Sculptures and Serpents

In the garden at Chatsworth House: Part 2

Since visiting Chatsworth almost five weeks ago I have discovered the Channel 4 documentary Chatsworth House: A Great British Year. I’m glad not to have come across it before as it’s fun to see the house and garden again and learn how such a vast enterprise works. The kitchen garden featured in one of the shows and like everything at Chatsworth it is beautifully designed and cultivated. Even at the end of November when most of the crops had been harvested, there was plenty to see and interesting details to examine.

The kitchen garden occupies a sloping west-facing site of about three acres. A relatively new addition to the gardens, it was created in the early 1990s. As in the wider garden, water has been channelled from parkland behind the garden to feed rills and ponds. I was interested to see tulips being planted in handsome terracotta pots, tucked into a nook beside the cold frames. The lower boundary of the garden is formed by a tightly clipped beech hedge. Large golden stalks adorn a trio of metal frames fashioned into apples and a pear, each housing a yew shrub which in the years to come will fill out the frames to form topiary fruits at the entrance of the garden. Rhubarb forcers from Whichford Pottery in Warwickshire stand to attention like terracotta warriors. A couple of stone plaques caught my eye: a quirky mission statement for creativity from dress designer Paul Smith and a heart-shaped memorial to the late Duchess Deborah. Straight rows of chard and brassicas appear to radiate from the corner of the large plots in which they are planted.

Unmistakeable for their charred finish, David Nash’s sculptures look entirely at home in the Arboretum which occupies the upper slopes of the gardens. The gardens are separated from the surrounding parkland by a ha-ha, the eighteenth century innovation which enables a garden to blend seamlessly with the landscape beyond. Here the ha-ha is a stone retaining wall. I noticed that a meshwork fence has also been fitted near the top of the wall, presumably to deter deer from entering the garden and munching the rare specimen trees. On the subject of dry stone walling, an installation called ‘Emergence’ demonstrates the evolution of this ancient craft, fundamental to the rural landscape of not only Derbyshire but so many other areas of the country. It contains one giant rock, a reference to the practice of using naturally occurring boulders in field walls. The transition from the older random style of limestone dry stone walling to the more modern sandstone wall of shaped stones is marked by a giant pane of glass. The interpretation panel informed me that the glass also represents Joseph Paxton’s pioneering work on the Great Stove at Chatsworth which led to him designing the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition in 1851. Giant redwoods tower above the other conifers in the Pinetum, an echo for me of the area of Kew Gardens devoted to these majestic trees.

More nineteenth century technology features in much of the seating around the gardens at Chatsworth. Cast iron benches with a plant inspired designs are placed around the remains of the Great Stove and in the terrace beside the 3rd Duke’s greenhouse. I found nasturtiums, passionflowers and lilies of the valley, as well as a design showing gardeners sowing, raking, harvesting and scything.

The Serpentine Hedge separates the Maze from the woodland area beside the Canal Pond. A double row of symmetrically planted beech which curves in and out, this dates from 1953 and was inspired by the ‘crinkle-crankle’ walls found in many old gardens, the alternating concave and convex planes providing stability. Seeing the north face of the house reflected in the Canal Pond, the Emperor Fountain rising skywards in the centre, has to be one of my highlights of 2021. This end of the garden also contains more remarkable sculpture: a horse’s head by Nic Fiddian-Green

and Allen Jones’s Dejeuner sur L’Herbe, a 3D take on Edouard Manet’s famous painting. If asked to name a favourite work from the garden, I would choose Cornwall Slate Line by land artist Richard Long, which runs parallel with the Canal Pond. Not far away Dame Elisabeth Frink’s Walking Madonna strides through a grove of trees.

The family’s dogs appear in several sculptures nearer the house, faithful hounds keeping watch or assembling on the steps leading to the north front with its Ionic capitalised pilasters and windows framed in gold leaf. A frieze above the windows features coiled serpents, part of the Cavendish family crest. This motif is picked out in a pebble mosaic on the terrace near the 3rd Duke’s greenhouse, reminding me of the two dachshunds, Canna and Dahlia, immortalised in similar fashion in the Walled Garden at Great Dixter.

Classical statuary also abounds in the gardens, reminding me that this place has been a treasure house of art for many centuries. More mundane perhaps, but elegant in its own way, is the weather station on the Salisbury Lawns near the Broad Walk where temperature, rainfall and hours of sunshine are recorded and reported to the Met Office.

I shall leave you here with a final image from my memorable visit to Chatsworth, Flora’s Temple decorated for Christmas.

Well, not quite the last image. The finger post pointing the way to Chatsworth marked my exit in the early evening dark from the park into the village of Baslow where I was staying. It’s also inviting me back one spring or summer to explore further and to see Dan Pearson’s Trout Stream planting and Tom Stuart-Smith’s Arcadia in their full glory.

Kew, 29 December 2021

2 thoughts on “Sculptures and Serpents

    1. Thank you Sian for reading the Chatsworth post and for the link to Thompsons. I love reading your posts. I hope all is well with you and you’re still enjoying volunteering in the city garden, I’m afraid I’ve forgotten exactly where it is. I’m still volunteering at Osterley in the garden once a week and the rest of the time I am doing local gardening maintenance. Resting at home this week with Covid, which is a bore but making me take a break!

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