“Contemporary artists, when they come here, always want to see the Old Master drawings,” says the 12th Duke of Devonshire. “And they are thrilled beyond words to see them.” There are 3,000-plus Old Master drawings in the Devonshire Collection, largely assembled by the first three Dukes. The 2nd Duke, William Cavendish, was particularly instrumental in building these holdings, procuring in the early 18th century a prestigious private collection in his day. He had “a very good eye and he was competitive,” says the current Duke. Leonardo da Vinci’s Leda and the Swan (1503–07) is one on the jewels of the collection as well as symbol of the Cavendish family’s legacy of lending. In 1938, the 10th Duke was asked to loan the Leda to a major Leonardo exhibition in Milan. “He was very reluctant to do so because he knew the war was coming and Italy was a very dangerous place to send things to,” recounts the current Duke. He agreed to lend it, and then didn’t see it again until around 1946 or 1947, when it came home to Chatsworth after spending the war secured in the underground vaults of an Italian castle. Miraculously, the delicate work incurred only a tiny spot of damage in its centre, which is like a “badge of honor.”
LEONARDO DA VINCI, LEDA AND THE SWAN.