“W hat is an American’s relationship to a Duke and Duchess in 2019? What does it mean to be the 12th or 13th Duke? What do we even think that is, and why would we care? Most of us simply think Downton Abbey.” Outlining key issues in the staging of Sotheby’s exhibition Treasures from Chatsworth: The Exhibition the production designer David Korins admits that, at the outset of the process, the machinations of the British nobility were something of a mystery to him too. “It’s a big part of how I decide whether to take on a job: I ask myself, ‘Is it a masterclass I am interested in taking?’”
“What’s so amazing about the Chatsworth collection is that each Duke has been interested in collecting something different: one Duke was interested in sculpture, one in ceramics, one in painting. And, thinking about it as a longitudinal study in collecting, each one of them was collecting contemporary art; the art of their time,” he explains. “Pressure might be the wrong word, but there is a real sense of responsibility that each Duke feels, not just in caring for the collection, but also adding to it in an interesting way.”
I meet Korins in his studio close to New York’s Penn Station. The designer of the hit musical Hamilton, he has been winning awards for set design for over 15 years, and we talk in a room packed with mementos of former triumphs. Korins currently works with around 25 people including designers, project managers, model makers and illustrators. “Many of them come from a theatrical background,” he says, “Mainly because I find theatrical designers are the most collaborative people – as theatre artisans, we cannot do what we do without total communal buy in – and I find we are really nimble.” A couple of weeks before our conversation, the studio had launched Hamilton: The Exhibition in Chicago, a vast immersive spin-off from the musical. Now their focus is on bringing Derbyshire’s Chatsworth House to Sotheby’s galleries on New York’s Upper East Side.
“When I first met the Duke – we were put in a room together to see if we would be interested in collaborating – I found him incredibly grounded, very candid, warm, articulate,” Korins says. “Then I went to Chatsworth House to spend some time with him and the Duchess. I stayed in the private quarters, which was actually a blessing and a curse. It is wonderfully homey, not at all what you would imagine, although the bed looks like what my daughter would call a ‘princess bed’.”
“The problem is,” says Korins, “my job was not to deliver that aspect of Chatsworth, but to communicate what the visitor would see. So I got a pass to walk around the grounds unattended. I tried to live and breathe the space.”
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“I got up early one morning to sit quietly and take in the rooms,” Korins says. “The place is so substantial, it would be impossible to transport on any budget! But I sat and meditated upon how I could deliver a truthful articulation of this experience. As my eyes wandered, I was taken by the corners – how the wallpaper hit the ceiling, how the floors hit the walls – and I started to look closely at the details.”
“There is no possible way I could take an embossed leather wallpaper that has been on that wall for 200 years and bring it to New York City,” Korins explains, “but what I could do is what my eyes were doing, which was to look at the detail of these perfectly appointed places and blow them up. Then I had what I thought was an ah ha moment.”
Designing Hamilton, Korins enjoyed theatre’s license for fakery, staining parchment with tea and the like, but, working on Sotheby’s Chatsworth exhibition, he felt such approaches should be avoided at all cost. “We don’t need to do that – we have a Da Vinci sketch!” he says. “By changing the scale of the objects, we let our visitor know that these things aren’t meant to be actual recreations. It creates a level of abstraction.” “Of course, it’s one thing coming up with the idea sitting alone sipping coffee in a room in Chatsworth House, it’s another to have the Duke sign off on it and actually be able to bring it to fruition.” In particular, Korins remembers “the conversation in which I explained the importance of the Instagrammable moment to the Duke of Devonshire”, the exhibition’s five-metre clawfoot table being an obvious social-media winner. Korins reports that “the Duke was incredibly excited about that idea. He’s not interested in doing things in stodgy traditional ways. He was excited about the presentation because it has a modernity, a pop culture sensibility, yet it does not compromise the incredibleness of the art.”
“People come to me because they want to tell a story,” says Korins. Whether it’s theatre or exhibitions, in either medium, “you try to create a beginning, a middle and an end to the journey”. “Great stories go strong from ‘once upon a time’ all the way through to ‘happy every after’,” he explains. “You don’t say all the amazing things in the first chapter. Likewise, you don’t want to show all your stuff in the main gallery and have the thing dwindle. You want people to leave on a high.”
“What’s so amazing about the Chatsworth collection is that each Duke has been interested in collecting something different.”
That said, unlike conventional theatre in which the audience experience as one, “in exhibitions you choose your own adventure”. “If you want to burn through, just see some great art, you could be in and out in 30 or 40 minutes, but if you want to read every single text, deal with every single interactive, you could be there for two or three hours. I would say the normal sweet spot for this kind of thing is an hour and 15.” Compelling stories require a certain amount of compression. In Hamilton, the Hamiltons only have one child, but in reality they had eight, and in the Chatsworth exhibition, “we’re not going to teach the audience everything about what’s ever happened there”. “But I believe that, if you create thoughtful experiences that really meet the viewer, you can move the needle profoundly,” Korins says. “You can change the way people think and learn in one experience.”
And why do you need to effect that change? “One of the reasons the Hamilton exhibition feels important is that it’s not partisan. These people were not perfect, but those whose names have lasted the longest, the Washingtons, the Jeffersons, the Madisons, the Hamiltons – the ones that we’re still talking about – are those that had the most selfless ideas, who were thinking the furthest out. There were other people, those who were thinking about me, not we, at the founding of our country, whose names are not remembered.” Similarly at Chatsworth, although British peerage would seem to be at odds with America’s founding fathers, the Dukes of Devonshire have stayed relevant by collecting for the long term. The conclusion of Korins’s crash course in Dukedom? “A wonderment of all that has been created, and is inherited.”
Emily King is a writer and curator based in London.
Treasures from Chatsworth: The Exhibition, will be on view at Sotheby’s New York, 28 June–18 September. The exhibition is free and open to the public.