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The pioneering Cavendishes

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  • Chatsworth has been the Devonshire family home for over 500 years
  • It has been profit making for the last 50 due to the family's business acumen
  • Money from films can increase visitors by 10 percent
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By CNN's Paula Sailes
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(CNN) -- Rising from the wooded hills of Derbyshire's Peak District, Chatsworth is a house firmly embedded in its landscape. With its rugged vistas and dazzling baroque architecture, many believe Chatsworth to be the inspiration behind Mr Darcy's Pemberly in Pride and Prejudice. In real life, this 175-room mansion is home to the 12th Duke of Devonshire, Peregrine Cavendish.

Chatsworth House has been in the Cavendish family for almost 500 years

The Duke is a charming, amiable man whose self-effacing manner belies an acute understanding of what it takes to keep a house like Chatsworth going in today's financial climate. The estate has been the seat of the Cavendish family for the best part of 500 years, but for the last 50, it has depended on visitors for its survival.

"It's a necessity ... in order to keep this house, garden and park of a thousand acres in good condition we have to raise about £4.5m ($9m) a year," the Duke told CNN.

Chatsworth has a checkered history. Like many English country houses, it was put to practical use during World War II but the Duke's grandfather avoided the worst of the damage by allowing it to be used as a girls' school rather than for military purposes.

"My grandfather knew very well, like a lot of people that the war was coming," the Duke said, "He was quite close to government and he knew that if there was a girls school here, the military and the air force would be well away and the girls however naughty they were would do far less damage than the military."

It was the Duke's father, the late Andrew Cavendish, who transformed Chatsworth from run-down country pile into thriving business. After World War II the house was in serious need of renovation and when the 10th Duke died in 1950, the family was left with an inheritance tax bill of $14m. It was time for Chatsworth to start paying for itself.

"My father inherited in 1950 and he and my mother built up very gradually almost imperceptibly over 50 years what had been a private house which was open occasionally to visitors into what it is now: a tourist destination which happens to be a lovely place to live," said the Duke.

The Cavendish family is seen as the pioneer of this business model. They pay rent to live in part of the house while visitor admissions pay for its upkeep. The ongoing challenge is attracting more tourists.

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It's a task the Duke approaches with enthusiasm. He likes to challenge perceptions of a traditional country house and there's evidence of this all over Chatsworth. Outside in the yard, pensioners are shocked to see Damien Hirst's "Virgin Mother" keeping watch over the 17th century house, while on the visitor route Victorian Canova sculptures are dressed in masks and dog collars for Christmas.

"When we put new things in, people are interested. They don't necessarily like it - some people say you are spoiling it but it's easy to forget that everything was new and probably rather shocking when it first arrived," said the Duke.

In the 19th century the 6th Duke of Devonshire built a sculpture gallery at Chatsworth to show off his own taste in contemporary art. In amongst these sculptures is a bust modelled on the actor Matthew MacFadyen who played Mr Darcy in the 2005 movie Pride and Prejudice. Chatsworth was used as the setting for Pemberly and the bust was left behind as a souvenir.

This October, Chatsworth played host to a crew from upcoming film "The Duchess" based on the wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire. As well as being good for profits, films help bring in more visitors.

"Films like these can lead to visitor numbers rising by up to 10 percent which with half a million visitors a year that Chatsworth has it can mean a considerable extra income," Chatsworth Operations Coordinator, James Trevethick told CNN.

Though film crews are a boon for Chatsworth's bottom line the Duke is reluctant to be seen as a latter day romantic hero. When pressed about whether he'd be interested in a cameo role in one of the movies his response is typically humble: "Hmmm, maybe."

Video Watch Art of Life at Chatsworth House » E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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