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Essex holds a royal open house

SALEM -- Books, clocks, cups and saucers, family photos, and letters. These are things you probably have in your house. The Cavendish clan has them, too. Among its books, though, is a leather-bound, lavishly illustrated volume of Petrarch's verses, printed on vellum, with touches of silk and gilt here and there.

One of the clocks is a fluted column of white marble with a pudgy porcelain putto pointing at the enamel dial and a gilded bronze scroll inscribed with the words "Fugit irreparabile tempus" -- "time passes irreparably." The cups and saucers are adorned with coronets and monograms wreathed in gold. The family photos are of dukes and duchesses playing dress-up. And one of the letters is from Queen Elizabeth I.

The 1586 letter was written to the Earl of Shewsbury, husband of the woman history knows as Bess of Hardwick. It was she who began the dynasty of collecting Cavendishes. About 200 precious objects from their Derbyshire home, Chatsworth, about three hours north of London, make up a traveling exhibition opening today at the Peabody Essex Museum. The contents of the show come from the family's private apartments and aren't usually seen by the public. Included are Old Master drawings by Durer, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, and others in their league, so light-sensitive that they're usually hidden away, not seen by anyone.

Queen Elizabeth's letter is a politely worded command that the earl and his wife patch up their marriage, which was on the rocks partly because of Her Majesty, who had made the earl the custodian of Mary Queen of Scots, a troublesome -- and expensive -- woman to keep under house arrest.

Near the letter is a portrait of Bess, dressed sternly in black and fingering a five-strand pearl necklace that falls to her waist. By the looks of her she was no picnic, either. She married four times, acquiring property with every "I do." She also gave birth to William Cavendish, first Earl of Devonshire, whose great-grandson was made the first duke, in 1694.

There have been 12 dukes to date, and the Peabody Essex show is as much about their personalities, politics, and purchases as their glorious family seat.

The exhibition opens with a huge color photo of the west facade of the house against a backdrop of autumnal foliage, its golden stone colonnade reflected in the calm water in front of it. The idyllic image is enough to make you want to turn around and head for the airport. The show's love affair with the house is reiterated in images including romantic 19th-century watercolors by William Cowen, one with a rainbow, another a view from an ancient tower. And there are less fanciful documents about the estate: plans for the buildings, grounds, and expansions, tracing the changes in architecture and landscape over the centuries.

The show isn't the next best thing to being at Chatsworth; it's an entirely different thing. At home these objects live in the crowded context of a house filled with five centuries' worth of material culture. Re-creating this setting through period rooms has gone out of fashion in museums, so each piece at the Peabody Essex is isolated. An early visitor to the show, gazing at a pair of gigantic silver candelabra, said wistfully, "They really need a 50-foot table."

The objects certainly need some organizing principle; they lack any obvious one beyond certain groupings of Old Master drawings, racing trophies, mineral specimens, and other categories of things. At times the objects seem to be in the orbit of the portraits of the dukes and duchesses who collected them, but this isn't sufficiently spelled out. The labels are either murky or dumbed-down: Bostonians who grew up on "Masterpiece Theatre" know that a Jane Smith is called Lady Jane if she's an earl's daughter and Lady Smith if she's an earl's wife, with no title in her own right.

Easily the most glamorous figure in the show is Georgiana, wife of the fifth duke. A brushy, breezy portrait of her by Sir Joshua Reynolds is the most gorgeous painting in the exhibition. If, however, you put all the paintings together side by side, you'd have a mishmash. Early portraits are bland. The ones by Lucian Freud of the current generation and the late duke, the 11th, show figures sunk in solitude, their skin tones suggesting they need immediate hospitalization. For many Americans, Freud is an acquired taste; in Britain, he's considered the greatest portraitist alive. On the other hand, there are two fine examples of Canaletto's views of Venice that British aristocrats brought back from the obligatory grand tour of Europe. These are particularly precious because they're among the very few painted on copper.

While the paintings are a mixed bag, the drawings are magnificent, of a quality to make a major exhibition on their own. One great example: Sebastiano del Piombo's black chalk rendering of "A Reclining Apostle," a tour de force of human anatomy, posture, and musculature.

The sculpture, too, holds together as an ensemble, with the white marble neoclassicism of Canova dominating. When the 10th duke died in 1950, it was valued at next to nothing. Today it's once again in favor.

If you're not interested in "fine" art, the collections offer telescopes, sundials, mineral specimens including the world's largest uncut emerald, and a parure -- a seven-piece ensemble of Victorian jewelry designed to be worn by a Cavendish relative at the coronation of the Russian czar Alexander II in 1856.

There are tchotchkes as well as treasures. Those ceramic chickens the Dowager Duchess so loves stayed home. But the bottom of an oak barrel -- carved with the Cavendish arms, made by Samuel Watson, who worked on the estate from 1691 until his death in 1715 -- did make the trip to America.

Some of the show's labels refer visitors to related objects in the Peabody Essex collections. Like the Cavendishes, Salem ship captains were compulsive collectors of just about anything that caught their fancy. Much of what they brought home eventually went to the museum, and the sheer nonhierarchical variety of objects resembles, in a way, the collections of Chatsworth.

There is another Chatsworth connection to Salem, where the 19th-century horticulturist John Fisk Allen succeeded in growing the enormous South American water lily known as Victoria Regia. At 4 p.m. on July 21, 1853, it flowered, and Allen summoned William Sharp, an artist who had emigrated from England to Boston, to record the great event. The result -- a series of large color prints of a flower that looks sturdy enough to sit on without squashing, bought at a London auction by the 11th Duke of Devonshire -- is now paying a return visit home.

Treasures From Chatsworth, A British Noble House
At: the Peabody Essex Museum, today through Nov. 7. 866-745-1876;

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