A Visit to Chatsworth House

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I, like many ladies of the world, love Pride and Prejudice.

I generally dislike pure romances in books and films, but there's something completely charming about Jane Austen's love story about those two stubborn yet charismatic idiots. Without fail, the modern 2005 version always manages to make me feel all gooey inside.
If you've seen the film, then one of the prettiest pieces of cinamatography is the moment when Elizabeth Bennet goes exploring in the sculpture gallery of Mr.Darcy's home.

Keira Knightly in Pride and Predjudice (2005)

The remarkable room actually does exist almost completely unchanged (dodgy Darcy bust aside) and belongs to the beautiful Chatsworth House. As the manor house sits practically on my front door in Derbyshire, I decided to finally give it a visit.

Chatsworth House was originally built in 1553 by 'Bess' of Hardwick

A middle-aged Bess of Hardwick
A tenacious lady of the modest gentry and of unremarkable beauty, Bess lived through the Reformation, survived Mary Tudor's reign despite her family's allegiances to Elizabeth 1st, and thrived under the Virgin Queen. She had four husbands and built herself up to become one of the most important and well connected women in the country. 

While Chatsworth and its large estate was her legacy, over the years it has been through many changes, surviving to the modern day largely due to it's adaptability. When bombs over Sheffield threatened the house in the world wars Chatsworth responded by converting itself into a home for the schoolchildren of Penrhos college and by converting large sections of its grounds over to vegetable patches for the 'dig for victory' movement. In modern times Chatsworth openes to the public, hosts multiple events throughout the year, and remains an agricultural hub.  Time and time again debts and crippling death-duties have threatened to pull the house away from private ownership, but the families of Chatsworth have always managed to make the sacrifices required to hold on to it by the skin of their teeth.

The twin family property of Hardwick Hall had to be handed over to national ownership, but Chatsworth house is still in private hands for domestic use. As society marches onwards and the old world gentry lifestyle becomes perhaps less and less popular, the people of Chatsworth have worked hard to make sure that the manor house remains relevant.

 As soon as you step across the threshold there is no doubt of Chatsworth's value as a great hub for countless precious works of art.

The family has collected works of art throughout it's entire history, with the peak of collecting during the 'Bachelor Duke's tenancy in the mid 1800s. As you walk around the house you are greeted with stunning old-world architecture mixed with huge and beautiful geological specimens, centuries-old sketches by the Great Masters, ancient Egyptian statues and graceful sculpture, luxurious interior decoration and modern contemporary art pieces that have been included by the current Duchess and Duke.

One of the many painted ceilings at Chatsworth *

The public route of the house first takes you through the north sub corridor and leads on to the Painted Hall.

The North Sub Corridor originally acted as a  colonade which would shelter visitors as they walked across the courtyard, but a few too many chill and windy days inspired the 6th Duke (1790-1858) to enclose it as a room of it's own. He inlaid it with an intricately decorated marble pavement from Rome which now offsets beautifully with the other marbles in the house.

The Painted Hall is one of the most stunning rooms, with a great central staircase leading up to mezzanine balconies all around the edge of the room. The crowning glory of the space is the intricate and colourfully painted ceiling murals which are joined by many baroque painted imitations of woodwork and plasterwork that blend seamlessly alongside their real-life counter parts.

The Painted Hall *

Passing through the Chapel Corridor and the 'Oak Room', you then emerge in Chatsworth's own private Chapel.

 The Chapel is a protestant one and has remained largely unchanged since the first duke designed it in 1687-93. During this time the duke felt under threat by the Catholic King James I, so he designed the room so that the main carvings on the alterpiece depicted Faith and Justice: representing the balance between church and state.
While one of the smaller rooms, it is close to the family's heart and is still used on special occasions. For example, the current Duchess' granddaughter, Maud Cavendish, was christened in the room.

Chatsworth Chapel *

 Ascend the stairs and you soon come to a network of bedrooms, including the State Room.

 The first duke has high hopes that King William III and Mary II would visit him at Chatsworth a significant portion of his design choices (and no small expense!) was based around this expectation. Unfortunately the King and Queen never visited Chatsworth and never made use of the state rooms that he had put such careful thought in to.These rooms, nevertheless, are still designed to dazzle. One particularly impressive piece of art is the 'violin door' a trompe l'oeil - or optical illusion - by the Dutch artist Jan van ser Vaardt (c1653-1727). I challenge anyone to not think it's real when they first spot it!

The Violin Door

Later in the house's history the state rooms and the adjoining bedrooms would play host to guests, both illustrious and less remarkable. Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens are known to have stayed in Chatsworth, but also the state drawing room acted as the dormitory when the girls of Penrhos college relocated to Chatsworth during WW2. Currently (in 2014) this room has been converted back to how it would have looked at this time.  Plain Wooden panels are inset a few inches in in order to protect the lavish walls and lines of 1940s dormitory beds have been fished out storage to recreate the snug, functional sleeping quarters. While residency in the draughty manor house wasn't perfect for all involved, the girls enjoyed the novelty and even ice-skated on the 'Emperor Lake'.

Students skating on Emperor Lake, from the 'Chatsworth in Wartime' exhibition

As you walk on to the 'Old Masters Drawing Cabinet' and the various sketch galleries, it becomes apparent just how large Chatsworth's art collection really is.

The family of Chatsworth have been collecting for 16 generations and there is no shortage of taste when you view the sheer extent and quality of the collection on display. The old masters drawing cabinet is a comparitively tiny room, but it is full to the brim with wall to ceiling sketches from the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Remembrandt and Guercino.

In the adjoining South Sketch Gallery the room opens out again and is a homage to the 5th Ducess Georgiana. The most striking portrait is one of the lady herself, recently restored in all it's vibrant hues of blue, posing the duchess as the Goddess Diana.

Georgiana as Diana after restoration in 2009. Painted by Maria Cosway (1760-1838) *

While the sketch galleries are a treasure trove of art of the old masters and beyond, the North Sketch gallery is a confident display of the current Duke and Duchess' love for modern art and their desire to contribute to the ongoing collection. The North sketch gallery is a relatively narrow corridor which has now been handed over to display the installation of a DNA family portrait by Jacob van der Beugal. The countless panels are ceramic and depicts the family through an arrangement that imitates their real life DNA patterns.

Part of the DNA wall © Courtesy Chatsworth


Soon enough you reach the real show-piece for any bibliophiles who care to visit: the library.

According to the guidebook, there are over 30,000 books at Chatsworth, even after many of the collection (including some original Shakespeare folios) unfortunately had to be sold to raise money following the death duties incurred by the 10th and 11th dukes' passings. Illuminated manuscripts, original works by Thomas Hobbs and more art books of the old masters are among the well worn volumes. In the adjoining Ante-Library there is the striking veiled statue of the Vestal Virgin by Raffaele Monti, snug amongst the books.

Chatsworth library *

Moving on from the library you find yourself in the Great Dining Room

This is where the hardworking people who run and clean Chatsworth can really shine with the stunning table displays, which often change and act as their very own exhibitions. The first dinner to be held here was for the 13 year old princess Victoria as her first adult dinner, and it is still used as a hosting area on very special occasions to this day.

The dining hall

The final stop in the house (before the inevitable gift shop) is the stunning Sculpture Gallery

As I mentioned before, this room is perhaps the most famous due to its appearance in Pride and Prejudice, but it should be viewed as a stunning collection of art in its own right. The 6th Duke is largely behind these sculptures which were, for him, modern art that imitated the classical style. In 2009 the room was rearranged so that all his original sculptures sit together again as he has intended.
 While the only sculpture of great age is the bust of Alexander the Great (tastefully yellowed against the soft white of it's neighbours), the sculptures are still things of beauty and skill, draped on plinths inlaid with colourful minerals. My personal favourite piece is the sleeping lion that guards the exit. This was one of the pair of huge felines that Antonio Canova (11757-1822) carved as copies of the two lions made for the tomb of Pope Clement XIII at St Peter's in Rome.

The sleeping lion of Chatsworth *

 As you leave Chatsworth House there is much more to explore....

The large gardens are a beautiful place for a picnic and parkland, and elsewhere on the estate you can find the garden centre and farm shop, showing that the house will always be a buzzing business.

At the end of this month, on the 31st August,  the estate opens up once again  to Chatsworth's annual show, which I'm looking forward to exploring too.

Overall, Chatsworth is a fascinating and beautiful piece of living, evolving history and I encourage you to visit should you ever find yourselves in Derbyshire.

-Pictures marked with * are ones that I have taken myself during my visit in August 2014
-Your Guide to Chatsworth  - the guidebook for 2014
-Chatsworth Official Website
-Chatsworth Wikipedia (inevitably) 
-Bess of Hardwick by Mary S Lovell

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