Old Masters, new tricks: Chatsworth House drawings are off to Sheffield

Almost 60 works by artists including Rembrandt, Annibale Carracci and Sebastiano del Piombo will go on show at the Millennium Gallery

A Reclining Apostle (around 1516) by Sebastiano del Piombo is among the 59 loans from Chatsworth House Courtesy of Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees

Private collection lends works of art to a public museum 14 miles away—nothing remarkable here, you’d think. But the socio-political divide between Britain’s private historic houses, time machines for centuries of aristocracy, and the regional museums, mostly 19th-century products of the industrial middle classes, runs deep. Tourists on the houses circuit tend to bypass the city museums, while the museums rarely try to draw on the often superb collections on their doorsteps.

This week, however, 59 Old Master drawings from Chatsworth House, including pieces by Rembrandt, Annibale Carracci and Sebastiano del Piombo, will go on show at the Millennium Gallery in Sheffeild. Lines of Beauty is the biggest loan for 20 years from this world-famous, 1,800-strong collection of drawings, says the 12th Duke of Devonshire, whose ancestors built it up in the late 17th and 18th centuries.

This is a big deal because drawings fade if exposed to light. Good practice is to keep them in boxes and at Chatsworth they are shown in rotation, a few at a time, in the Drawings Cabinet. But this exhibition, jointly curated, does not hold back on the masterpieces. Among them is a wild, deeply shadowed Rape of the Sabines (around 1633) by Nicolas Poussin, which is a study for the paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in the Musée du Louvre; a charming drawing by Rembrandt of the actor William Ruyter (around 1638); and a gentle 1630s watercolour of an English landscape by Anthony van Dyck.

Anthony van Dyck's 17th century drawing An English landscape of meadows and wooded hills, with a square tower in the distance Chatsworth Photo Library

Echoing the 19th-century art critic John Ruskin, who has a gallery devoted to him in the museum, the duke says he hopes the exhibition will encourage people to have a go at drawing themselves. He has always believed that Chatsworth’s collection should be widely shared, and no money has changed hands for this exhibition, so entry will be free. It follows on from a reciprocal collaboration and loan made in 2015 by the house with Nottingham Contemporary.

Lines of Beauty: Master Drawings from Chatsworth, Millennium Gallery, Sheffield, 14 February to 25 May