Even under the gray skies of Derbyshire, Chatsworth looks resplendent, golden and honey-coloured, set in Arcadian parkland and gardens of fountains and Grecian statuary. Since Peregrine, the 12th Duke of Devonshire, inherited the estate, he and his wife, Amanda, have injected new life and art into it and undertaken an extensive restoration program, including creating a new gallery to mount temporary exhibitions.

Today one might chance upon a gargantuan Barry Flanagan hare at the entrance, a vast Anthony Caro metal sculpture on the lawn, a digital dayglo Michael Craig-Martin family portrait in the Painted Hall, the back side of a mare by Lucian Freud beside a collection of solid-gold ceremonial trophies. Yet the new acquisitions and loans from other collections do not jar and seem to meld into the old. "When artists come to install their stuff beside the Old Masters they get quite nervous," says the Duke of Devonshire. "And the big Scully in the North Sketch Gallery alongside 17th- and 18th-century portraits is rather a shock to some people."

We are standing in the chapel, in front of an obsidian bronze. The figure looks deceptively like a replica of a 16th- century anatomical engraving by Andreus Vesalius. A grisly depiction of the flaying of Saint Bartholomew, showing the martyr holding up his skin and a pair of scissors, it is actually a sculpture by Damien Hirst. The juxtaposition of the Baroque, the cutting-edge and the Duke himself sums up all he tries to do at Chatsworth. Peregrine, aka 'Stoker' (a prep-school name that stuck), who prefers to be addressed in a jazzy- sounding way as 'Duke' rather than the ingratiating term of 'Your Grace', doesn't want anyone to get too overexcited. As he says, "I do not want to appear proprietorial over Saint Bartholemew. This is purely on loan from a private collector."

The reason for coming to Chatsworth to meet the Duke is that this summer, 12 rare Old Master drawings belonging to the Devonshires have been selected from 3,000 of theirholdings of Northern and Italian schools. It is considered the finest family collection after the Queen's at Windsor – and is the first time these drawings have been on show for more than 100 years. In order to show them in museum-quality conditions, a new Master drawings cabinet has been purpose- built, a small darkened anteroom lined with dark green material selected by the Duchess and interior designer David Mlinaric. Visitors pass through a lavish state room into the penumbra of the chamber to behold a da Vinci drawing of Leda and the Swan. Other exquisite drawings on display for the next three years include a Claude Lorrain landscape, a Rembrandt pen-and-ink of an actor, a peasant churning butter by Rubens and a Jan Gossaert of Adam and Eve.

On my way to meet the Duke, the lodgekeeper tells me that Chatsworth has 750 staff, 750,000 visitors a year and an annual £4m services bill. The 35,000-acre estate – which, according to him "can be foggy at one end and sunny at the other" – was a staggering 85,000 acres, but that was before family tragedy struck. The present Duke's uncle, William Cavendish, died in the Second World War, and his wife, Kathleen, sister of John F. Kennedy, died in an air crash shortly after. William's younger brother, Andrew (the present Duke's father), was landed with an 80 per cent death duties bill in 1950 when his father died, but he saved Chatsworth by selling off thousands of acres and other assets, including Hardwick Hall – which he gave to the National Trust – before moving into Chatsworth in the mid-1950s. Negotiations with the Inland Revenue took 17 years to complete. Chatsworth House Trust was set up in 1981, almost 30 years after the late Duke inherited Chatsworth. It was a lifetime's work, bringing it to the fore as one of the UK's highest-profile stately homes.

While most other ducal families are shrouded in obscurity, the Devonshires are in the limelight, with a distinguished, often colorful history that spans six centuries. The Cavendishes – their family name – rose from the ranks of Elizabethan gentry to aristocratic Whig supremacy in the 17th century, during which the 5th Duke lived in a ménage à trois with the Duchess Georgiana and Lady Elizabeth Foster. Their 20th-century transformation from strawberry-leaved anachronism into thriving tourist industry is due, in part, to Deborah ('Debo', née Mitford), the Dowager Duchess, now 92, who has written about the family. Films, TV and volumes of books, autobiographies, biographies and letters full of priceless anecdotes testify to the status of Chatsworth and its charismatic incumbents.
For our interview, the Duke sits me down in a paneled neoclassical library, and answers my questions in a serious, considered way. He is humble, yet retains some patrician hauteur and diffidence. He has the limpid blue Mitford eyes, and his expression is inscrutable. I ask if his parents' passion for collecting was integral to his love of modern art, and whether their taste influenced his. "Their influence was neither positive nor negative. I was used to new paintings arriving all the time. They were friends with lots of artists. When the Freud portrait of my mother was hung, their friends were unbelievably, aggressively critical of it, which made me all the more determined to like it. My parents were much braver then than it would appear now; in the early 1960s most people hated those kind of paintings, so that was a strong influence on me, that what was new was acceptable." Freud, a great family friend, painted all their portraits. His Skewbald Mare hangs among photorealist pictures of Lester Piggott on Stoker's father's racehorse, Park Top.

When Stoker was 19, he sat for Derek Hill: "I was always asleep, and he didn't like it when I was late. He was pernickety, great fun and a bitchy gossip." Recently, he was painted by Tai-Shan Schierenberg for the BBC. "The BBC asked me to sit for him. I don't know why they chose me, though I can understand why they chose him. There are portraits of my father and me by Stephen Conroy. I commissioned him to paint my father, but he gave him rather a bulbous nose, which he didn't have. We asked him to change it but he refused; it is not a kind picture." The portrait hangs near Pietro Annigoni's portrait of Debo looking wistful.

The 1st Duke rebuilt Chatsworth as a Baroque palace, the 4th hired Capability Brown, and the 6th added Wyatville's tall Victorian wing and loggia, which is not in sync with the classical elevation. The Duke agrees that the conflicting styles make it difficult to appreciate the house esthetically as a whole: "It is all a muddle, certainly if you add on the wing, which was an afterthought and which, to our taste, is pretty horrendous. When Wyatville introduced his interventions internally, they were not terribly elegant. The galleries he added to the courtyard, although useful, are all the wrong height compared to the original elevation, but I don't think many people notice; they just appreciate the wide-open corridors, so it is worth having them... One of the advantages is that it's easier to make changes... and we have done some major alterations inside." For instance, the Duke and Duchess restored the staircase – hung with formidable and formal ancestors' portraits – by removing the inner dome to reveal a dramatic skylight. One of the most Herculean tasks, which spared no expense, was to gild all the window-glazing bars and urns. In the afternoon sun the façade turns golden and the urns atop it flame at sunset. As the Duke explains, "The idea is to recreate its original opulence. Itsimply wouldn't look right if it all had been painted gold."

The Duke does not regard himself as a serious collector. He thinks he lacks intellectual rigor, despite having read history at Oxford: "You need to understand the whole collecting area... Whatever you decide to collect, you need to understand it and see similar collections; you need to have a good historical perspective. I don't have that, except maybe a little bit with ceramics. We don't have a wish list, and prices are so fierce at the top end of the market, although we do buy pictures of historical interest to Chatsworth that we would not otherwise purchase. We bought a not-very- distinguished portrait by Romney of Dorothy Cavendish, the daughter of the 4th Duke who was Prime Minister briefly; she married another Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston."

Compared to their forebears', their collection of modern art is modest but certainly eclectic. It includes Nicola Hicks' greyhounds, a Richard Long slate piece, Allen Jones' sculptures, a Sean Scully abstract, prints by Howard Hodgkin and David Hockney's Le Parc de Sources, Vichy, 1970, an early acquisition that hangs in their apartments. There is a Craig- Martin portrait of their daughter-in-law, Laura, commissioned by their son, William. And there are lots of ceramics, notably Edmund de Waal's white porcelain pots in the chapel corridor and a towering blue-and- white Felicity Aylieff pot on the Mercury Landing. Contemporary art sits with the historical to great effect, though as the Duke says, "Contemporary art does make people of a certain age nervous, as it is not clear what it is of. It's a different concept than, say, of a battle or goddess. The noise level goes up when people are looking at contemporary art."

I wonder whether he would consider having Christo wrap Chatsworth? His eyes light up. "That would be wonderful. William and I have been talking about wrapping this house for 20 years. If somebody came with an idea and we really liked the proposal we'd do it... I know it is quite selfish, but that's the way it is... But we would not have a controversial art project just for the 'footfall'."

Whatever happens at Chatsworth, there will always be an element of surprise and innovation, not least because the Duke champions the new and treasures the old. He is a benign patron, and few men in his position would have the inclination, or his boundless energy, to do likewise.

Celia Lyttelton's most recent book is The Scent Trail (Penguin).

The Old Masters Drawing Cabinet is on show at Chatsworth House, Bakewell, Derbyshire until 9 November. www.chatsworth.org


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