Chatsworth: stately and sublime

For all professionals involved in historic house museums Chatsworth is, or should be, an important point of reference. As one of the greatest country houses in England it has been open for visitors since its first creation, and it was one of the first to open its doors commercially to receive paying visitors. Chatsworth ticks all the boxes for a great country house experience. The setting is breathtaking year round, the house itself of great architectural quality, the gardens are impressive and enjoyable at the same time, the obligatory catering and shopping match expectations, and there is a varied programme of activities and events. Add to this a fascinating history of both the building and the family as well as an art collection of high calibre that could fill several museums and one understands why it consistently features as one of the most visited sites in the UK, a figure that is only likely to increase with more and more tourists from China adding to the already heavy footfall in the house.


The Elizabethan Chatsworth

Chatsworth was another of Bess of Hardwick‘s building projects. When she married husband number two, Sir William Cavendish, she convinced him to sell off his estates elsewhere and acquire land in her native Derbyshire. In the 1560’s the original Chatsworth was built as a grand house around a large central courtyard. This is the building that Mary Queen of Scots would have known as a regular prison where she would spend time with Bess working on textiles. The original building survives only in the footprint of the later house. The metamorphosis into the structure we see now started with the 4th Earl of Devonshire, later the 1st Duke, in 1686 when he remodelled the South front in anticipation of a Royal visit. The rather unusual arrangement of having the state rooms on the second floor is a result of the limited scope of the intended alterations. Building clearly became a passion as he subsequently remodelled the three other wings that originally surrounded the courtyard. The South and East fronts were designed by William Talman. The North front was designed by Thomas Archer but the appreciation of its composition is hampered by the later addition of new wings by the 6th Duke, the West front is believed to be by the 1st Duke himself working alongside Talman. The inner courtyard was reduced in size when the 6th Duke added corridors on three sides, the original layout of rooms only connected as an enfilade had become unfashionable and impractical by this time. As a result only one of the courtyard facades is of the original design, it is clearly distinguished by the gilt window frames. These gilt frames have been restored in recent years based on research, and together with the cleaning of all the stonework they add a spectacularly glamorous aspect to the exterior confirming Chatsworth’s reputation as the Palace of the Peak.


The Courtyard Façade, the site that originally greeted visitors before they entered into the Painted Hall.

Originally visitors to the house would pass through the West front into the courtyard before entering the Painted Hall, which occupies the site of the original Great Hall of the Elizabethan House. The remaining four carved military trophies in the courtyard carved by Samuel Watson are an indication of the rich ornamentation that would have been present on all four courtyard façades.


The Painted Hall

By the time of the remodelling great halls had ceased to function in the way they would have in earlier centuries, but they were retained as important markers of status and as a first conduit space into the sequence of rooms that was to follow. The Painted Hall at Chatsworth is a particularly splendid example with lavish decorations by Louis Laguerre. The scenes were chosen in anticipation of a Royal visit that would never take place. The 1st Duke was one of the original group of seven aristocrats that went over to Holland to invite William and Mary to take the throne, the paintings make flattering comparisons between William and Ceasar.


The staircase in the Painted Hall was inspired by the Tijou staircase behind it that leads to the second floor state apartments.

The original staircase in the hall was replaced by the 6th Duke, but this was a rather unsatisfactory composition, even by his own admission. In 1912 this was rectified by the current construction which is heavily inspired by the second staircase behind it which has a beautiful balustrade by the Huguenot metal worker Jean Tijou. This second grand staircase was necessary to provide appropriate access to the state rooms on the second floor.


The Chapel Corridor, recently re-imagined as a collectors gallery with a collection of natural and artistic treasures.

The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire could easily just open the house and the amazing collections would draw enough visitors to make for a valuable visit, but in stead of that they have chosen a path of continuous enrichment and re-display. The Chapel Corridor for example has recently been re-displayed with a mixture of classical sculptures, paintings, minerals, curiosities and contemporary art to form something like an oversized cabinet of curiosities.


The Great Chamber, first in the sequence of state rooms. A lavish display of ones gilt tableware was a common occurrence at banquets.

The State apartments are reminiscent of the ones at Hampton Court Palace. Some of the additions by the 6th Duke have thankfully been softened. The rich lime wood carvings in the state rooms were at one point thought to be by Grinling Gibbons but were later properly attributed to Samuel Watson. The ceilings were painted by Antonio Verrio and Louis Laguerre, their rich polychromy would have been matched by that of the tapestries.


The door decorated with a trompe-l’oeil violin painted by Jan van der Vaardt.

A favourite amongst visitors is a door in the State Music Room painted by Jan van der Vaardt with a trompe-l’oeil violin that still manages to deceive the eye. This door was originally part of Devonshire House in London and was installed  here by the 6th Duke.


The State Bed Chamber, the solid silver object on three legs is a rare incense burner, still used on a daily basis apparently.

The creation of the State Bed Chamber was an opportunity for the 1st Duke to spend some serious money, this was the most expensive interior of the entire house. Pride of place would have been the state bed, which is not the one we see here now. The current bed came from Kensington Palace as a perk for the 4th Duke in his role as lord Chamberlain, this is the bed in which George II breathed his last in 1760. Even though its an impressive item it cannot match the original bed by Francis Lapiere , part of which can be seen in the Long gallery at Hardwick Hall where it is now displayed as a canopy.


The State Bed, George II died in this bed in 1760 at Kensington Palace and it was claimed as a perk by the 4th Duke in his role as Lord Chamberlain.


This room has recently been added to the visitor route, originally a bedroom but now decorated as a study.

After the state rooms one passes into a sequence of corridors and bedrooms in the other wings, most of which were redecorated for the 6th Duke who entertained a lot at Chatsworth. A continuing programme of restoration and also new commissions continually add to the selection of rooms and collections on view. One corridor is dedicated entirely to Lord Burlington whose daughter married the 4th Duke of Devonshire, it is through her that his collections and Chiswick House came into the possession of the Dukes of Devonshire. Another corridor has recently been dedicated to Georgiana Cavendish who recently regained fame as the central character in “The Duchess”, even though Chatsworth only featured very briefly in the film itself.


One of a series of guest bedrooms decorated with Chinese wallpaper and elaborately draped beds re-decorated by the 6th Duke who entertained lavishly.

There is a sequence of bedrooms decorated with Chinese Export Wallpaper, apparently in the Elizabethan House this is where Queen Mary Stuarts quarters would have been located.


The Great Library was created by the 6th Duke in what was formerly the Long Gallery.

Returning back to the 1st floor the route continues past the Great Library, which one sadly doesnt pass through. This great space was once the Long Gallery of which the ceiling paintings by Verrio and plasterwork survives. It is here that the 6th Duke chose to make the connection to his addition to the house, the North Wing. The axis of Great Library is extended into the Great Dining Room and the Sculpture Gallery beyond, ending in the Orangery. This provided the 6th Duke with the larger entertaining spaces he required.


The Great Dining room was first used for a dinner with a very young Princess Victoria, both host and guest were equally nervous as this was Victioria’s first dinner as an adult.


The Sculpture Gallery

For all his fervour at building the 6th Duke clearly respected his ancestors at Chatsworth, deciding to add to the structure rather than remodel rooms that had become unfashionable. Perhaps one of his best additions to the house and collection is the Sculpture Gallery, a wonderfully restrained neo classical space forms the backdrop for a collection of classical sculptures and vases. There is a great collection of Canova’s who was admired by the 6th Duke.


The Cascade


The gardens at Chatsworth both compete with and are part of the wider dramatic landscape. The original parterres have long gone through interventions by William Kent and Capability Brown, although some elements of the formal gardens are still recognisable. To get an idea of how the unity of design between the state rooms and the gardens would have worked one will need to visit Hampton Court Palace. The Cascade is both playful and dramatic. This is the second version created for the 1st Duke who was so  taken by the first that he quickly decided to enlarge it significantly, the temple at the top is by Thomas Archer. It is still a very entertaining attraction on warm days with children and adults alike enjoying it, I wonder how many other 300 year old playgrounds are enjoyed to the same extent.


The 1st Duke’s Greenhouse was moved to its present location and enriched with busts and consoles that once decorated the inner courtyard.


The ‘Conservative Wall’ designed by Joseph Paxton

Chatsworth was the birthplace of the Crystal Palace, its architect Joseph Paxton worked here before creating his famous ode to glass in London for the Great Exhibition. The glass house he built at Chatsworth is long gone, but the stepped wall of conservatories still remains.


The Stables designed by James Paine were completed in 1766, they provided appropriately palatial lodging for the horses as well as being an eye catching architectural feature in the newly landscaped gardens.


My apologies to the reader for what has become a longer post than usual, but this should be taken as an indication of the marvel that is Chatsworth. It is a house I hope to visit many times, in different seasons and with new additions and alterations to the collections and exhibits. Chatsworth has always been open to visitors, and clearly knowing how to entertain these has been passed down the generations along with the estate and the collections. It is clear that the commercial and entertainment side of things is more than adequately covered. I am slightly surprised however by the lack of truly authoritative publications of academic standing available on the house and its collections, the myriad of books by Duchesses past and present are interesting and entertaining but I’m sure there is a market for something more substantial as well and this house and collection deserves it. The information available in the house is good but perhaps slightly less engaging, the good old laminated information sheet is a favourite here but audio guides are also available. Room guides were knowledgeable and friendly without being obtrusive or launching into unprompted monologues. The only real fault Chatsworth might have is in fact a measure of its success, the amount of visitors. I’ll return on a rainy Tuesday for a more contemplative experience.



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