The Daily Telegraph
Behind the scenes with Lady Burlington
It can be slightly awkward to be known to people just as ‘William’s wife’
When Lady Burlington mentioned to her mother-in-law, the Duchess of Devonshire, that she needed a christening gown for her son James, she had no idea that throwaway comment would result in a 100-piece exhibition dating back to the 16th century.
“My mother-in-law literally said: ‘Let’s go to the textiles department to try to find a christening robe’,” explains Burlington, drinking tea in the library at Chatsworth, the Devonshires’ family estate. “I didn’t even know there was one, but it seemed like a nice thing to do in the afternoon, so off we trundled.”
There they found more than a dozen christening robes, bed jackets and hats, some dating back to the 19th century, with labels referencing Nancy Mitford and Deborah Mitford, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire.
“I thought, ‘My goodness, what is going on here?’ ” cries Burlington, who is married to the Dowager’s grandson, the Earl of Burlington. “Even the boxes were beautiful objects.”
She selected Nancy Mitford’s former gown for James’s christening – “they christened children incredibly young 100 years ago, so it was the only one that fit” – but her curiosity about the family she had married into was piqued.
From then on, it became her mission to start rooting through Chatsworth’s many archives and storage boxes. Six years later, her hard work has culminated in House Style, the first exhibition of its kind at Chatsworth. Sponsored by Gucci, it looks at five centuries of fashion on the estate, which was built in the 16th century for Bess of Hardwick, who used it to hold Mary, Queen of Scots, captive.
From there, Chatsworth has been home to Duchess Georgiana, whose story has been immortalised by Keira Knightley in the film The Duchess; Adele Astaire, Fred’s sister and dance partner; Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, sister of JFK; and, most recently, Deborah “Debo” Mitford.
The lives of these iconic women are told via their couture gowns, breathtaking jewels and royal ties in the exhibition that Burlington curated alongside her friend Hamish Bowles, editor-at-large for American Vogue. “It’s been such a journey,” says 45-year-old Burlington. “I really didn’t know a lot about the family’s history when I married William. It was a good way of connecting to it and learning about how the different characters were. Their clothes, and the ephemera that goes with them, really expressed a lot about their different personalities. One glance at Georgiana’s needlecraft and bills, and you start picking up a picture of what she’s like.”
Burlington, nee Laura Roundell, is a former model, fashion buyer and editor at Harper’s Bazaar. Born to Richard Roundell, a deputy chairman of Christie’s and his wife Anthea, of Dorfold Hall in Cheshire, she first married Orlando Montagu, the younger son of the 11th Earl of Sandwich, in 1996.
After six years of marriage, they divorced, and, five years later, she married William Cavendish. The couple are now raising their three children in London, although they are frequently at Chatsworth.
“I spend a fair amount of time here,” admits Burlington. “Working here [on the exhibition] has been a really good thing for me. Having been someone who’s worked their
whole life, it’s slightly odd to be married and in an environment where people know you, but don’t actually know you. It can be maybe slightly awkward to know people just as ‘William’s wife’, so this has been a really good ice-breaker.”
When she first discovered the christening gowns with her mother-in-law, she had little understanding of the history attached to them.
“In the unlikely event I ever had a fourth child, I’d be more anxious with the gown,” she laughs. “Babies flinging their arms around probably isn’t the best thing for it.”
Yet after six years of learning about the women of Chatsworth who christened their children in the Mitford robe she used for James, and the Devonshire robe she later used for her youngest daughter Elinor, Burlington is proud to be part of the tradition: “When you see the christening robes, you see different generations with the same robe, and these different mothers all with the same proud look – four times. I wonder how many more times that robe will be worn before someone says you can’t do that to it.” Much of the family’s personal history has been included in the exhibition, with everyone from Stella Tennant, the Dowager’s famous granddaughter, to the current Duchess, Amanda Cavendish, contributing their couture offerings. “[My mother-in-law] has had to hand over a lot of her belongings, reluctantly,” smiles Burlington. “She first said she didn’t have anything, then we found all these amazing clothes of hers from the Seventies.” She also went up to Scotland to root through the wardrobes of Tennant, the former Alexander McQueen and Chanel model, who is godmother to one of Burlington’s children. “It was a roll-call of the greatest fashion designers from 1993 – McQueen, Chanel, Galliano,” says Burlington, miming Tennant haphazardly pulling clothes off hangers and out of plastic bags, saying: “Oh, what’s this?” “Luckily I couldn’t fit into lots of the dresses or I’m sure I would have had them all on.”
‘The children called Deborah Mitford ‘Granny Egg’ because of her chickens’
Some of her own pieces are in the collection, from a Christopher Kane showpiece dress to a YSL smoking suit from Stefano Pilati’s only collection, and her Francisco Costa for Calvin Klein wedding outfit. “They’re all very personal things,” she says. “It’s funny seeing your wedding dress there.”
The whole show has become a family affair with many of the gowns and paraphernalia evoking memories of the famous Devonshire eccentricity. Indeed in the midst of our interview, the 12th Duke, Burlington’s father-in-law, delivers the tea, pretending to be a butler.
In the exhibition, the 11th Duke’s collection of well-worn personalised jumpers are on display, with messages ranging from “Never Marry a Mitford” (he married Debo), to “Life’s a Bitch and Then You Die”, alongside his wife’s customised Elvis Presley slippers and insect brooches.
“Deborah really could dress in a really powerful way,” reminisces Burlington of her early visits to Chatsworth, when the 11th Duke and Duchess stuck to their tradition of changing into black tie for dinner.
“I remember her distinctly coming down for dinner one night, wearing one of her long evening coats with an enormous amount of insect jewellery coming up. It really was staggering. She was 90 at the time.”
She adds: “She was really nice to me. I imagine she was happy that William had decided to get married. The children called her Granny Egg because of her chickens.” One day, Burlington will follow in the Dowager’s footsteps to become the next Duchess of Devonshire, something she is hesitant to acknowledge now: “I’m very aware that life can change a lot, and even plans you’ve made, or thought certain outcomes will happen, sometimes they don’t, whatever the reason. I’ve never really given it a huge amount of worry – I think that will be something I think about when the time comes. I’m not planning the curtains or anything.” In the meantime, she is content to be joining an impressive lineage. “Chatsworth is such an extraordinary place with many knowledgeable terrific people and you’re surrounded with all these lovely things.” She pauses. “It’s not bad.”