What do the following famous people have in common: Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Victoria, Tsar Nicholas I, Charles Dickens, King Charles I of Portugal, the Duke of Wellington and Kathleen Kennedy (JFK’s sister)?
One answer (there may be others) is that all have visited Chatsworth. Most of the above were willing guests but not, of course, Mary Queen of Scots who was imprisoned at Chatsworth by Elizabeth I for long periods.
Kathleen Kennedy was a different case altogether. She was married in May 1944 to William Cavendish, Marquis of Hartington, elder son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire. Unfortunately, in September the same year, he was killed in action in Belgium and tragically Kathleen herself died in a plane crash in 1948.
This piece was originally intended to be called A Day Out At Chatsworth House. However, my pictures were taken over more than one day since there is so much to see. In any case, I can show only a small selection of what the house, gardens and estate have to offer, in
The images are taken with my Fuji XT2 and X-T20 and three lenses: the 16mm f/1.4 prime, the 56mm f/1.2 prime and the 50-140mm f/2.8 zoom. The wide-angle 16mm is a first-class lens which is weatherproofed and has served me well. But I am increasingly using the f/2.8 zoom by reason of its flexibility and OIS (optical image stabilisation).
The short telephoto 56mm is a great lens too and, as it shows above, its not just a portrait lens. By general acclaim, all three lenses display excellent image quality, although the primes understandably just get their noses in front.
Among the stately homes of England, it would be difficult to dispute the claims of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire to be considered in the highest rank. In my opinion, it unites the many high qualities demanded of a stately home to a degree scarce rivalled by any other I have visited. It is a claim I hope to justify below.
Despite being relatively isolated in the Derbyshire Dales, Chatsworth attracts over 600,000 visitors a year. It is therefore not only the biggest attraction in a county which also boasts the excellent Haddon Hall (“more glass than wall”) and Hardwick Hall1, but it is also a heavy hitter in the league of all attractions outside London.
My parents first brought my brother and me on a day trip to Chatsworth in the 1950s. As was the case for so many other stately homes, the immediate post-war years were a very difficult time.
Before he died in 1950, the 10th Duke of Devonshire had transferred his assets to his son. Unfortunately, his death occurred just weeks before the date that the requisite tax exemption on these assets could be claimed. Crippling death duties of 80% of the total assets were therefore levied and it took seventeen years to settle the gigantic bill with the Inland Revenue.
Chatsworth was retained in the family only by the narrowest of margins. For reasons I set out below, we are fortunate indeed that Chatsworth has remained in the guardianship of successive Dukes and Duchesses of Devonshire. Why do I hold Chatsworth in such high regard? Let’s look at the highlights.
In the Derbyshire Dales, north-east of Bakewell, the Chatsworth estate is set on the banks of the River Derwent in a flawless location. The house backs onto a steeply wooded hill and looks across to the range of hills between the Derwent and Wyre valleys. The house, gardens, park and woodlands are immaculately tended and sheltered by the surrounding higher ground.
The landscape at Chatsworth was redesigned by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown for the 4th Duke between the late 1750s and 1765. The park covers 1,000 acres and is enclosed by a 15km-long drystone wall and deer fence.
As the Chatsworth website notes: “Chatsworth includes all Brown’s signature features: smooth rolling grassland running up to the house, a natural-looking lake, trees planted singly, or in belts and clumps, particularly on hills, and carriage drives with carefully planned views.
The drive he created at Chatsworth, with falling parkland in the foreground and views of the bridge and the house beyond, backed by steeply rising wooded slopes, is one of the most impressive approaches to a country house in England.”
Investment and future planning
Since the dark days of the post-war period, the Chatsworth House and estate have been renewed and developed as a result of the long term planning and investment by the Dukes and Duchesses of Devonshire.
As one example, the house has only recently completed a ten-year £32m renovation programme, including roof restoration, exterior stonework repair and cleaning, statue and tapestry cleaning and gilding of the windows on the south front with gold leaf. This program was completed in 2018 and the results are frankly amazing.
The good thing is that this forms part of an ongoing long-term plan designed to maintain the house, as well as progressively to bring more rooms into public access. Such a continuing investment programme would have been far beyond the resources available to The National Trust, for example, had the estate passed out of family ownership. The result is that the whole house and estate feel very well looked after and in good hands.
Events and income
The impressive aspect of the way the house and estate are managed is the steady increase in income generated from both traditional events and new attractions. The Chatsworth House year is punctuated by events such as The Christmas Market, the Chatsworth International Horse Trials and the RHS Flower Show, but there are many other lesser occasions.
This cash stream is of course a vital part of ensuring continued investment. It is clearly important that the rise in visitor numbers is managed so that the very attractions they come to see are not degraded. It would be easy to destroy the harmony and unspoilt nature of the whole enterprise. New attractions must inevitably pass a stiff test before they are put into the programme
The Emperor Fountain
In 1843, it was expected that Tsar Nicholas, the Emperor of Russia, would visit Chatsworth in 1844. The then Duke decided to build a fountain for this visit to be even taller than the tallest of the Czar’s fountains at the Peterhof in St Petersburg.
Joseph Paxton was given this task and succeeded in creating a gravity-fed fountain which could reach a height of 90 metres. Unfortunately, the Tsar’s visit did not materialise. Nowadays, the fountain is normally confined to a height of 60 metres and operational hours are restricted in order to conserve the water supply in Emperor Lake, high on the hill behind the house.
Visiting Chatsworth is a great experience for a photographer since the house, the gardens and the estate offer so many opportunities. Derbyshire could not be accused of being short of rain, something which plays its part in making the estate and gardens look fabulously green and fresh.
However, seeing the wonderful local limestone of Chatsworth House glowing in the morning or evening sun is magical indeed. There is so much to be photographed. Although some of this is of course equally applicable to various other country houses, the unique feature of photography at Chatsworth is that there are great shots in almost every direction. The house, gardens and park around the Derwent are easily accessible and all have marvellous panoramic views.
For information I am reproducing part of Chatsworth’s official guidance on photography from their website:
Photography and videography for personal use
iswelcome, howevertripods and lighting equipment may not be used in the house, garden or farmyard and selfie sticks may not be used in the house. Flash photography may also be restricted in the house and drones are not permitted anywhere on the estate. Professional photography is not permitted, and photographs taken on the estate may not be sold or used for any commercial or promotional purpose.
There is a unity about Chatsworth’s place in the countryside. The estate includes several villages including Pilsley, Edensor (pronounced Ensor) and Beeley which essentially belong to and are run by the Estate Trust. This means that the inhabitants are predominantly those who work on the estate or rent their property from the estate. Village development is monitored and in many cases financed by the estate. Building materials and colour schemes are sympathetic and co-ordinated.
The Devonshire Collecton
Chatsworth contains The Devonshire Collection, comprising
- Hundreds of paintings by amongst many others Veronese, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Lucien Freud, Pietro Annigoni, Sir Edwin Landseer
- Sculptures in a large internal gallery, including works by Canova, and externally around the grounds
- Furniture including cabinets by Jensen, royal cabinet maker to four monarchs.
- Silver chandeliers etc
- Ceramics particularly blue and white Delftware made fashionable by the 1st Duke and Duchess who were friends with Queen Mary II (of William and Mary)
- Books – 30,000 in several libraries
- Minerals – a collection started by Duchess Georgiana in the 1780’s
- Tapestries – Many textiles and tapestries which are maintained by their own team of textile conservators.
During the visit to Chatsworth House and gardens, refreshment is definitely required! Fortunately, there are excellent restaurant, buffet and snacking facilities which are mainly concentrated around the stable block close to the house. There is also a first-class farm shop nearby which offers an outstanding range of fresh meat and vegetables from the estate , as well as many other ranges of locally sourced products.
I trust that by now all of you who have not yet visited Chatsworth House and Estate are already making firm plans do so without delay. It is without question worth the journey from anywhere in the UK and indeed from far beyond. When you do go there, you can be sure that Chatsworth House and Estate will cast its unique spell upon you. Prepare to be enchanted.
- Bess of Hardwick 1527 – 1608 married Sir William Cavendish, as her second husband of four, and the pair built Chatsworth House with the money he had made in Henry VIII’s service. ↩