Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

Bess of Hardwick’s eldest son was ‘my bad son Henry’. She disinherited him for compelling reasons, though, could not prevent him from becoming the owner of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. Shortly after her death, Henry’s circumstances forced its sale to William Cavendish, his younger brother and his mother’s favourite son.


Georgiana Cavendish (née Spencer), Duchess of Devonshire, by Thomas Lewis Atkinson. © National Portrait Gallery, London


William was her heir, and the Dukes of Devonshire are descended from him. Duchess Georgiana Devonshire was born at Althorp House, the eldest child of John Spencer and his wife, Georgiana Poyntz, both enjoying a lifelong, loving relationship with their ‘Dear little Gee’. This was very different to Georgiana’s experience with her husband William, 5th Duke of Devonshire. They married on her 17th birthday in 1774, a decision largely that of Georgiana herself. Others thought the couple ill-suited. They had met in 1772 when on holiday at Spa in the Ardennes.

Hugely wealthy, and known simply as ‘the Duke’ to his family, a contemporary described Cavendish as ‘incapable of any strong emotion, and destitute of all energy or activity of mind… he passed his evenings usually at Brookes’s, engaged at whist or faro.’ A gambler and a heavy drinker, he preferred the company of dogs to that of people. From its beginning, the marriage was unhappy, compounded by a series of miscarriages Georgiana suffered over nine years. Despite that, her charm, warmth and good nature, with an instinct for innovation in dress, made her a popular leader in fashion.

She introduced the ‘picture hat’, extravagant hairstyles and the free-flowing muslin gowns associated with her. All contributed to her glamorous image, but privately, she was troubled by her heavy drinking and gambling addiction. She recognized these evils, even writing a novel, published anonymously, bitterly criticizing the ills of society, but she remained a fashionable and admired public figure.

In 1782, Lady Elizabeth Foster entered the Devonshire’s lives. She was the Bishop of Derry, 4th Earl of Bristol’s daughter and the estranged wife of an MP. A ménage à trois developed with the Devonshires: Lady Elizabeth bore two children by the Duke, yet became Georgiana’s closest friend. Devonshire’s extreme fondness for dogs inspired Georgiana and Lady Elizabeth to call him Canis, ‘Dog’.

Georgiana’s daughter Harriet, given a puppy by Canis, complained of this mania: ‘he really thinks of little else, and the whole time of dinner and supper he feeds and watches them… and listens to no conversation with half the pleasure as he does when these puppies are the subject.’ Georgiana died in 1806. Canis married Lady Elizabeth in 1809, scandalising society even more than his previous behaviour. He died in 1811, probably from drinking.


Derek Adlam - Curator Emeritus 

Derek Adlam and a colleague were the first craftspeople to take up a Harley Foundation studio at Welbeck in 1982. Trained as a classical pianist, Derek had turned to the restoration, making and playing clavichords, harpsichords and other early keyboard instruments. Over time, he became involved with the administration of the Foundation, the building of the Harley Gallery and new craft studios. Having mounted a number of Gallery displays of the Portland family’s works of art, he was invited to be the curator of that great collection. Now long retired, he continues his research into Welbeck’s rich history.


Learn more about the influential Women of Welbeck.

Elizabeth Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury

Lady Catherine Cavendish, Baroness Ogle

Frances Cavendish, Countess of Bolingbroke

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

Henrietta, Duchess of Portland

Winifred, Duchess of Portland

Blanche Maynard – Lady Algernon Gordon-Lennox

Lady Ottoline Morrell

Ivy, Duchess of Portland