There has been so much written about the Mitfords, and by the Mitfords, both during their lives and after , that now as the final obituaries roll off the press for the last sister, ‘wait for me‘ Debo, it is truly the end of an era.
Debo with her beloved chickens, happiest in the country with 2 whippets by her side, expert on rare breeds, keen hunting lady and vocal in her dislike of Tony Blair and drivers who slowed down for cattle grids. What’s not to love?
I mourn the passing of her vintage aristo-Englishness, where tiaras were casually collected from the bank vault in woolworth’s plastic bags and walked home before the grand London balls, when country pursuits were unquestioned and a stiff-upper-lip / stiff-drink-humour ruled.
The eccentric world portrayed by Nancy Mitford in such charming and vivid prose made legions of young girls (me too) yearn to be with them in the hons cupboard, searching for love in a cold climate, brimful of plans and distinctly-U … you know, one of the family
5 of the 6 Mitford sisters whose lives were so intensely lived they caught the public imagination as between them they spanned the extremes of the political spectrum which divided Europe in the 20th century.
I have a VIP black box: here rest all the ‘places’, which between them make up my fantasy ‘interior’, including Debo’s Old Vicarage decorated with David Milarnic, for me it is the ultimate Granny house, as you can see from my post-it filing notes:
Naturally it made the front cover of WOI. I have searched high and low, to no avail, for the name of the apple green paint that greets you in the entrance hall.
Debo was Chatelaine extraordinaire of Chatsworth, as her husband said, My wife is far more important to Chatsworth than I am. She is on the bossy side of course; but I’ve always liked that in a woman.
Her vision and commercial acumen, both restored the house which was sad, dark and derelict when she first saw it, into the most popular of stately homes, but also a private home of great personal style.
Debo strikes a pose in the Gold Drawing Room at Chatsworth beneath a Holbein portrait of Henry VIII. Norman Parkinson, 1952.
9, Duchess of Devonshire, as Nancy teased her youngest sister (inference: mental age 9 and cardboard cutout aristo) was far from textbook. She claimed not to read, under duress citing Beatrix Potter as her favourite author, but by her death was recognised as a successful author and prolific writer.
My favourite, In Tearing Haste charts her correspondence with Patrick Leigh Fermor, it’s so evocative you feel part of their gilded coterie. In one of my favourite letters Debo relays grand daughter Stella Tennant and Vogue’s flying trip to Chatsworth.
I was the monkey…suddenly that grand photo becomes intimately human and that’s what Debo did: she took the Baroque grandeur of Chatsworth and made it human, something to be loved and cherished by the nation, by locals and by the 100’s of people who worked there, 600 of whom lined the drive at her funeral.
It was on her husband’s death that she downsized to the Old Vicarage, telling visitors*: The luxury of having everything so small—it’s simply amazing!
One of 8 bedrooms, this one with floral wallpaper sourced from America, because …all English wallpapers are so monstrously ugly. It’s great with the graphic floral rug and the mis-matched ‘bathroom on sweet ‘(another Debo-ism). The lacquer mint is one of the decorative surprises within the classic interior which makes it sing.
Finally, and I think this is my favourite, the grand children’s attic bedroom: your expecting a pair of pretty beds and you get them, but their mismatched colour and gothic fantasy paired with stripes is another great example of how this interior’s country-chic surprises. That window by the bed? it allows the grandchildren to peer into the house’s old reed insulation – the flowers are still on stalks after 150 years.
My favourite room though, like Debo’s, is her powder room downstairs, it’s wallpapered in silver sticky-back plastic, and celebrates her favourite crooner Elvis, whose picture reigns over the loo. I reckon Debo was a rocking granny and her house speaks of a life well lived: full of love, family and friends.
Debo neé Mitford, 10 out of 10.
R.I.P. Debo Dowager Duchess Devonshire March 31 1920-September 24 2014
Debo Devonshire on her funeral: ”I suggest NO CREMATION, just an ordinary common or garden FUNERAL, I mean you have ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful” & ‘Holy, Holy Holy’ and then the stalwarts shoulder you and heave you to the graveyard…& everyone is in floods as you are lowered & and a handful of earth is thrown on & the fellow says Dust to Dust and Ashes to Ashes, more floods & bowed heads & then all start screaming with laughter before they’re out of the churchyard. That’s what I’m after.’’ source The Last Duchess.
Images of young Debo Mitford, from her memoirs, Wait for Me, Harper Collins.
Debo with chickens, was originally shot for the cover of Observer Food Monthly magazine and chosen by Debo for her memoirs, Wait for Me.
Images of Debo at Chtsworth as credited previously, Norman Parkinson and Simon Upton.
Funeral shot taken by Ross Parry.
Debo’s Delights from WOI, photography Simon Upton.
telling visitors*: The luxury of having everything so small—it’s simply amazing! Quote from Vanity Fair correspondent James Reginato.
Books written by Debo (all after the age of 60)
Chatsworth: The House (1980; revised edition 2002)
The Estate: A View from Chatsworth (1990)
The Farmyard at Chatsworth (1991) — for children
Treasures of Chatsworth: A Private View (1991)
The Garden at Chatsworth (1999)
Counting My Chickens and Other Home Thoughts (2002) — essays.
The Chatsworth Cookery Book (2003)
Round and About Chatsworth (2005)
Memories of Andrew Devonshire (2007)
In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor (2008), edited by Charlotte Mosley
Home to Roost . . . and Other Peckings (2009)
Wait for Me!… Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister (2010)