An interview with the Duchess of Devonshire

Hiedi Hutchinson

Blog , +1

May 22, 2019

Chatsworth House

Faithful friends to treasured companions! A current exhibition held at Chatsworth is celebrating the dog, in all shapes and sizes, from royal favourites and distinguished pedigrees to determined mongrels and intelligent working dogs.

The exhibition conceived by the Duchess of Devonshire, explores the Cavendish family’s enduring love for dogs, through paintings, drawings, sculptures, letters, photographs and works of contemporary art. The Dog draws on many works in the world-renowned Devonshire Collection and the Kennel Club as well as attracting significant loans from public and private collections. The exhibition includes commissioned works from the 1st Duke (1641-1707) to the present day and the themes includes dogs as pets, working dogs, mythology, and dogs in popular culture.

As major sponsors of “The Dog”, Skinner’s were delighted to have spoken to the Duchess about her love of dogs just as the final installation and preparation of the exhibition were underway.

Skinner’s: ‘The Dog’ was an exhibition that you personally initiated, what inspired you?

The Duchess: The idea of having an exhibition about dogs occurred to me after visiting an exhibition at the Kennel Club which was from their own collection. I thought it was very well planned and interesting. I was sure that we could do such an exhibition at Chatsworth, that’s where the idea developed from. From there it grew and grew, the more I discussed it with the Duke the larger it became. We decided to invite the curator, Tessa Wild, to work with us to create a compelling exhibition based around something extremely close to our hearts.

The Duchess continued by telling us about her involvement in the Kennel Club and how she was on the subcommittee for 20 years before she retired, just 2 years ago.

Skinner’s: Why is Chatsworth the perfect location to hold the exhibition?

The Duchess: I have lived with and loved dogs all my life; they are an integral part of my life. Every day I see the importance of dogs reflected on the walls of Chatsworth, in generations of family pictures and in the particularly rich collection of portraits of dogs who were much treasured. Wherever one looks, dogs appear – in letters, jewellery, sculpture, ceramics, books, tapestries, drawings and on painted ceilings – there is such a long and enduring legacy of dog ownership in the Devonshire family. My growing appreciation of the many different dogs, depicted with such skill and understanding, led me further into the idea for this exhibition. I am very keen that we share our passion and enthusiasm for dogs with you, and explore the many wonderful recollections passed down through history from one dog lover to another.
This exhibition celebrates all aspects of the dog from royal favourites and distinguished pedigrees to determined mongrels, highly intelligent working dogs and my own inimitable rescue dogs Max & Treacle.

Skinner’s: How long will the exhibition run for?

The Duchess: The exhibition opned on 23rd March and is running right through to 6th October 2019.

Skinner’s: What are the stand out features of the exhibition?

The Duchess: Remarkable works by Constable, Stubbs, Gainsborough and Landseer sit alongside contemporary pieces by Lucian Freud, Jeff Koons, Antony Gormley and Elisabeth Frink to complete a wonderful celebration of dogs in art. We have commissioned the artist Ben Long to create an eight-metre high scaffolding sculpture of a dog. Using the most ubiquitous of materials, this site-specific piece has a monumental scale and grace not normally associated with its construction material, scaffolding poles, it is a vivid and thrilling addition to the landscape.

Skinner’s: What is your favourite piece in the exhibition and why?

The Duchess: Some of my highlights in the exhibition are the Chatsworth 17th Century painting of Lord Burlington’s Sporting Dogs by Desportes.
The 6th Duke’s dog Tawney. The Duke was obviously very fond of Tawney and took him on his European travels. There are some lovely letters written about Tawney and a beautiful snuff box with Tawney’s portrait in Rome on the top.
I feel particularly fortunate to have been loaned The Dogs Centrepiece by Her Majesty the Queen. It was designed by Prince Albert and made by Garrard & Co in 1842-1843.
For me, one of the most poignant objects in the exhibition is a Red Cross Collar, worn by a Medical dog in the First World War. These heroic dogs were trained to locate wounded and dead soldiers and often worked at night in between the trenches of the opposing sides.

Skinner’s: Are the public allowed to bring their dogs onto the estate?

The Duchess: Dogs on leads are very welcome in the garden and park. When I look out into the park or walk my own dogs, I am always conscious of the pleasure that so many other people get from walking their dogs. I hope this exhibition gives everyone an opportunity to share in our love of dogs and add their own stories to this enduring relationship.

Skinner’s: What activities are in place for dogs during the exhibition?

The Duchess: Across the garden, park and wider estate, the #Chatswoof season features lots of opportunities to get involved from talks and tours; dog walks, agility and major events such as the Chatsworth Country Fair. At the Country Fair K9 Aqua Sports features all kinds of aquatic canine competitions: dogs leaping into a large swimming pool and competing against each other in the long jump, high jump and the sprint. As well as being great fun to watch, there’s also the chance to put your own dog to the test with ‘have-a-go’ sessions.

Skinner’s: Over the years, has the Cavendish family had a love of a particular breed?

The Duchess: The dogs I grew up with as a child, notably Alsatians, Corgis, Labradors, Terriers and Pekingese, have shaped my life and prompted my long-standing interest in dog training.

Skinner’s: What dogs do you currently have in the family and have you had a favourite? Or have you had a favourite dog, that has remained close to your heart and why?

The Duchess: At the moment I have two rescue dogs, terrier crosses Max & Treacle and two young working Labradors Drum & Blue.

My first successful attempt at training was when I was ten. I made a harness for Coco, our Corgi, and taught him to pull a small sledge carrying hay through the snow to the ponies in the paddock. Riding proudly on top of the hay was Sun Yen our Pekingese. My mother must have been impressed that I had managed to persuade both the Peke and the Corgi to collaborate and arranged for me to spend time with John Holmes, an animal trainer. He in turn mentioned my ability to the children’s programme Blue Peter and I was filmed in action with the dogs and the sledge. Luckily, they obeyed me.

Skinner’s: You train your dogs for obedience and field trials, have you won any awards over the years and do you still compete now?

The Duchess: In 1967 I was given Park, a black Labrador, as a wedding present. I learnt from his trainer Dick Male how best to work the dog and he became the first of many who I have trained and competed with in Field Trials. A field trial is a competition testing dogs in a shooting environment, ideally testing the handler and dog relationship and their mutual understanding. The competition is also a test of the dog’s natural ability to find shot game.

Field Trials rapidly became a shared family interest; my mother also took up competing and we had a friendly rivalry. She passed her Labradors on to our daughter Celina Carter who continues to own Labradors for competing in Field Trials. We have been very lucky in that we have both won the International Gun Dog League Championship, the equivalent of the Premiership in football, both dogs handled brilliantly by John Halsted.

Breeding and competing with dogs led me to become a member of the Kennel Club and to serve on their Field Trials Sub Committee for twenty years. I am particularly delighted that the exhibition features work including pictures, dog collars and political cartoons from the Kennel Club’s wonderful art collection.

Skinner’s: What do you feed your dog?

The Duchess: I have given my dogs Skinner’s Field & Trial Dog food for many years particularly as they are continually improving their ingredients. For this exhibition I am delighted to have worked with Skinner’s in developing a Chatsworth Dog Treat which will be on sale at Chatsworth.

Skinner’s Pet Foods are Proud to be a Major Sponsor of ‘The Dog’ at Chatsworth and are involved in various activities and events throughout the exhibition. To find out more about ‘The Dog’ exhibition head over to the Chatsworth website.

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