C HATSWORTH – "Earth and water, trees and buildings, their shapes, colours and smells, and the ways of the humans and animals with whom you share your plot mould you and your outlook." Duchess Deborah ('Debo'), Duchess of Devonshire was born into the famously eccentric Mitford family in 1920. The youngest of seven, and initially a disappointing sixth girl, she became her father's favourite through a shared love of the outdoors.
DEBO DRIVING HER DONKEY, TONKS, IN 1934, WITH CECILIA HAY AT SWINBROOK
© DEVONSHIRE COLLECTION. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION OF THE MITFORD ARCHIVE
David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale taught Debo to catch trout in the River Windrush at the bottom of the garden at Asthall Manor, in the Cotswolds. As a little girl, she shadowed him as he went around his estate. Her best friend in these years was the family's old groom Hooper: "the human end of the horses."
Debo had her own flock of hens, making a little pocket money by adding her eggs to those from her mother's flock. During the war, she even found herself milking the family's three cows: "The best part is burying your head into the warm and comforting flank."
From these experiences came a deep, informed connection to the land and its wildlife. This stood her in good stead when her husband, Lord Andrew Cavendish, unexpectedly became Duke of Devonshire in 1950. The title came with seven houses, thousands of acres and huge death duties. Undeterred by the enormity of the task, Debo played a major role in transforming the "dark, cold and dirty " building - Chatsworth - into one of the UK's favourite stately homes.
L-R: HAROLD MACMILLAN, DEBORAH DEVONSHIRE, LORD HARTINGTON (NOW 12TH DUKE) IN HUNTSMAN AND GUEST AT BOLTON ABBEY FOR THE GROUSE SHOOTING IN AUGUST 1960. © DEVONSHIRE COLLECTION. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION OF THE MITFORD ARCHIVE
The estate brought many pleasures. Aged thirty, she bought her first gun and practised alongside the head gamekeeper before joining the family shoots. Over the years, grouse shooting filled the month of August, followed by pheasant shooting in winter, often dressed in Huntsman attire. "I loved all that went with a shoot: the reunion of friends, seeing a new bit of country or finding the same patch of dying leaves beneath my feet."
Debo became a regular at livestock shows too. The estate had long been home to cattle and sheep - Mule, Masham, Swaledale, Grey Face and the once-rare Jacob. Duchess Deborah was one of a handful of owners who saw the potential in this small, piebald breed, enthusiastically supporting Araminta Aldington in setting up the Jacob Sheep Society. She also established a stud from three of her mother's Shetland ponies, achieving considerable success in the show ring.
THE DUCHESS (LEFT) WITH TWO OF HER PRIZED SHETLAND PONIES. © DEVONSHIRE COLLECTION. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION OF THE MITFORD ARCHIVE
Ever aware of changes in the public mood, the Duchess Deborah opened the farming and forestry exhibition, now the farmyard and adventure playground, to visitors in 1973: "the time when The Environment was being invented." Children could see cows and goats being milked, visit the pig pens and watch a broody hen with her chicks. Her passion for hens had remained strong since her childhood and a flock of Buff Cochins - plumage down to their feet - brought life and humour to the garden at Chatsworth. Duchess Deborah expanded her flock in later years, and the collecting of eggs became known amongst her grandchildren as 'The Granny Show'.
This knowledge and passion was recognised in 1995 when Duchess Deborah was made president of the Royal Agricultural Society of England - an appointment that amazed her but no one else.
Watch Treasures from Chatsworth, Presented by Huntsman at www.sothebys.com/Chatsworth
For more information, visit www.huntsmansavilerow.com