Antiquity in the English Countryside: Kedleston Hall

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‘Let Curzon holde what Curzon helde’ is the family motto, and fittingly Curzons  have held the Kedleston estate since the 12th century. Kedleston is grand, far too grand a palace for the lords Scarsdale who were ‘..just ordinary country gentlemen…’ according to their descendant Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston and Viceroy of India. Indeed it seems that it was really only under his tenure that this palace seems to have matched the status of the owner.

Kedlseton is especially well known for the work of Robert Adam, although he wasn’t entrusted with the project from the start. Work on the present form of the house was started in 1759 when Matthew Brettingham was commissioned to sweep away the earlier house and adjacent village by Nathaniel Curzon, 5th baronet, who had recently inherited the estate. The family wing was started by Brettingham but then James Paine was asked to to take over the project, designing much of the North front as we see it today in the Palladian Fashion.

The model used for the house was an unexecuted design by Andrea Palladio for the Villa Mocenigo. At Kedleston this plan was adapted and would originally have featured the central block with four pavilions connected by curved galleries. Only two of the pavilions were built, the Family Wing and the service wing.

Unexecuted design for the Villa Mocenigo by Andrea Palladio, ca. 1570

A young Robert Adam was called in to design features for the extensive park, including the wonderful bridge and boathouse. By 1760 Adam had assumed control of the whole project, thereby taking it from the palladian to the more fashionable neo-classical style. The Palladian North front Adam retained with only small alterations to the central pediment. The south front however is where Adam created one of his most iconic façades, based on the triumphal arch of Constantine in Rome. The juxtaposition of this great façade with the old parish church is the pleasant result of the fact that the Chapel wing was never built.

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The interiors of Kedleston are a joy. The Marble Hall is one of the most spectacular creations of the period. Adam designed this space as a colonnaded atrium that is only top lit with Corinthian columns of local alabaster. The fluting of the columns however wasn’t according to Adams wishes.

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The niches display a collection of classical sculptures, and the furniture is designed to simulate true classical models. Its only the two fireplaces that break the illusion of antiquity, a necessary concession for a Derbyshire country house.

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After the atrium like marble hall one proceeds into the round saloon, which takes its classical inspiration from the Pantheon. The decoration on the walls here is kept to a minimum, reserving all the ornamentation for the dramatic coffered dome with a central oculus.

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The mantelpiece and ceiling in the Drawing Room are by Paine, the alabaster doorways were an addition by Adam. The collection of old masters is on a background of blue silk damask. The damask is continued on the four sofas. This suite of carved furniture, as elsewhere in the house, is a demonstration of the successful collaboration between Adam and John Linnell.

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The carving is of the highest quality, and the recent conservation of the set has restored the original intention with the use of different gilding techniques to showcase the fantastical mermaids and mermen.

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In contrast with the drawing room the library is all restraint with its Doric order and muted colours.

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The house is now owned by the National Trust, and they make a good job of it. The family have retained use of the family wing, which is also the element that one really misses when visiting Kedleston, as it is hard to understand how this architectural gem functioned as a house without exploring the rooms that were used on a daily basis. The service wing has been converted to a restaurant, without losing any of the historical charm of a kitchen designed to fit a neo-classical house.

The old church is also worth exploring for its tombs of Curzons through the ages. Alas, during my visit the weather forecast proved to be right, but that only means Kedleston has more treasures for me to explore on a future visit.

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