History Behind the Devonshire Gates in Green Park
These ornate entrance gates to Green Park might have caught your eye along Piccadilly.
As with most little details in London, the closer you look, the more history seems to jump out at you and these gates were once part of a huge mansion.
Devonshire House was the London townhouse of the Dukes of Devonshire, the Cavendish family who are better known for their country home; Chatsworth House.
It was built on the former site of another great London home; Berkeley House, which was bought in 1696 by William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Devonshire.
Image from LayersofLondon.org showing William Morgan’s Map of the City of London, Westminster and Southwark (1682) featuring Berkeley House at the North East corner of Green Park
It was only after a fire in 1733 that the former 17th century house was rebuilt. The 3rd Duke of Devonshire appointed William Kent as designer and Devonshire House was complete by 1740.
Below is an image of Devonshire House as it appeared in 1896.
Image from Wiki Commons
Built in a Palladian style, Devonshire House became one of the most famous houses in London. But to understand its importance, one has to know a little bit about the characters that lived there.
Devonshire House reached its height of notoriety under William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire.
His wife; Georgiana was intelligent, impulsive and full of charisma. The house became a magnet for the politicians, royals and wits of the day and parties would continue all night with dancing, gossiping and – above-all – gambling.
Georgiana and the Duke had a strong and loving marriage but one that contemporaries and modern voyeurs struggle to understand. In 1782 Georgiana’s best friend; Lady Elizabeth “Bess” Foster became the Duke’s mistress and they all lived happily together under one opulent roof.
The Devonshire House Gates
The gates seen today don’t date from the original design of Devonshire House, in fact, Green Park is their fourth London location.
Made in the early 18th century, they were commissioned for Heathfield House in Turnham Green (on the site of Chiswick Fire Station today). The house was demolished in 1837 and the Duke of Devonshire bought the gates for Chiswick House, later moving them to his London pad in 1897.
The 19th century saw Devonshire House continue to be a fashionable address and perhaps the gates were installed in time for the ‘event of the London season’ in that year; the Devonshire House Ball in 1897, a fancy dress party in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
The fine wrought iron gates are covered in ornamental foliage and topped with the Duke of Devonshire’s coat of arms and flanked by rusticated stone piers, each capped with a bronze sphinx.
The coat of arms shows the Duke of Devonshire’s shield with three stags’ heads flanked by two further stags. The gold and blue ribbon displays the Cavendish motto; “Safe by taking care” as well as the Order of the Garter Motto, an honour held by the majority of the Dukes. Above a coronet there’s also a knotted green serpent.
Below, a close up image of one of the bronze sphinx.
The gates used to stand on the other side of Piccadilly, and to picture them in situ you can see a 1906 photo of them in front of Devonshire House here.
After the First World War the Cavendish family were in financial trouble. The 9th Duke had inherited debt and that – coupled with huge death duties – meant the house and land were sold in 1920. Devonshire House was demolished in 1921.
Today these gates are the only visual clue to its existence and were given Grade II* listed status in 1970. They provide a magnificent focal point for Green Park’s Broad Walk and view down to the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace.
When it’s quiet it doesn’t take too much imagination to envisage 18th century bystanders, walking along and gossiping about the latest goings-on with the Cavendish family.