The Duke of Devonshire knew that gilding the top of the urns on the facade of Chatsworth, the English estate in Derbyshire that has been in his family since 1549, was tacky.
“It’s historically correct but vulgar,” the duke said last night of the recent applications of gold leaf, making the estate glitter in the sun. “What the neighbors thought 300 years ago, I shudder to think.”
He did it anyway, which was just one of the reasons he was honored last night with the World Monuments Fund Watch Award.
In the somewhat gilded ballroom of the Plaza Hotel, the duke sat at a long banquet table covered with mirrors and flickering candles -- real ones, not battery-operated -- with Kenneth Chenault, chief executive officer and chairman of American Express Co. (AXP:US), who received the Hadrian Award.
Chenault said he is a fan of the temples of Hercules and Portunus in Rome. Henry Kissinger said he liked the sculptures of the pharaohs, glowing in the light, at Abu Simbel in Egypt.
Also in the room: Marilyn Perry, who led the fund for so many years and introduced the Hadrian Award, and Eugene Thaw, the art dealer.
The main course, lamb loin en croute, had the very British side of creamed leaks. It was not English service exactly, but it was done speedily, which at a gala means everything.
The duke ate while sitting between the president of the fund, Bonnie Burnham, and Caroline Kennedy, a relative by marriage: Kennedy’s aunt, a sister of her father, married the duke’s uncle, as Kennedy herself noted when she delivered the tribute to the duke.
“He collects two of everything,” she said. “Two tubes of toothpaste, two drawings by Raphael.”
The duke is in that rare position of being able to afford two of everything. He said the family has never accepted outside help to do work on the estate.
Such assistance from the World Monuments Fund and Britain’s National Trust has saved many other houses.
The World Monuments Fund in particular has helped with restoration work at Strawberry Hill, the gothic castle built by Horace Walpole in Twickenham outside London, and Stowe House, in Buckinghamshire.
The Cavendish family has long held the title Duke of Devonshire. Family members are sticklers for historical accuracy, yet they embrace change. Chatsworth has a Facebook page and a Twitter account. It has even had a three-episode BBC series billed as a “reality show.” One episode featured the annual litter pick.
“People want to know how the houses worked,” the duke said, explaining some of the popularity of “Downton Abbey,” which he has never seen.
(Amanda Gordon is a writer and photographer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)
Muse highlights include Rich Jaroslovsky on technology, Ryan Sutton on dining.
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