I am sure you are familiar with Jane Austen or Pride and Prejudice, a film adaptation was made staring Keira Knightly and Mathew Macfadyen in 2005, but are you familiar with the locations it was filmed? One was Chatsworth House, which happens to be one of my favourite all time houses, full of the charm and character one would expect from a house for the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. You cannot say you know England until you have visited!
The story of Chatsworth begins in the 16th Century with Elizabeth Talbot more commonly know as Bess of Hardwick, or the Countess of Shrewsbury and the most powerful woman in England, second only to Queen Elizabeth I, although some people believe she was more powerful than the queen, she even wears a crown on her tomb, I guess you could say it was a love-hate relationship. It was in her second marriage (out of four) that the Cavandish lineage continues today. Her second husband Sir William Cavandish, was one of King Henry VIII’s advisers and prospered greatly during the dissolution of the monasteries. He bought the land that Chatsworth stands on today for £600 in 1549 and building started in 1552, yet he died in 1557 never seeing it’s completion, Bess of Hardwick finished the building. The Hunting Tower built in 1580 still stands on the hill, and the house retains a few of the original Elizabethan interior walls. It was her son who inherited Chatsworth, Henry Cavandish and sold it to his brother William Cavandish for £10,000.
The 4th Earl of Devonshire, William Cavandish, who later became the 1st Duke of Devonshire in 1694, rebuilt the house as he was forced to retire during the reign of James II as their political ideas clashed dramatically. Originally he wanted to only rebuild the south wing, thus keeping the inside Elizabethan courtyard, despite it becoming unfashionable. The changes he made are key to the development of English Baroque architecture, it was incredibly classical and very opulent. Sir John Summerson (a famous architectural historian of the 20th century) said “It inaugurates an artistic revolution which is the counterpart of the political revolution in which the Earl was so prominent a leader.”, a statement of power therefore, propaganda almost. The south elevation is quite unusual for its time, with no attic visible, it features a basement of single square elevation and then the two “main” stories of double elevation. The facade is striking with 4 ionic plasters either side of the 6 bay center. Symmetry is crucial, yet it is unusual that the focus on this facade is on the outer bays, with very little decoration on the centerpiece. Above the plasters we see heavy entablature and a further balustrade to give it height and importance, decorated with these carved urns. The south and east fronts follow this pattern, the work of William Talman which were finished in 1696.
The north and west fronts are different again, the north is definitely the work of Thomas Archer who also designed the Cascade House, but the west front architect remains somewhat of a mystery, although it is exceptionally similar to the north front. It is quite possibly a design from the Duke himself, or he had a large input, he fancied himself as an amateur architect. 9 bays wide instead of 12 like the south facade, with a center pediment supported by 4 columns, with 4 plasters to the outer bays. The windows on the west bay are highlighted with
gold leaf, something that the current Duke and Duchess have had recently restored, so that it may catch the setting sun, although personally I think it looks awful. The only surviving baroque facade is on the eastern side, where 5 of the original 7 bays remain. The north facade was the last to be built, presenting a challenge, since the north end of the west front projected 3m further than the north end of the eastern front, to get around this issue a slightly curved facade was built to deceive the eye, however the 19th c. extensions to the north front meant this was no longer an issue.
Interesting fact while on the topic of windows, in the 19th century for certain but most likely it was common place before that… Chatsworth employed two full time window cleaners, along with the other 40 plus staff… I can imagine they would need it, as just on the main North, South, East and West facades there are approx. 126 windows… let alone the ones on the extension, the conservatory or the other buildings on the estate.
I shall not provide the whole history of Chatsworth House and its occupants… you would be here for days reading about the additions and changes many of the Dukes made. But jumping ahead to world war two instead, most of the grand houses were put to use during the war, many were hospitals or barracks, but the 10th Duke decided that soldiers may cause the house too much damage so opened the house to a Penrhos College, a girls public school from Colwyn Bay, N. Wales. The contents of the house were packed up and put into storage and 300 girls plus teachers descended on the house for a 6 year stay, all the rooms were occupied and even the state rooms were turned into dormitories. However the condensation from the school girls breath caused fungus to grow on the back of many paintings, as we have found out with recent restoration. The girls grew vegetables to help with the war effort, but the house was not very comfortable for so many people and had a shortage of hot water, but there were some perks, such as skating on the canal pond in winter. Relations of the Cavandish family and estate workers fought on the front line in the war.
There is currently an exhibition on at Chatsworth about its wartime efforts, including returning one of the state rooms into a dormitory and featuring the original wardrobe that has been stored at Chatsworth since 1946. Some of the refugees returned now 70 years later stating it was ‘an emotional reunion‘ and that ‘Chatsworth has always had a special place in their hearts’.
If you visit there are 5 treasures I adore and you should not miss!!
The State Music room features a surprise Trompe l’oeil (French for ‘deceive the eye’, an art technique that uses very realistic imagery to create an optical illusion). Behind one door a violin and bow is depicted hanging off a metal peg, it really does seem real. Set into a functional door, the painting is thought to have been at Devonshire House in Piccadilly, it was rescued from the fire that destroyed the house in 1733, then brought to Chatsworth.
The original Cascade was built in 1696, designed by Monsieur Grillet, a French hydraulics engineer, he had experience in decorative waterworks for Louis XIV of France. It took two years to build and then faced a vigorous re-modelling in 1708, ten years after the original was built which makes you wonder who approved the original plans.
The new Cascade was nearly twice the length, and substantially wider, adding the Cascade House, built at its summit, designed by Thomas Archer. This Cascade House was used as a form of entertainment in the summer, in 1725 one of the visitors reported how jets threw up streams of water and got people all wet, the spouts are still in the floor. The cascade, along with the stunning gardens, are absolutely beautiful in the summer to explore and have a picnic by. You can even roll up your trousers and paddle across the steps, but don’t soak your family… they don’t appreciate it.
Whilst in Milan, on his way to Naples, the 6th Duke of Devonshire visited the sculptor’s studio on 12th October 1846, he ordered the marble sculpture on 18th October, placing a £60 deposit. The sculpture was ready to be dispatched to England in April 1847, and the Duke appears to have displayed it in Chiswick House, west of London. It first came to Chatsworth in 1999 and was shown in the Sculpture Gallery where it appeared in Pride and Prejudice. It is incredible when you are face to face with it, the marble is so delicate it actually looks like a veil over an intricate face.
One of the most famous Duchesses to live at Chatsworth is Lady Georgiana Spencer, who married William Cavandish the 5th Duke of Devonshire, her sad story is told by Kiera Knightly and Ralph Finnes in the Academy Award winning film The Duchess. This painting residing at Chatsworth is of the Duchess of Devonshire, known across England as one of the most famous women, an empress of fashion, she had a keen interest in politics and was a well accomplished woman even when she was young. She was top of the elite, often the muse of artists, a true icon. However she loved to gamble, by the time of her death she had raked up a debt worth £3,720,000, and her husband upon finding out is thought to have remarked ‘is that all?…’, after all both her husband and her father the 1st Earl Spencer were very wealthy. Her marriage, made by her parents, was another reason she was famous, beloved of society yet not of her husband, it saw Georgiana hurt and humiliated when William took her best friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster as a mistress and moved her into their home. However there is a school of thought that suspects Georgiana to have had physical relations with Elizabeth too. Gee, as she was often called as a child, gave William three children, Georgiana, Harriet and William George, but also several miscarriages. She also had an affair of her own, with Charles Grey, and gave birth to an illegitimate daughter Eliza, the duke forced her to give Eliza up and she was raised by the Grey family. However Gee secretly visited Eliza a few times throughout her life, and Eliza then names her daughter Georgiana. Gee died in 1806, aged 48, she forgave her husband and Lady Elizabeth, giving them her blessing to marry after her death.
The fascinating thing about this painting however is that she has 6 toes, Georgiana was thought to be so beautiful she was close to the gods. Here Georgiana is supposed to portray Diana, the goddess of nature, fertility and childbirth. However the only thing that is allowed to be 100% perfect were the gods themselves, hence why she has 6 toes, one small bit of imperfection.
The Carved Cravat
This Lime-wood Carved Cravat is attributed to Ginling Gibbons, as are many other of the fantastic wooden carvings at Chatsworth. Although we are uncertain if Gibbons worked on Chatsworth House at all, it is certainly in his style. Possibly the work of Derbyshire born Samuel Watson, he worked in Gibbons style and is reported to work at Chatsworth between 1691-1711. However Samuel could have acquired an actual Gibbons piece or it could have been gifted to the 1st or 2nd Duke. This Venetian lace style was very fashionable in the late 17th century, there is a similar piece now held in the V&A museum.
26 rooms are open for public viewing, including the library, which was originally the 1st Duke’s gallery but changed by the 6th Duke. The painted hall, which was the 1st Duke’s ceremonial entrance hall and is simply a stunning opulence of grandeur. The great dining room, which at one point severed (at the time) Princess (later Queen) Victoria. The chapel remains unaltered from its design in 1688. And finally the Scots Rooms, a set of rooms that
held Mary Queen of Scots during her imprisonment, placed under the custody of the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, Bess of Hardwicks’ 4th husband, although they have altered slightly in decoration. There is another scandal here, as it is suspected that the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury loved Mary Queen of Scots and had physical relations whilst she was under his care. Further to the rooms, the art collection inhabited at Chatsworth is gigantic, built up over 450 years, it includes paintings by Rembrandt and Lanseer, as well as sculptures by Canova and Frink. The Garden extends to 105 acres, including many features such as the giant rockeries and the gravity-fed emperor fountain which can emit a jet of water 90 meters into the air. They boast rare trees, shrubs, rose Gardens, temples, streams and much more, you could spend days getting lost.
Personally I love Chatsworth, the building is stunning, the art work incredible whilst the history and characters simply speak for themselves.