Chatsworth, when I was an innocent boy, and later when an innocent parent, meant a fun day out. A chance to gawp at the baroque luxuries, scamper on the lawns and play games in the playground. At the time we absorbed the whole place on its own terms. One of the reasons was that Chatsworth appeared to be a separate world complete in itself, set in the Derbyshire countryside far removed from the South Yorkshire we knew – a place with its own rules of existence and behaviour.
These memories came back to me on seeing a quietly subversive exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary, Pablo Bronstein and the treasures of Chatsworth. Bronstein, a young Argentine-born artist, has borrowed 62 of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire’s heirlooms (fair play to them for cooperating so readily) and has set them in the big white galleries of Nottingham’s arts centre, alongside some of his own responses to a ‘residency’ in Chatsworth.
It’s a cliché of art theory that placing objects in a museum or gallery, especially a gallery of the ‘white cube’ sort like Nottingham Contemporary, has the effect of ‘privileging’ them, of granting them at least some temporary critical attention and status. The effect in this case is exactly the reverse. Yanking the treasures of Chatsworth out of their normal habitat and islanding them in blank space throws into question some of their traditional authority. In fact Bronstein allows you to look at them in two quite different ways. You do have the chance, of course, to admire the art and intricate craft of individual objects, undistracted by the visual orchestra of the rooms that normally enclose them. All the finely made objects Bronstein has selected – sculptures and paintings, silver tableware and porcelain, thrones and scientific instruments – repay close attention in themselves. But it’s impossible to leave it at that – to look at them in a straightforward, reverential, National Trusty kind of way. Questions about power and its expression as art immediately arise.
Gallery 1 introduces the theme of the Grand Tour, the gap year usual for trainee aristos during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Its walls are covered with Bronstein’s drawings recreating the wayside tombs and other buildings of the Via Appia as they might have appeared at the end of the Roman Empire. Their partial and ruined appearance is echoed in a Chatsworth object brought back by one of the Devonshires from a Tour in Italy – a giant amputated, sandalled foot from a stone sculpture of a Roman goddess. This neatly combines two qualities that appealed to the foot’s new owner: overwhelming grandeur – the original goddess was at least 11 metres tall – and ruin. What fascinated the Tourist so much about ancient Rome was its fragmented condition: he could marvel that so little was left of the civilisation used explicitly as a model by his own aristocratic culture, and congratulate himself that his own culture seemed so secure in its persistence by comparison.
There are two other, even larger, Chatsworth objects in the room: the coronation thrones of William IV and his wife Queen Adelaide. These pompous gilded and red-upholstered chairs are more than a little threadbare, and were second-hand when William became king. According to the guide, ‘William was keen to appear frugal in comparison with his notoriously extravagant predecessor [George III]’. Only a couple of days before, I caught a radio talk by Claire Tomalin about William’s mistress, Dorothea Bland (Mrs Jordan), an outstanding Shakespearian comic actor. She bore ten children by William before he was ‘obliged’ to disown and eject her in favour of Adelaide, in order to secure the royal succession. She never got her chance to try out the smaller throne. The reason that the coronation chairs are in Chatsworth is that the 6th Duke, as Lord Chamberlain at the time, held a right to claim them for himself. Their value to Chatsworth is apparent once you realise that its owners’ aristocratic assets were in reputational competition with those of other aristocratic houses. Royal associations were a trump card in that game.
Gallery 2 features smaller but no less exquisite objects – Old Master drawings, more (smaller) chairs and a ‘universal equinoctial sundial’ – while Gallery 3 turns to the building itself, reduced to its basic rectangular shape in Bronstein’s three-dimensional drawings on the walls. In the centre of the gallery is a similarly square arrangement of chairs and other furniture from Chatsworth: the setting for a cultured conversation, perhaps – but one that shuts out those uninvited. Exclusion and monumental spectacle, in art, architecture and landscaping, are the twin means by which aristocrats stamped their authority and apartness on the rest of the population. It’s worth reminding yourself that the fourth Duke had the village of Edensor pulled down and its inhabitants removed so that they and their activities would not be visible from his home.
The climax of the show is Gallery 4. In the window, facing the street outside with a swagger, is a glass-encased cluster of giant pagoda-like Delftware flowerpots. It’s hard to imagine what flowers could possibly have matched the flamboyance of their holders. Behind is a mock Roman shrine, complete with Ionic columns and entablature, in which sits a stunning assemblage of silver plate, cutlery and candelabra. Bronstein has inserted mirrors at their back and sides, so that it appears at first sight that there are many more objects displayed than there actually are. The mirrors also distort the shape of the objects and the shrine itself. This is ostentation magnified – a gleaming, glittering array of tools for costly consuming, another essential activity of the aristocratic life. At the same time they look imprisoned in their architectural casing, suggesting something lonely, narrow and self-absorbed about their owners’ appreciation of taste and artistic riches, shared only with their families and a few fellow-aristocrats. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why the current Devonshires are so amenable to their possessions reaching a wider public, even if they’re displayed in a challenging setting.
After Nottingham we travelled to north Yorkshire and walked past the entrance to another aristocratic estate, Newburgh Priory, just outside Coxwold, the home of the Earls of Fauconberg (one of them was a patron of Laurence Sterne). We were not welcomed here. Straying just a few yards across the threshold of the estate resulted in someone screaming at us aggressively from a window in the range opposite. It was easy to see that the architecture of the Priory and its surroundings was designed to convey the same message: keep out, inferiors! On either side of the main gate – surmounted by decorative ironwork bearing the self-satisfied family motto ‘Bonne et belle assez’ – are two lodges, well-proportioned brick buildings that are, however, clearly modelled on military architecture. Where lanes puncture the continuous estate walls the architect has inserted classically inspired gateposts of aggressively muscular build, with the same intention: to encourage respect, if not instil fear, among the people beyond the gates.
Today’s aristocrats – the bankers, oligarchs and private equity bosses – and their political supporters have no need of good taste and classical style when defending or showing off their assets. With few exceptions it appears they have no use for art at all, except as investment vehicles. Perhaps that’s why, despite a wide popular appetite for art, both historic and contemporary, art philanthropy in the UK is confined to a small London clique, why art education is rapidly disappearing from the curricula of our schools and colleges, and why public galleries, starved of cash, are returning to the ancien régime of charging people to come in and see what they offer.