Devonshire in Derbyshire

A day at Chatsworth House

Winter has arrived early in the Peak District. A generous blanket of snow covers the Chatsworth Estate, courtesy of Storm Arwen in the early hours of last Saturday morning. When I entered the park this morning via the ingeniously designed Cannon Kissing Gate, it felt like entering a magical kingdom, or should that be dukedom?

Like other grand estates Chatsworth has its own colour paintwork, meaning that all estate buildings, even if situated several miles from the main house, share the same shade of ocean blue woodwork and metalwork. Even the front door of my comfortable Air BnB cottage in the village of Baslow, which forms part of an estate farm, Yeldwood Farm, is blue. There’s something pleasingly uniform about this branding exercise though some might argue that it perpetuates a feudal system that has no place in the 21st century!

The predecessors of the Dukes of Devonshire have occupied the site since the mid 16th century, although it wasn’t until 1694 that the dukedom was created, courtesy of William II, in gratitude for the 4th Earl of Devonshire’s role in bringing him and Mary to the English throne six years earlier.

Knowing that it would be too ambitious to see both the house and garden on the same day, I went to the house today and shall visit the garden tomorrow. I kept seeing tantalising glimpses of the garden from the windows of the house, and was delighted to see the famous Emperor fountain playing, despite the temperature not having risen much above freezing this morning. But the grandeur of the interiors and the joyful manner in which the interior has been decorated for Christmas, ensured that my attention didn’t wander to the scenes outside.

The Emperor Fountain from the house

Many of the Dukes of Devonshire have been great art connoisseurs, both collecting and commissioning artworks. The present Duke (the 12th) and Duchess are no exception. Contemporary works are displayed throughout the house, complementing their surroundings, rather than appearing incongruous. I particularly liked the modern ceramic pieces, often in the form of groups of vessels displayed on mantelpieces and in fireplaces , echoing the practice of showing collections of blue and white porcelain in such places.

In the Dome Room just beyond the magnificent library, stands Sowing Colour, porcelain flasks of varying heights in vivid colours, created by Natasha Daintry in 2018. In the guidebook the artist is quoted as saying that ‘Making the piece I did feel I was sowing colour. Sowing is a direct action, a conscious and controlled act of cultivation, while colour represents the wild and unknowable phenomenon of nature’.

With DNA sequencing being more important than ever in the development of anti-COVID vaccines, the installation in the North Sketch Gallery could not be more relevant. The work of Jacob van der Beugel in 2014, it consists of 659 ochre coloured ceramic panels based on the mitochondrial DNA of the 12th Duke and Duchess, their son Lord Burlington and his wife Lady Burlington, forming four individual ‘portraits’, with a fifth depicting ‘Everyman’ showing the DNA we have in common. I loved the deceptive simplicity of this light-filled gallery after the darker, lavishly decorated state apartments.

I was also happy to find some old ‘friends’ on display:

A Christmas card from the sculptor in wood, David Nash, reminding me of his period as sculptor in residence at Kew Gardens when I worked there.

A triple portrait by John Singer Sargent, Portrait of the Acheson sisters, 1902. In a blog post last year, I wrote about an excellent Garden Museum talk on his garden paintings.

The family’s dogs, immortalised in panels in the Oak Room, which also contains elements of a Chatsworth Christmas a few years ago, with the theme of Mr Toad.

A couple of portraits of the late Duchess Deborah, as she is styled in the guidebook, one by Lucian Freud dating from 1958-1960. What a fascinating life this youngest of the Mitford sisters led. In a documentary several years ago I remember learning that alongside her passion for chickens, she was a diehard Elvis fan!

My eldest great nephew would have appreciated the Firebolt broomstick, signed by JK Rowling.

A life-sized musical box in the Chapel which opened to reveal this dainty ballerina from the Nutcracker.

This account of my visit barely scratches the surface of Chatsworth House and its treasures. I can’t wait to see the garden tomorrow, to discover more of them.

Baslow, Derbyshire

29 November 2021

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