Words: Ed Aves
The stateliest of stately homes, Chatsworth House has beguiling good looks, an extraordinary art collection and a remarkable history
The first glimpse of Chatsworth is unforgettable. Approaching the house, a harmonious ensemble of warm stone set against a backdrop of densely wooded hills in exquisite landscaped parkland, feels like stepping into a historical painting. It’s an illusion that seems for a moment to suspend time.
Nestling in the heart of the Peak District, Chatsworth is one of England’s architectural masterpieces – both imperiously grand and arrestingly beautiful. The ancestral seat of the illustrious Cavendish family, Chatsworth was built to be seen. Over the centuries, successive generations – the earls (and later dukes) of Devonshire – remodelled and embellished the house and filled it with treasures, creating a showcase of art and design intended to be enjoyed by all who came.
And come they did. Chatsworth has been welcoming the public for more than 300 years – on open days as long ago as the 18th century a table was laid for anyone who wished to stay for dinner. And while many stately homes shed their aristocratic owners during the tumultuous 20th century, Chatsworth remains in family hands today, the tastes of its current custodian – Peregrine Cavendish, the 12th Duke, an avid collector of modern ceramics – much in evidence in the 25 or so rooms open to the public.
Displays are ever-changing and constantly surprising, with the historic collection – from paintings to sculpture, silverware to textiles – enlivened by contemporary pieces. The result feels like a living family home (albeit one with a staff of 800) rather than a stuffy museum: an enticing mix that keeps visitors returning year after year.
The story of Chatsworth begins more than 450 years ago with the formidable Bess of Hardwick (1527–1608), four times widowed, who via a string of shrewd marriages rose to become the most powerful woman in England after Queen Elizabeth I. A canny businesswoman, Bess persuaded her second husband, Sir William Cavendish – a favourite of Henry VIII – to sink the fortune he’d made from the Dissolution of the Monasteries on an estate in her native Derbyshire, and the couple set about building a turreted Elizabethan mansion, complete with a great hall.
By the end of the 17th century, fashions were changing and Bess’s great-great-grandson, the 4th Earl of Devonshire (1640–1707), decided to rebuild the house in the new Baroque style, inspired by a visit to the Palace of Versailles. Originally intending only to alter the South Front, he developed such a thirst for building that each facade was reworked in turn, creating the perfectly balanced symphony of stone – sensitively updated by later generations – we see today.
A highlight of any visit is the Painted Hall, occupying Bess’s original Elizabethan Great Hall. Fed up with Catholic rule, the earl was one of a handful of nobles who invited the Protestant William of Orange to invade England in 1688. After the revolution’s success, he engaged the Versailles court painter Louis Laguerre to flatter the new monarch with a set of murals depicting scenes from the life of Julius Caesar.
The trick worked, and in 1694 William III and his wife Mary granted the earl the title 1st Duke of Devonshire. Even more striking is the richly wood-panelled Chapel, barely altered since the 1st Duke’s time, with an ornate altarpiece carved from local alabaster and black marble. The contrast of Laguerre’s florid wall and ceiling paintings with a gold-plated sculpture by contemporary artist Damien Hirst – a gruesome figure of St Bartholomew complete with flayed skin – is one of Chatsworth’s most dramatic juxtapositions of ancient and modern.
From the Painted Hall a grand staircase leads up to the State Apartment, a suite of four rooms lavishly decorated in anticipation of William and Mary’s visit. In the end the royal couple never came, but many a subsequent monarch did – the last, George V, in 1913, slept in the enormous canopy bed occupying the State Bedchamber. The king’s night’s sleep may not have been entirely restful – the bed had previously witnessed the dying moments of George II at Kensington Palace in 1760.