The library bookcase in the Palladian style of the 1730s was designed by William Kent (d. 1748), protégé of Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington and the pre-eminent architect-designer of the period, as part of the Library scheme of the newly rebuilt Devonshire House, Piccadilly. Following a fire in 1733 that destroyed the original mansion, William Cavendish, 3rd Duke of Devonshire (d. 1755) paid Kent £1000 for architectural plans for a new house and designs for appropriate furniture, although the final cost of the building came to £20,000. On the piano nobile of Devonshire House, in the Upper Library, Kent combined Romanesque high coved ceilings embellished in stucco with projecting free-standing bookcases carved with decorative motifs enhanced with gilding and painted the same colour as the walls.
The plate glass doors of this bookcase are almost certainly a later enhancement. They are referred to in an inventory for Devonshire House dated 1811 as, '2 setts of Open Bookshelves as fitted up on each side of the fireplace with moving shelves... and inclosed with Transparent plate Glass doors each on a plinth' (From an original manuscript in the Devonshire Collection Archive by kind permission of The Duke of Devonshire and the Chatsworth House Trust). When William Spencer Cavendish (d. 1858), son of the infamous Duchess Georgiana, succeeded as 6th Duke of Devonshire in 1811, he proceeded to eradicate all traces of his unpopular stepmother, including the rearrangement and redecoration of the interiors of Devonshire House. Shortly after his succession Lady Bessborough remarked to her niece, Harriet Granville, that the young Duke was doing too much too hastily in the way of altering his numerous houses and did not seem to realize that he had all the time in the world ahead of him (James Lees-Milne, The Bachelor Duke, A Life of William Spencer Cavendish 6th Duke of Devonshire 1790-1858, London, 1990, p. 23). It was possibly at this date that the glazing was added to the bookcase.
Furthermore, as an enthusiastic bibliophile with significant libraries, acquired in part from London salerooms (including in 1812 the collection of Thomas Dampier, Bishop of Ely, for which the Duke paid £10,000, and in the same year, forty-six precious volumes from the collection of the 4th Duke of Roxburghe) the 6th Duke was acutely engaged in the most appropriate manner to display and catalogue his books. He devoted several pages in his privately published journal on the importance of continuity in the proportions of the bookshelves, how to compile a catalogue based on a numerical and alphabetical system and, significantly, referred to 'books of huge proportions and long shape' being enclosed in 'glass cases' (W.G.S. Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, Handbook of Chatsworth and Hardwick, privately published, 1845, pp. 71-78).
In 1840, the 6th Duke embarked on a further renovation to 'brush up and restore poor old Devonshire House, which had become so very dingy and out of repair', the mansion having been neglected for several years following his initial enthusiasm for London life (Lees-Milne, op. cit. p. 173). The refurbishment was important to the 6th Duke and in order to release the necessary funds for the work, £8,000, he sold his Yorkshire estates. The Duke engaged John Gregory Crace (d. 1889), one of the most prominent 19th century interior decorators, to refurbish the eleven state rooms on the principal floor, including the Library. The firm was instructed, in parallel, to renovate other Devonshire properties including the 'splendid' Lower Library at Chatsworth in Derbyshire, in the 'Old French Style', and the Summer Parlour at Chiswick House (ibid.). That same year another fire struck Devonshire House demanding further reconstruction work by Crace who was continuously at the property from 1840 to 1845 at a total cost to the Duke of £2581. Further modifications were undertaken until at least 1848 with the Duke maintaining a close professional relationship with his decorator throughout the former's lifetime (Ed. Megan Aldrich, The Craces: Royal Decorators 1768-1899, Brighton, 1990, p. 62). Crace was able to emulate Kent's style to the extent that his design for one of the Devonshire House ceilings was mistakenly attributed to Kent by a writer in 1908 (ibid.). The 6th Duke noted Crace's accomplishments, that he 'mended and revived like magic' (Aldrich, ibid. p. 168). The locks on the present lot, stamped Barron Son & Wilson, date from 1854-67 and were almost certainly fitted during the 6th Duke's lifetime.
By 1904, Devonshire House was unsurpassed in its splendour, the crystal staircase with glass handrail and newell posts leading to the main apartments, which were decorated with superlative plasterwork, extensive gilding throughout, and replete with Italian cabinets, beautiful French furniture from Louis XIV to the first Empire and Sèvres and Chelsea porcelain (Beresford Chancellor, The Private Palaces of London, London, 1908, p. 231 and 247). Devonshire House became the epicenter of a brilliant social life until the end of the 19th century; in 1897, a large fancy dress ball with a theme to dress up as historical portraits come to life celebrated Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and was attended by The Prince of Wales and his consort. Devonshire House remained the residence of the Dukes of Devonshire until 1914.
A Devonshire House inventory of March 1917 compiled 'on the occasion of the contents being removed by H.M. Office or Works' lists a number of glazed panel door bookcases that were in the Library at this date, although their dimensions do not conform to the present example (from an original manuscript in The Devonshire Collection Archive by kind permission of The Duke of Devonshire and the Chatsworth House Trust). This bookcase was removed to the Eaton Square residence of the Dowager Duchess, Evelyn, wife of the 9th Duke. An inventory for No. 85 Eaton Square, dated April 1939, records in the Ground Floor Library, 'The erection of painted Bookcases in 2 heights with carved part gilt mouldings having 2 double and 4 single glazed doors, enclosing shelves with leather falls (right of door) ormolu knobs, locks (No. 85 Eaton Square Inventory, April 1939, pp. 90-91). The present bookcase was at some later point removed to Chatsworth from where it was sold in October 2010. Devonshire House was sold in 1919 to a property company and subsequently demolished.
We would like to thank Eleanor Brooke from the Devonshire Collection Archive for her assistance in the compilation of this note.