eyes of timely style hunters after Tory Burch relaunched the original designs last year. A sparkling collection of hardstones and minerals (£1,000-£1,500) is very du jour, as are the botanical artworks (£600-£3,000) painted by Debo’s daughter Emma Tennant. Some Victorian pieces – a striped sofa (£800-£1,200) and two découpage screens (£600-£800, third picture) – could be styled to look either classic or cool. High-value items to be had include a Japanese gilt and lacquered figure from the Meiji period (£20,000-£30,000) and a George II-style gilt and marble hall table (£8,000-£12,000).
The duchess’s jewels deserve special attention – among them 19th-century rings set with emeralds (£300-£500) and turquoise and diamonds (£300-£350) and a modern spider brooch (£1,200-£1,500, fourth picture) in pearl and diamonds. Her 9ct gold Cartier powder compact (£2,000-£3,000) from 1946 is also special. Anyone looking to add to their library can browse the collection of art, architecture, history, interior decorating, farming, gardening or cookery books – organised by Sotheby’s into collected categories to be bought by the job lot (£100-£500).
Many of the Duchess’s belongings have links to other fabulous or well-known people. One signed Elvis postcard was a gift from Tom Stoppard when he came to stay, and her rare copy of Brideshead Revisited (£15,000-£20,000) is personally inscribed by her friend Evelyn Waugh. Alongside Winston Churchill and President Kennedy, figures like Lucian Freud and Duncan Grant populate her letters: both artists painted the duchess but only Grant’s portrait is up for auction (£2,000-£3,000, fifth picture).
In 2006, Madonna gave Debo a copy of Joan Didion’s book about coping with death, A Year of Magical Thinking. The queen of pop wrote in it, “I hope this book inspires you as much as it inspired me.” One bidder will be able to take this object, connecting three strong women, for a hammer price from £70.
These pieces weave a web of stories, and the tales themselves are priceless.