For history buffs, art lovers and fashionistas, a visit to Chatsworth in the UK’s Peak District is well worth the trip …
If you haven’t been to Chatsworth, in England’s Peak District, you may well know the showboat estate from one of its many appearances on film, for the house is a Hollywood star in its own right. The so-called “Palace of the Peaks” has been the backdrop to the BBC drama, Death at Pemberley (2013), The Wolfman, (2010) starring Anthony Hopkins, The Duchess, (2008) in which Kiera Knightley excelled and, of course, Pride and Prejudice (2008) also starring Ms Knightley. For the record, it was Lyme Park in Cheshire that was the home of Mr Darcy as portrayed by Colin Firth in the 1995 television series of the same film. One the UK’s most popular attractions, Chatsworth, is part of a trio of stately homes, together with Blenheim and Castle Howard, American visitors particularly love to visit and quite rightly so; there is much to swoon over.
Built in the neo-Renaissance style of a French chateau, in 1549, it comprises some 300 rooms of which 30 are open to the public. The baroque interiors and diverse art collection (comprising Gainsborough, Rembrandt, Reynolds, Freud and Da Vinci) is also a thriving commercial venture and serves as the home of the Cavendish family and the dukes of Devonshire; it is the 11th Duke of Devonshire and his wife who are the present incumbents.
Eagle-eyed fashionistas will know Alessandro Michele, an ardent anglophile, chose Chatsworth as the location for the Gucci Cruise collection in 2017, starring Vanessa Redgrave. The advertising campaign was part of a three-year cultural initiative co-signed between Gucci and Chatsworth and gave us a tantalising glimpse at the eclectic house style; one part inherited heirlooms, two parts an aesthetic mash-up reflecting the generations of owners. This is the English style par excellence; that interiors genre propagated by decorating doyennes Nancy Lancaster and Sybil Colefax, which combines comfort, creativity and class. Michele says of the house, “Chatsworth is unlike anywhere else in the world. A place of charm, history and rituals. It is a piece of England, of Europe and the contemporary world, all at the same time. You can see history everywhere, yet everything is alive.”
Arguably it is Chatsworth (rather than Buckingham Palace) that has been home to the most gossiped-about and glamorous women of the last 500 years. The cast of characters includes Nancy Mitford, Adele Astaire, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, Deborah “Debo” Devonshire and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the latter known as “the empress of fashion” in the 18th century. Their style and eccentricity was brought to life in an exhibition entitled “House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion At Chatsworth”, in 2017.
Curated by Hamish Bowles, international editor-at-large at American Vogue, the exhibition took six years to research and featured ballgowns, uniforms, livery, tiaras and christening outfits in a layering of art history, fashion, textiles and design. Clearly Bowles, who collects couture, had a ball, “To be let loose in the wardrobe rooms, the gold vaults, the muniment room, and the closets, cupboards and attics of Chatsworth in search of sartorial treasures has been a dream come true for me.” He edited the accompanying book, published by Rizzoli, that has a foreword by the Duke of Devonshire and his daughter (and editor), the Countess of Burlington. The book includes photographs by Cecil Beaton, Bruce Weber, Steven Meisel, Tim Walker, Ellen von Unwerth and many unseen family pictures from the Devonshire albums.
This imposing house did nothing to diminish its female inhabitants who were all high-spirited style icons. The late Debo Devonshire was its most endearing with her love of insect-inspired jewellery, Elvis and hens (as channelled in the Gucci adverts). In her book All in One Basket, Nest Eggs by Deborah Devonshire, she recounted, “At Chatsworth, clothes were hung far into a cupboard the size of an ordinary room in any normal house. Some French numbers of the 1950s and 1960s still hold their own in any company; quality incomparable; style timeless …”
The Duke of Devonshire’s estate in Ireland is Lismore Castle in Co Waterford – and part of his impressive library at Chatsworth is a section on the history of Ireland. It was Charlotte Boyle who brought Lismore into the family when she married the 4th Duke and her portrait is on the visitor route. Spencer Compton, the 8th Duke, was Lieutenant of Waterford and some of his regalia is included in the exhibition. Ditto Adele Astaire, sister and dance partner of Fred (pictured), who married into the family in 1932 when she wed Lord Charles Cavendish. As chatelaine of Lismore, Adele developed an interest in Irish crafts and was extremely stylish herself.
While Chatsworth has played host to royalty and the social elite, perhaps the most poignant visitor was President John F Kennedy. When he visited Ireland in 1963 he flew from Shannon to Chatsworth (en route to a meeting in London) for a fleeting private visit. His mission – to visit the grave of his sister Kathleen who had been married to Billy, Marquess of Hartington, heir of the 10th Duke of Devonshire. (A gold locket that “Kick” gave to Billy’s mother is included in the memorabilia). JFK had taken flowers from Ireland and was the first person from his family to visit his sister’s grave after she had been killed in a plane crash with her partner Peter Fitzwilliam. Her gravestone poignantly reads, “She gave joy and has found joy”.
As for the grounds of Chatsworth, (landscaped by Capability Brown), they are the setting for the current exhibition “Radical Horizons: The Art of the Burning Man”, taking place until October 9. This sees twelve monumental sculptures from Burning Man, held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, transplanted to Chatsworth and continues the tradition of using the estate as a backdrop for contemporary works. Visitors also have a chance to see the exhibition, “Living with Art We Love,” in which the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire share some of their favourite artworks for the first time. These include paintings, sculpture, furniture, ceramics, and textiles. Contemporary artworks by Edmund de Waal, Natasha Daintry and Felicity Aylieff are presented with a special section – “Freud at Chatsworth” dedicated to Lucian Freud, in this his centenary year.
Where to Stay: The Peacock at Rowsley, Matlock, Derbyshire
This boutique hotel is a chic base for exploring the Peak District – both Haddon Hall and Chatsworth House are short drives away offers and the hotel offers discounted entry to both Chatsworth House and Haddon Hall. The décor in rooms and communal areas is a perfect blend of traditional manor house with a modern twist. There are only 15 rooms which mix antique furniture with marble bathrooms (with Miller Harris toiletries). On site is a slightly formal restaurant headed by chef Dan Smith (who trained with Tom Aikens) and a more casual and cosy bar. Must-visits include the pretty village of Edensor (pronounced Ensor) where you’ll find Edensor Tea Cottage. A mile from Rowsley in Beeley, another Chatsworth Estate village, is the Devonshire Arms, a traditional pub with log fires, fish suppers and vegetarian food.; www.smithhotels.com
Need to Know: Aer Lingus has two flights to Leeds Bradford daily, which is about 30km from Chatsworth; www.chatsworth.org.