Back To Chatsworth And A Bad Case Of Over-gilding?

I promised some interior views of Chatsworth. So here they are – not easily taken I might add, what with much penumbral gloom and spot lights where the camera least wanted them. But you will get the idea.

Much of what you will see was the work of the 4th-Earl-made-1st-Duke by the imported protestant regime changees, William and Mary, at the end of the 17th century. The earl certainly forked out for his dukedom. First among his creations to welcome the new monarchs is the Painted Hall. It replaced the original Elizabethan Great Hall, its walls adorned with scenes from the life of Julius Caesar. (Painted by Louis Laguerre who had the Sun King Louis XIV for a godparent.)  It seems the intention was to flatter William III, although it is suggested the included scene of Caesar’s murder was a hint for him not to overstep the mark.




The next glimpse is of The Chapel built between 1688 and 1693, and little changed since then apart from the addition of Damien Hirst’s creation of St Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain – upon which I pass no comment other than to say that the Devonshires continue to take pride in the commissioning of contemporary art for the house. On a general note though, the chapel struck me as a touch lacking in what one might expect of Protestant self-restraint.




And now for a few hints of grandeur from the State Apartment with its drawing and withdrawing rooms and state bedchamber and closet – all laid on for the monarchs’ great good comfort, with the exception of the gilded leather wall covering (next photo) which was added much later by the 6th Duke during a redecorating spree. (Apologies for the spotlight flares).





By now I’m overstuffed with the extravagance, and we’ve not even looked properly at the art piled up in every room or reached the Library:



And then there’s still the Great Dining Room to see. It is being set out for a grand private banquet on the day of our visit. The guide book says that until 1939 and the outbreak of war, this room was used by the family whenever there were more than six to dine. A thirteen-year old Princess Victoria also enjoyed her first grown up dinner here. To ensure nothing went wrong, her host, the 6th Duke, ordered a fully cooked banquet dress rehearsal the day before.

As we gawp passingly at the 6th Duke’s silver (the surtout de table  commissioned from silversmiths Paul Storr and Robert Garrard) I am amused to see two women pressing the damask cloth’s long skirts over their respective ironing boards.



But now for the case of gross over-gilding that caused me much mental frothing at the mouth. Way back in the Chapel Corridor that I haven’t shown you, and where artworks from 4 millennia are displayed, I happened on some notices attached to the windows. They referred to the £32 millions’ worth of renovations carried out at Chatsworth over the last decade.

This is what the current Duke, Peregrine known as Stoker’ has to say of one particular restoration venture – the breathtakingly expensive (demented?) gilding of exterior window frames:


And this is what the gilder had to say:


And here’s a segment of the finished product:


And here’s what was running through my head: What are we doing here, encouraging these people, and paying £21 each, plus parking fee, for the doubtful privilege of witnessing this ludicrous waste of money when an artist’s impression of how the windows once looked would have done just as well?

So: we were more than a bit aggravated after the two-hour-trek wherein we only scratched the surface of the opulence on show, and were further forced to grit our teeth as we were allowed to view the family’s still much used cosy salon, a room where one whole wall was taken up depicting The Rape of the Sabine Women.

Yet it wasn’t all overbearing. There were some things in the ducal collection I did like – Lucien Freud’s portraits of the late duke and duchess, a Clarice Cliff coffee pot, some earthy ceramics, the name of whose maker I could not find, the Cornelis de Vos portrait of his daughter, a monster sized foot belonging to a 3,000 year old Greek goddess, Barry Flanagan’s Leaping Hare in the Inner Court, the silk wall covering in the Duke of Wellington’s bedroom and a fossil fern. And then there was the very nice man, rather surprisingly playing Eric Coates compositions in the Ante Library. He told us the composer was much undervalued:

But the undoubted prize for self-regarding humbug has to go – not to the artist Jacob van der Beugel for his extraordinary creation and execution, but to the Cavendish conception of the work in the North Sketch Gallery. The whole corridor is installed with 659 ochre ceramic panels that provide, in abstract form, portraits of the present duke and duchess and their son and his wife, Lord and Lady Burlington. The portraits’ composition derives from the mitochondrial DNA sequences taken in swabs from each of the four individuals.  A fifth portrait depicts Everyman, showing the DNA common to all of us. Meanwhile interspersed mirrors allow passing (in our case bemused) visitors to place themselves fleetingly amongst these family ‘portraits’. The whole is described as ‘the most significant single art installation at Chatsworth since the creation of the 6th Duke’s Sculpture Gallery in 1832.’

Or an ill conceived stab at faux inclusiveness?


Phew. Enough already. Time to take a break and go out into the garden – more of which another time.

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

46 thoughts on “Back To Chatsworth And A Bad Case Of Over-gilding?

    1. Well it certainly provided work for a large numbers of masons and cabinet makers etc in the past, and the guilds of masons etc did wield a certain amount of power. I’m sure too some artists made a reasonable living under systems of patronage. Also the more recent restoration work will have enabled a few master craftsmen to carry on the kinds of specialist trade that have otherwise been dying out.

  1. Amidst the over-gilding and insanely bad taste of the too rich, there are items of beauty. When I was a kid, I used to admire that stuff. I was maybe 11 or 12 and then I changed. As we struggle to figure out how to keep our hospitals open and somehow find enough staff to take care of sick people, I get very creeped out by the insanity of the rich, richer, and richest people on earth. The older I get, the more uncomfortable I feel about super wealth and how it is the bottom line destroyer of my world. I want to admire beauty — but so much of that isn’t beauty. It’s just excess. Meltdown a golden statue and build a nice little hospital in a rural area where people so desperately need one. For that matter, help a few struggling farmers!

    I know I sound pompous, but it is painful to see so much excess in a world where so many of us barely get from month to month and pray we’ll make it one MORE month.

    1. I agree with every word. Excess, quite apart from the pathological greed, and the dreadful waste of resources that could be better used elsewhere by the many, is so inelegant. When I envisaged your nice little hospital created from a melted down trinket, it was like opening a window and letting the fresh air in. It has to be a better way of living.

  2. Thanks for taking me back there, Tish. I remember a rather spectacular Christmas event a couple of years ago. The lovely daughter was with me. I rather preferred the outdoors 😃 xx

  3. I know it should all be very impressive (to nobility), but the fact that my first thought was “thank goodness I don’t have to clean it all!” probably speaks volumes about my standing in society… 😀

  4. I’m gobsmacked! But not really in a good way. Definitely a bad case of over-gilding. The entitlement and ostentatiousness disturbs me. At the same time Some of those rooms look gorgeous and I know I’d enjoy seeing them – but for 21 pounds maybe I’ll just look at your photos 🙂

  5. Okay, the DNA portrait is the height of absurdity. And I have to say, this place is over-the-top, even by my standards, and I love gaudy things. 🙂 I am amazed that the current family would spend such excessive amounts on window frame gilding. If they have enough money for that, I am surprised they turned the property over to the National Trust.

    1. Hi Marie, I do agree with you. Actually the house and its running was transferred to a charitable trust in 1981, so it’s not NT. The present duke and duchess pay rent to the Trust to live in Chatsworth, but in quite a lot of ways the Trust could be called a family business.

  6. Totally gobsmacked Tish. I cannot comprehend the mentality of anyone wanting to live among all that excessive opulence. I would rather live in Matilda….

  7. Oh my goodness. I agree. What a self-aggrandising tosser. Those gilded rooms are impressive, but not beautiful. That money could have made such a difference in another project that many could have benefited from. I hope they live to regret those DNA panels – cringe!!

  8. Although I do appreciate that this sort of wealth does help sustain the arts, and I can’t help but be sickened by such excess. I think Marilyn summed it up best. Thanks for taking us on this eye-opening tour.

    1. I take your point about sustaining the arts, and the Cavendishes certainly make much of this, as did their forebears for different reasons. Still hard to quiet the feelings of discomfort, much as we enjoyed the art installations in the garden.

      1. I get that. There is too much of value that relies on patronage and charity for survival. It just adds to and reinforces the power of the privileged.

  9. How obscene in these difficult times to spend that kind of money on a building and charging those prices to visit. They should be maintaining the house not adding art that’s out of place.

    1. I think the Cavendishes and the Chatsworth Trust are intent on taking the place to new heights. It is a very slick operation, and the place was buzzing with visitors despite all the charges. It was rather giving me a Hello-magazine-on-steroids feeling. Nor do I feel it is an appropriate time to be wallowing in the lavishness of aristocracy – past or present.

  10. Enjoyed your commentary, Tish. The DNA portrait seems a protestation of innocence. Whoever designed the ‘new look’ might have been helpless at the task. Yet for those who visit, there’s much to think about. Can’t really understand why there’s an entry fee. Seems to me it’s an educational institution, and so should open its doors for free.

    1. That’s a very good point, Shimon. As an educational institution (and they make great claims that they are) you might expect it to be free entry. I think the charitable trust status under which is operates allows the family to remain situ, albeit paying rent. And with no risk of paying massive death duties which they have suffered in the past!

  11. Thank you for saying what I’ve often felt after visiting some castle or the Vatican or other temple of overindulgence. After a while it just makes me angry when I think about how extravagantly these people lived compared to the ‘every man’. The imbalance in wealth is staggering and as you pointed out, it is unnecessarily perpetuated 😡

    Having said all that, your photos tell a great story. I appreciate how difficult indoor photography can be. I particularly like the dining room scene. Don’t we all have to climb on the dining room table to clean the candelabras? 😉

    1. The show of wealth is indeed very indigestible, Joanne. These days we tend not see the oligarchs’ loot as it’s all stuffed in the Cayman Islands and other ‘havens’. 32 trillion dollars there in 2011.

  12. Well done. It is a lovely place to visit once, a historical place or else the art would not mingle so well I felt. Money prohibits repeat wanderings but art is static in a moving world. So it is to remember, as well as study at leisure for context and difficulty of transposing elsewhere. That everything is so different and conflicts in the rooms is hard to equate with the pleasure taken on visiting but it worked for me as inspiring and valued class sponsorship of creativity.

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