“Antiques Roadshow” expert Chris Yeo revels in a remarkable restoration.
THERE’s nothing like that first glimpse of Chatsworth – ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshireand Derbyshire’s legendary ‘Palace of the Peak’. As you round the curve in the road and come upon it in its full glory –bathed in golden afternoon sunshine – it truly is a scene of timeless tranquillity. But like a swan gliding on a river, that tranquillity conceals a hive of bustling activity. Beneath Chatsworth’s half-a-hectare lead roof there are over 300 rooms, 17 staircases, 459 windows and 2,084 lightbulbs. This year, the scaffolding had just come down after a multi-million pound restoration project to reveal the house in its “original glory” and future proof the 500 year old building for the 21st century. The 10-year long programme, which cost about £32m, has seen “priceless” paintings restored, brickwork scrubbed and turrets rebuilt, providing work for about 100 artisans, from masons and joiners to lead workers and electricians.
Chatsworth is perhaps the most celebrated of all English country houses. One of the most important of this country’s Baroque houses, it is the principal seat of the Dukes of Devonshire (who, not so long ago, owned seven of England’s greatest houses, staying in each one for just a few weeks of the year), and sits majestically in one of ‘Capability’ Brown’s finest landscapes. A palace in all but name, its magnificent interior – which include a private theatre – contain some of the finest art and antiques in the country: works by Rubens, Van Dyke, Frans Hals, Gainsborough and Landseer, sculpture by Canova and a silver collection that would turn a Russian oligarch several shades of green with envy.
The cost of the repairs has been met by a trust set up by the 11th Duke in 1981 to preserve the house and its collection. This has been the longest and most comprehensive refurbishment of the house in the past 200 years and now an exhibition, Chatsworth Renewed, will highlight its makeover, from re-leading roofs to conservation of artworks. The exhibition, which runs until November, highlights the work of those involved in the restoration process. From rebuilding the Belvedere turrets to replacing vast tracts of lead on the roof; carving the tiniest details in stone using dentistry tools to replacing huge blocks in the walls; careful restoration of priceless artworks to the renovation of famous water features in the garden; over the last decade Chatsworth has been fully restored and made ready for the next century. The blackened sandstone façade has been power-washed and its warm glow restored, and the roof finials and window frames have been coated in shimmering gold leaf – 2,175 sheets were used to gild the finials on the East Terrace alone, and 1,500 sheets cover the window frames on the West and South Terraces. The final effect is dazzling, though the Duke did remark in the early days of the restoration: ‘When it is finished, it will be very vulgar but very historically correct.’ Everywhere, the attention to detail is staggering. The entire exterior has been cleaned and restored, with the new stone used for repairs coming from the quarry – specially reopened for the purpose – that provided the stone for the north wing in the 1820s. “When people say that the building houses antiques, the building itself to me is as big a treasure as those antiques within”, says Eric Knight the Site Manager. The huge makeover, which cost over £33 million is the biggest revamp of a British national treasure house since the fire at Windsor Castle in 1992. A design team is overseeing the project, led by the Duke and Duchess. It includes the architect Peter Inskip, interiors expert David Milinaric and art historian Jonathan Bourne. Specialists also partook in the conservation of 17th century textiles, wood panelling and flooring throughout the 500-year-old home.
Chatsworth House was built by the powerful Bess of Hardwick, who was second only to Queen Elizabeth I in wealth and influence during her 16th Century lifetime. With her second husband, Sir William Cavendish, she bought the 1,000 acre estate and built the first house at Chatsworth in 1552. During the English Civil War both sides occupied, and damaged, the family home and the then Earl of Devonshire did not return to Derbyshire until after the restoration of the monarchy. The fourth Earl, who was made the first Duke after helping William of Orange ascend to the throne in 1689, had to restore much of the building and radically altered Chatsworth at the turn of the 18th Century, creating most of the current imposing building. The 5th Duke, William Cavendish, married the beautiful and beloved Lady Georgiana Spencer. She and her friend Lady Elizabeth Foster were painted several times by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Lady Elizabeth became the mistress of the Duke and had two children by him. Interestingly enough this did not interfere with her friendship with Georgiana, whereby the ménage à trois continued for years. The Duke and Georgiana lived mainly in London, but when they were in residence at Chatsworth, it was filled with friends, family, writers and mostly politicians. The house was open for people to tour when they were gone and one day a month dinner was provided for whoever came. The 6th Duke was known as the Bachelor Duke and was Duchess Georgiana’s only son, succeeding his father at the age of 21. Extravagant and charming, he was a prince of hosts; a man with a penchant for entertaining on an epic scale, as befitted England’s premier aristocrat and Europe’s most eligible bachelor. Of almost unimaginable wealth, the Duke owned eight (yes, eight) stately homes but Chatsworth was the jewel in his crown. Over forty years, the ‘Bachelor Duke’ spent nearly a million pounds (roughly forty million today) transforming his ancestral seat into a palace worthy of any of the crowned heads of Europe.
The behind-the-scenes operations at Chatsworth, as revealed by the exhibition, might be a military operation now, but in times past the number of servants required to keep the Cavendish family in comfort and luxury resembled a small army. Even so for much of the year, the family would be away, following a strict timetable of Ireland for the salmon fishing, Devonshire House in London for the Season, then to Bolton Abbey for the grouse shooting in August and then back to Chatsworth for a huge family gathering for Christmas, and New Year. There was also Lismore Castle in Ireland and Chiswick House on the outskirts of London. Rather like Medieval monarchs, the family “progressed” around the country, taking their servants and most important belongings with them. A 17th century solid silver chandelier, now on display at Chatsworth, travelled with the family wherever they went and was provided with its own velvet lined trunk, so that it could travel on the train in safety.
Workmen over the centuries here have left their mark and their messages in the fabric of the building: the hard winter of 1841 finds S Walker, a joiner from Pilsley, scribbling down on a plank of wood the weather, the price of flour, the level of unemployment and the ‘Tory rascals’, but praising ‘our Duke for feeding us over the winter.’ The architect, Peter Inskip, and the archaeologist, Oliver Jessop, have encouraged the workforce to leave their own archaeology for the future, whether that’s a newspaper slipped in somewhere or a name carved who knows where. Leaving traces and passing on messages for the future is very much what the Chatsworth Renewed exhibition is about.
‘We’ve called it Chatsworth Renewed – not Chatsworth Restored or Chatsworth Repaired – because it feels revitalised,’ says Anna Farthing, creative producer of the exhibition. ‘It’s got its youth and vigour back. This old house isn’t old. This old house is young, really young and ready to come out and go to its first ball.’
Image credits: Chatsworth House Preservation Trust