Hardwick Hall: The house that Bess built


This visit has been on my wish list for a very long time, and I couldn’t have picked a better day to explore the house and grounds. The house is an architectural gem that thankfully managed to retain a large part of the original contents, it is consequently one of the best known and most important houses in the care of the National Trust. Compared with the other Prodigy Houses of the Tudor period it appears to be the most original one. Hardwick is also the architectural embodiment of the ambitions, wealth, and importance of its builder Bess of Hardwick. Lest you forget the name of the owner Elizabeth staked her claim by including her initials in the ornate scrolls that top the six towers surrounding her house.


‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall’ as the saying goes. 

The site chosen is one that Bess knew very well as the ruins of the house she grew up in are next to the new house she had built. Hardwick Old Hall is where Elizabeth retired to after relations soured between her and husband number four, the Earl of Shrewsbury, the ruins are now cared for by English Heritage. All four of her husbands left her better off after passing away, the cumulative wealth after her last husband passed in 1590 meant she was now the wealthiest woman in England. No time was wasted in sending for the most celebrated architect of the age, indeed the first in England one might give that title, Robert Smythson.

Smythson surpassed his recently finished creation of Wollaton Hall at Hardwick in many respects. Already at Wollaton the windows have grown to impressive an impressive size, but externally they definately play second fiddle to the apparant delight the architect had in adding all manner of ornamentation. At Hardwick the ornamentation is restricted to the bare minimum and the expanse of windows has grown to become the main ornament of the building, and indeed its defining characteristic. By moving the fireplaces to the core of the building the exterior walls were freed up to let in more light, and not unimportant display the wealth needed to acquire so much glass. At Wollaton Smythson used protruding and receding masses to good effect, but he did repeat the pattern on all four facades. At Hardwick the core of the building is not square but rectangular and to this Smythson has added six towers which creates a very pleasing effect of continuous change when one circumnavigates the composition.


The South Front

The south front is my favourite, the central tower confidently thrust forward which somehow makes me think of a courtier strutting forward on a Tudor dance-floor with his friends in tow, fanciful thoughts but then this is a place that inspires such pondering. The importance of each floor can be read externally based on the height of the windows, clearly one is intended to rise to the upper floors for the most impressive chambers. The six towers continue onwords with six chambers that were to be accessed by the roof, but clearly intended to be seen. These chambers were used as banqueting rooms for the consumption of costly and ornate deserts with unparalleled views over the landscape that the house, and by extension its owner dominated.


The Staircase 

If the exterior is all about the glass, the interior is all about textiles. Tapestries, embroideries, bed hangings, linen, furniture covering, textiles define the character of the interior to a great extent. Bess was an accomplished seamstress and there are many works in the house with her initials. She also spent many hours in the company of Mary Queen of Scots working on textiles, the ill fated queen being the ‘house guest’ of her last husband the 6th earl of Shrewsbury for over 15 years. In 1601 an inventory of Hardwick was drawn up which includes the famous textile collection, many items in the house can be directly related back to this inventory.

The second marriage of Bess of hardwick was to Sir William Cavendish and together they built the original Chatsworth House, from them also decend the Dukes of Devonshire who retain the property to this day. Hardwick remained in the same family but as preference was given to Chatsworth Hardwick was thankfully overlooked for any potential remodelling. By the time of the 6th Duke of Devonshire Hardwick was appreciated for its antiquity and preserved, even returning many items original to the house that had since moved to one of the many other properties. Hardwick was often used as a dower house, and it was in this capacity that it was used by the last person to inhabit the house, Evelyn cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. She moved to Hardwick after the death of her husband the 9th Duke and was responsible for overseeing repairs to the textile collection there, during her occupation the house was passed to the National Trust in  lieu of death duties after the unexpected death of the 10th Duke.


The Great Chamber

The exterior composition caused the creation in the interior of some interestingly shaped rooms in the form of interlocking E’s, T’s and L’s like some Elizabethan form of Tetris. After passing through the Great Hall and several smaller rooms on the ground floor used for temporary exhibits one rises the to the top, and therefore most important  floor of the house to enter the Great Chamber, and interior worthy of the name. This T-shaped space lit by eight large windows is enriched with an elaborate plaster frieze with a hunting scene that was once brightly coloured. The polychromy of the frieze once matched the brightness of the tapestries, both have faded in time are are now more muted in colour, though still a unity.


The polychrome stucco frieze in the Great Chamber


The Long Gallery

The Great Chamber leads into what is surely one of the most spectacular interiors in England the Long Gallery. This is the largest Elizabethan long gallery in existence, and the only one with its original tapestries. In this case the 13 tapestries depict the story of Gideon and were acquired by Bess from Sir Christopher Hatton. The amount of glass and the wonderful tapestries would have made this a very pleasant room to use for indoor rambling.


Exquisite canopy of the state bed commission from Francis Lapierre in 1697 for Chatsworth, now in the Long Gallery. 

The 6th (bachelor) Duke of Devonshire appreciated the antiquarian nature of Hardwick and is responsible for bringing back many items to the house, as well as adding to the collection there with additional pieces. In the Long Gallery he added the painting collection that hangs on the tapestries as well as what appears at first glance to be a magnificent red  throne canopy. This is in fact the canopy of the original state bed commissioned for Chatsworth in 1697 from Francis Lapierre. It is in the style of Daniel Marot and closely related to the Melville Bed at the V&A.


The Green Bedroom 

The 6th Dukes remodelling and extension at Chatsworth must have freed up quite a few good beds as the Green Bedroom contains yet another example that was brought to Hardwick to add to the antiquarian atmosphere. This would have been the guest chamber for the most important visitors to Elizabethan Hardwick. I’ve included the rather unattractive image above to illustrate one aspect that was slightly disappointing at Hardwick. The temporary exhibition on view throughout the house though interesting, clashed with the original furnishings. Sometimes clashes can be thought provoking as in the case of contemporary art in historic settings. In this case however its more a clash of cheap materials used for a temporary exhibition with the undeniable quality of the historic furnishings. The national Trust is large enough to have good buying power when it comes to exhibition material, and indeed they should be able to commission something that works better in the type of spaces they care for. This sadly makes the room look slightly cheap which is the absolute opposite from what Bess would want you to think of her house.


The Low Great Chamber, shown as a dining room. 

Other rooms on the first floor have been redecorated in the Victorian and Edwardian era and they show that clearly, after the glory of the floor above this is doomed to disappoint slightly but that is unavoidable unless the route is reversed. Emerging from the house and looking back from the splendid gardens its apparent that one of the most important features of the original Hardwick cannot be experienced when visiting the house. All that glass has a purpose, it provides light and a view. Understandably the natural light has to be filtered now to protect the valuable tapastries, but this does impact the authentic intention of the house. Could one room perhaps be used to demonstrate the relationship between interior and exterior as Bess intended? I would also vote for allowing occasional tours of the roof and the 6 banqueting rooms there preferably with appropriate serving of Elizabethan sweets, though I’m sure no health and safety officer would allow it.


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