I first came across Chatsworth House while reading David Cannadine’s The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy and when I moved to the UK to do a postgraduate degree at the University of Manchester, one of the things on my list was to visit Chatsworth – which I finally did in 2006. I enjoyed my day trip so much that I resolved to return which I did in May this year, nearly 11 years after my first visit.
Known as the “Palace in the Peak” owing to its location and grandeur, Chatsworth House has been lived in by members of the Cavendish family since the sixteenth century. The present house stands on an earlier structure built by the formidable Elizabeth Hardwick (also known as “Bess of Hardwick”) and her second husband Sir William Cavendish and since then it has been the home of the Earls – later Dukes – of Devonshire and their family. Nothing much is left of the original Elizabethan structure and what took its place can be considered as one of the finest Baroque buildings in the country today. As the present Duke and Duchess wrote in their introduction to the visitor’s guidebook, “Chatsworth was built to welcome guests and to be seen” and the house has been open to visitors since the 1600s, welcoming visitors from all over Britain and then from all over the world. One noted visitor was a certain Jane Austen whose visit to Chatsworth would help inspire her best known novel – Pride and Prejudice.
There is so much to see and do at Chatsworth that one day is not enough. There are 30 rooms on the visitor route alone, each of them showcasing stupendous interiors, furniture and objects as well as a collection of art ranging from Old Masters to family portraits done by some of the biggest names in British art and modern and contemporary art collected by both the 11th and 12th dukes. And what has made this year’s visit even more memorable is a special exhibition that has been described as the “most ambitious to date.”
House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth, created and curated by the Countess of Burlington together with Vogue Editor Hamish Bowles looks at the history of the Cavendish family through the prism of fashion, with the exhibition spread throughout the visitor route of the house. Alongside actual clothes worn by various members of the family; there are accessories, jewellery, paintings, photographs, drawings and archival material. Various rooms feature clothes that would have been appropriate for their surroundings; for instance the chapel displays wedding gowns worn by Cavendish brides especially during the last 40 years, as well as christening dresses while the dining room features formal gowns and dresses that have been worn to balls and parties by various members of the family.
There is the wide diversity of fashion on display showing members of the family as trend setters – there is an emphasis on Georgiana wife of the 5th duke who during her lifetime was dubbed the “Empress of Fashion” and whose clothes and hairstyle were eagerly scrutinised and copied by other women. As a political hostess, she used her clothes to make a statement: most notably when she was campaigning for Charles James Fox where she was depicted in caricatures wearing a riding habit with a hat trimmed with blue and buff feathers shaped like a fox’s tail. The message was very clear and her riding habit with its masculine cut can be taken as an attempt to play her part in what was essentially a male sphere.
Several family members were also known for their personal style; Deborah wife to the 11th duke was both at ease with simple practical clothes and grand ball gowns particularly in the 1950s and 1960s when her husband was Lord Mayor of Buxton and a government minister. She was particularly fond of brooches and had a good collection most of them in the shape of insects which she would pin several on a jacket in one go. Andrew on the other hand, kept up with his ancestors’ frugal ways by insisting that his jackets be patched up and shoes be re-heeled and re-soled until they could no longer be worn. Also known for his sense of humour, he had a collection of several navy blue jumpers embroidered with colourful slogans such as “Never Marry A Mitford”, “Bollocks!”, “After All We’ve Been Through” and “Far Better Not”.
Other members of the family developed a reputation for being badly dressed, for instance the 10th duke was described by his one of his daughters-in-law as someone who “wore paper collars, did not possess an overcoat and would stand, oblivious of the weather, in the freezing wind on Chesterfield station in a threadbare London suit” while his cigarettes which he kept in his pockets resulted into blackened holes in his suits “which he would never dream of replacing.” It is no wonder that he was often mistaken as a tramp or a dustman by people who asked him for directions.
Another category of the exhibition features clothes from two members of the family who have worked in the fashion industry, first as models and presently as designers and buyers respectively. Two of the most striking clothes from this selection have been worn by Stella Tennant, the first being a “black wool, bias cut, polo neck dress” designed by Alexander McQueen and worn by Tennant to a British Vogue fashion editorial in 1993; and the other was a gown by John Galliano for Christian Dior created in 1998 and exhibited next to a portrait of Duchess Georgiana by Maria Cosway, showing how much Galliano during his tenure as head designer for Dior was very much influenced by eighteenth century fashions.
As this blog focuses on a particular time frame which spans the years 1870 to 1939, my main interests in the exhibition fell into the third category. These are the clothes associated with the public role of a Duke or Duchess of Devonshire. The centrepiece in the Painted Hall is the embroidered robe worn by both Duchess Evelyn and her daughter-in-law Duchess Mary in their capacity as Mistress of the Robes to the 1911, 1937 and 1953 coronations. Ever thrifty and resourceful, both duchesses had the robe patched up and repaired in 1937 and 1953, the former by recycling ermine from old clothes dating from the Edwardian period. However, the presence of two duchesses in 1953 presented a problem – Duchess Mary would wear the robe used by her mother-in-law but what of Duchess Deborah? In 1953, Britain was exhausted by the Second World War and punitive taxes and death duties meant that the Cavendish family wasn’t immune to the economies being made in order to meet these financial obligations. Ordering a new robe was out of the question but help came from an unlikely source – while rifling through old uniforms and livery that had been kept in storage, Deborah and her mother-in-law found a peeress’ robe that had been made and worn for the coronation of William IV in 1831. Owing to its out of date style which did not conform to the prescription laid out for the robes to be worn by each grade in the peerage, royal permission had to be sought and granted for the robes to be worn. This robe is also on display in the Painted Hall.
The Grotto contains uniforms worn by successive dukes, with the main focus being on the full court dress worn by the 9th duke and the robes of the Order of the Garter worn by successive dukes, the most recent being the 11th duke after being awarded with England’s highest order of chivalry in 1996. Next door along the chapel corridor are accessories, ephemera and photographs used as a time line to chronicle the life and times of the Cavendish family from Bess of Hardwick to the present. Of particular interest to me were Duchess Louise’s embroidered evening bag, a badge bearing Queen Mary’s portrait that denoted Duchess Evelyn’s position as the Queen’s Mistress of the Robes and the frame of the Garter Star belonging to the 8th duke where the stones had been taken to make a diamond tiara for his wife. Again the accessories and ephemera tell us something of the person who owned and has worn them: from the gold locket containing her husband’s photograph that belonged to Kathleen Marchioness of Hartington to the chatelaine that was in Duchess Georgiana’s possession and a pair of slippers embroidered with the image of Elvis Presley that was one of the Duchess Deborah’s treasured objects.
My favourite however has to be the dresses on display worn for the 1897 Devonshire House Ball especially Duchess Louise’s costume as Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. Made by the House of Worth, the gold, ivory and emerald green gauze and velvet gown is a wonder even after 120 years and it was wonderful to see the fine detail and colour of the gown considering I have only seen it previously in black and white photographs.
After going round the exhibition twice, it was time to go for a stroll round the gardens. It had just rained so everything looked even more lush and green. Chatsworth’s gardens like the house are also world renowned and reflects the changing times and fashion with regards to garden designs. Whilst parts of the Baroque gardens survive, much of it today is based on the more naturalistic designs by William Kent and Lancelot “Capability” Brown during the 18th century and Joseph Paxton during the 19th. Since the 1950s when the 11th duke and duchess took up residence at Chatsworth, more improvements and work has gone into the garden and the modern sculpture dotted around were an excellent focal and talking point. The fountains of course are a sight to behold especially with the famous cascade and the Emperor fountain.
Before I knew it, it was nearly time to close and there wasn’t much time to explore the rest of the gardens. A return visit in the near future is certainly on the cards but hopefully I won’t have to wait for another eleven years.
When visited: 19 May 2017
Photos taken by blogger
House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth is on until 22 October 2017 and is included in the admission ticket to the house. For more information, please go to https://www.chatsworth.org/events/house-style/