By Jonathan Reed
Video supplied by Chatsworth House©
Photography supplied by Reed Gallery©
Regarded as “the most beautiful house in Britain”; driving along a winding road, it suddenly appears as if by some time-travelling magic. Gold leaf windows glisten against the sunlight, and the beige English Baroque architecture reflects off the surface of the shimmering River Derwent. Chatsworth House resplendently resembles one of the many priceless pieces of artwork it exhibits.
Throughout its long and rich history, Chatsworth has been the pinnacle of majesty and opulence. And whilst it looks mightily different from the original Elizabethan House, built by Bess of Hardwick in 1552, the atmosphere of grandeur is as vivid now as it was then. But this isn’t surprising for a house built to entertain Royalty and all manners of aristocracy. And as you drive closer, passing over the narrow bridge leading to the car park, you are enveloped completely in the magnificence of the Estate.
Owned by the twelfth and current Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, Chatsworth has grown beyond a Stately home and gardens. It has become a vibrant, self-sufficient community that actively celebrates the country way-of-life, its heritage and history. And those themes are exquisitely exhibited throughout each of the stunningly maintained rooms.
Entering the North Entrance Hall, used since 1760 onwards, the hall was created for the 4th Duke by James Paine. At the same time, he drastically changed the approach to Chatsworth, moving the bridge to the north of the river, creating the now picturesque drive through the valley. Two large Roman sculptures sit here, both dating to the 1st Century AD. They were collected by the 6th Duke, a passionate collector of sculpture, in 1822.
Pieces as priceless as these magnificent sculptures are consistently on display as you navigate the halls and corridors which Chatsworth boasts. But perhaps the most dramatic room is the astounding Painted Hall. Occupying the same location as the Elizabethan Great Hall, it is easily the grandest and largest room in the entire house, which when it comes to Chatsworth, is saying something. The Hall has seen three major changes in its history, including the reconstruction of the stunning staircase.
The Painted Hall is notably the definitive symbol of Chatsworth House. It exudes the emblems of splendour and beauty, encapsulating on the eye-opening painted ceiling and walls. And it seems Chatsworth understand the need to keep their Hall looking its best. In 1936 the ceiling was discovered to be sagging and tragically on the point of collapse. Across two years of maintenance and in-depth restoration work, the floor above the Painted Hall was reinforced, the original plaster reattached, and the remaining cracks filled in with the painting restored. Then in 1996 the ceiling was conserved again, followed by the walls in 2005-2006.
As you navigate through each room Chatsworth willingly offers up, you feel as though you are flicking through page after page of a history book. There is a timeless quality that is effervescent in the air. It seeps into every artefact, painting and sculpture, and Chatsworth revels in celebrating them.
But whilst the physicality of the house is near impossible to ignore, those who have walked each corridor, slept in the king-size beds, and through their own stylistic ideas changed how Chatsworth looks, are the beating heart of this most superb home. The first being Bess of Hardwick, the second most powerful woman in the Elizabethan age. Only Queen Elizabeth herself was said to be more powerful and wealthier. And to demonstrate her power, Bess began to build an ambitious home. Designed around a central courtyard, with a gate tower, great hall and Chapel, evidence of the original Tudor Manor no longer exists. But Bess’ legacy did, and still does live on.
Perched on the hills behind the house and gardens sits The Hunting Tower. Built in the 1580s, the tower along with the Queen Mary’s Bower, used as a fishing platform, are the only surviving relics of the indominable Bess of Hardwick’s Chatsworth.
Throughout this time many of the grandest and most important people in the land would visit the house and larger estate, and one notable guest, or prisoner was the Scottish Monarch, Mary, Queen of Scots. Held here between 1569 and 1584, the controversial Queen lived within her lodgings situated on the east side of the house. The two rooms though completely rebuilt are still named the Scots Apartment.
As the years went by, and the Elizabethan House was rebuilt, eventually replaced with the ornate baroque-inspired house, another resident of Chatsworth would cement herself as a formidable and fashionable Duchess of Devonshire.
Lady Georgiana Spencer was seen as the most celebrated socialite across both the UK and Europe, and a major influencer in fashion and politics. But beneath her public adored exterior, Georgiana’s life was anything but adoring. Marrying the 5th Duke of Devonshire she suffered the immense pressure to deliver an heir to the Devonshire Estate, and after giving birth to two daughters, eventually the Duke’s prayers were answered, with the birth of a son. But uniquely for the time, Georgiana was incredibly influential within politics, forming a close relationship with Politician, Charles Grey. She would later begin an affair with Grey and give birth to an illegitimate daughter, Eliza.
Georgiana’s story is as much a part of Chatsworth as the décor, and there are numerous portraits of her adorning the walls of the house. Her impact was so profound in the historic DNA of the estate that a hugely successful film, ‘The Duchess’ was filmed at Chatsworth, starring Keira Knightley as Georgiana.
Though perhaps someone unknown to the masses, who helped influence Chatsworth’s vibrant and surprising history is Kathleen “Kick” Cavendish. Her name may not seem familiar, but if you replace Cavendish with Kennedy, then she may grab your attention. As a member of arguably the most famous American Presidential family in history, Kathleen married William Cavendish, heir apparent to the 10th Duke of Devonshire.
Sadly, Kathleen’s life would be filled with trauma. Her marriage to William was fiercely objected against by her mother, and less than five weeks together as husband and wife William was sent to out to fight in France. Further tragedy would envelope Kathleen’s life as four months after her marriage, William would be shot dead by a sniper in Belgium.
In 1948 Kathleen’s life would tragically be cut short in a devastating plane crash. She was killed instantly alongside her lover Lord Fitzwilliam. Her funeral was arranged by the Cavendishes and astonishingly, her father was the only member of the Kennedy family to attend. She is buried in the grounds of St Peter’s Church, only a few minutes from Chatsworth House. Beneath her grave’s headstone is a plaque commemorating the visit of the 35th President of the United States, her brother, John F. Kennedy.
But whilst these powerful women have helped shape Chatsworth’s past, there is a constant look to the future. The estate is one of the most explored and visited in the UK. The house is an extremely popular attraction, especially at Christmas time when, annually, it is transformed into a themed exhibition. In the past they have integrated Charles Dickens and Fairy Tales which left guests spellbound.
With this popularity comes a huge intake of profit, and Chatsworth use that to ensure it always looks its best. Over recent years the house and gardens have undergone an extensive restoration project. Costing £32.7 million, the ‘Masterplan’ was designed to conserve and rebuild parts of the house, as well as altering the public route to meet health and safety requirements. And with over 600,000 guests descending on Chatsworth each year, the task of keeping the estate open was a mammoth one, but without doubt, it has paid off.
The house looks better than ever, and following on from tradition, Chatsworth is continually merging modernity with history. Linking the two together is a recipe of success which has dominated the estate’s longstanding relevance. Their heritage, in all cases, is passionately celebrated, and with the latest exhibition, ‘The Dog’, Chatsworth are delving into the pedigree pooches which have accompanied the aristocratic residents of the house over the years.
These elements of creativity, of upholding history whilst navigating the estate through the uncertainty of modern times, keeps Chatsworth a step ahead. It places it within a realm all by itself. A realm of embracing heritage, of celebrating history, of ensuring a legacy of lavish magnificence. “The most beautiful house in Britain” is not just a title both befitting and incongruous. It is so much more. Chatsworth has been, is still, and will forever be, a Crown resting upon England’s green and pleasant land.
Thanks to Chatsworth House and all their wonderful staff for helping organise our visit!