A look at the ten year project to renovate Chatsworth House
- Credit: Archant
Chatsworth reopened in March having completed a 10-year programme of restoration and conservation that sees it restored to its full glory, inside and out. Pat Ashworth reports on the opening exhibition that reveals how the work has taken place
THERE’s nothing like that first glimpse of Chatsworth House as you round the curve in the road and come upon it in its full glory – especially on a day bathed in sunshine, when the stone visibly warms into life and the gold leaf on the windows flashes like fire.
In the Duke of Devonshire’s view, the house was always meant to be ‘showy-offy’ and ‘blingy’, and now, after the ambitious 10-year programme of works that has been the Masterplan, the scaffolding is down and the enormous scope of what has been done is revealed. It’s the biggest restoration and conservation of the house, garden and park since the 1820s: nothing short of a complete renewal of the infrastructure, including the cleaning and replacement of stonework across the whole exterior of the 300-room house.
They could have revealed it and simply invited visitors to stand back and admire. But that’s never been the Chatsworth way. People have always mattered here, and while the transformation itself is important, the opening exhibition, Chatsworth Renewed, is a celebration of the men and women who have used their traditional skills to bring about that transformation. ‘We’ve called it Chatsworth Renewed – not Chatsworth Restored or Chatsworth Repaired – because it feels revitalised,’ says Anna Farthing, creative producer of the exhibition. ‘It’s got its youth and vigour back. This old house isn’t old. This old house is young, really young and ready to come out and go to its first ball.’
Workmen over the centuries here have left their mark and their messages in the fabric of the building: the hard winter of 1841 finds S Walker, a joiner from Pilsley, scribbling down on a plank of wood the weather, the price of flour, the level of unemployment and the ‘Tory rascals’, but praising ‘our Duke for feeding us over the winter.’ The tradition persists into the 21st century. Edward Totty, who came here as an apprentice in the 1980s and was allowed to emblazon his name into some lead work on the roof, is now back, 30 years on, still working on the lead but now as a sub-contractor. Many former apprentices have risen through the ranks and family members have followed one another into the trades.
‘The staff working on the project here have a strong affection for and commitment to the work they have done. They know they have left a legacy,’ says Diane Naylor, who has worked at Chatsworth in one capacity or another since 1984. She has photographed the progress of the work every week for a decade, donning hard hat, high-vis vest and steel-capped boots and going wherever the contractors have had something to reveal. Her work has resulted in over 14,000 images: a legacy of her own and of which she is rightly proud.
There are extensive and marvellous archives here, of course, from the First Duke seeking expert advice from Sir Christopher Wren, to instructions for the building of the Belvedere or the Great Greenhouse. ‘What Diane has done in the last 10 years is create an archive which will be historically significant in 500 years’ time, and on the cusp between the digital and the material,’ Anna reflects. She marvels at the way knowledge here is generally handed down from person to person – sometimes to the point of bafflement. ‘You’ll find something like an enormous key. Nobody knows what it fits but everybody knows it’s really important because somebody said so… What everybody here knows about the who and the why and the where is not in a manual or a policy document or even in a file. It’s in someone’s head.’
The way of doing things at Chatsworth has not changed a great deal, she observes, since craftsmanship is very much about detail. ‘Normal building work is about tolerances and give and take, but they don’t do that here – they have everything delivered and cut on site to fit. They use dentistry tools to do the pointing between stones because it’s only two millimetres.’ Those tools, on exhibition, will help to reveal a story which is very much not about facts and figures, but about people, craftsmanship, skills, passion and commitment – ‘the fact that they know their work is going to be here for a very long time and therefore it’s worth doing it well.
‘They’ll pick up a floorboard, see the quality of the work underneath and feel honour bound to do the best work they possibly can, even though the floorboard will go back and nobody will ever see it until the next tradesman comes along in 100 years’ time. It’s because the person before did, and they are part of that story. It’s very moving.’
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The architect, Peter Inskip, and the archaeologist, Oliver Jessop, have encouraged the workforce to leave their own archaeology for the future, whether that’s a newspaper slipped in somewhere or a name carved who knows where. Leaving traces and passing on messages for the future is very much what the Chatsworth Renewed exhibition is about, what Anna and the team describe as ‘looking through, looking beyond what you find to what’s underneath.’
So visitors are encouraged to bring a pocket torch to examine detail such as that on view in the Chapel Corridor, where a flagstone has been taken up and temporarily replaced with a glass surface. All the wiring and piping is visible: a display of artistry and craftsmanship in itself, a thing of beauty and source of pride – even under the floor. ‘We want people to feel they can have a really good look, because so much of this work is deliberately invisible. The people who do it want it to disappear into the fabric of the house. Next year, you won’t be able to see any of this: it will all have melded in,’ Anna says.
A team of people at Chatsworth has been working on the design and placement of the exhibition, including Charles Noble, the Keeper of Fine Art; Aidan Haley, the Archivist; and artist, Susie Stokoe, who designs Christmas at Chatsworth. Anna, an exhibition creator, was brought in to work with the team and to be what she calls, ‘a fresh pair of eyes. I’m in the position of a visitor who is going to be stunned by the Painted Hall and by the scale and the shine and the bling… and then try and encourage people to see the work and the skill and the care that’s gone into it.
‘So we’re not putting anything between the visitor and the house. This isn’t about text panels, it’s very much “look through, look beyond, look under”. We’ll be writing on window glass, we’ll be writing on perspex, and in so far as we use any words at all, it’s with as few explanations as possible. We’ll use the words of the people who’ve done the work.’
The exhibition also celebrates the ongoing work of the staff who look after the house. They have been asked to donate objects that they would like to leave behind in a collectors’ cabinet: the contribution of the Housekeeping team includes a knitted ‘Henry’ hoover, two Christmas tree light bulbs and a small tin of polish.
A selection of Diane’s photographs of the restoration work, together with others in the collection, is the basis of a gem of a small volume, The Little Book of Chatsworth, which will be available at the exhibition. She marvels at the detail of what she has observed, and at the problem-solving: the goats’ hair mixed into plaster for lath and plaster walls; the billhooks used to make slivers of timber; the cobbled pavement discovered under the slabs on the West Front; the little trumpets of stone formed by the eroding wind vortex on the sandstone walls in front of the Lodge; the 17th century armorial trophies on the First Duke’s house, on which present-day stonemasons who were in the Armed Forces have been allowed to carve their own symbols of war.
And nothing has stood still here. ‘Take the North Sketch Gallery – it’s a long, thin gallery now but that space was a series of housekeeping rooms and offices, a laundry, a mess room… All those partitions have gone,’ she remembers. Anna agrees. ‘That’s the real difference. This is not a house that’s preserved in aspic. It’s a historic house, yes, but it’s not a house that’s just about history. The family have been collecting contemporary art for about 500 years – so when the Sixth Duke was collecting white marble statues, everyone thought that was crazy modern art.
‘They’re always ahead of the curve. It’s a very contemporary and confident choice of things – like the Duke deciding to re-gild the windows. It’s entirely historically justified in that it’s what the First Duke had, and as he’s said, some people might find it vulgar, but the house is supposed to be a showcase. It was never designed to be subtle and duck-egg and fusty. It’s absolutely not beige.’
There has been euphoria as each stage of the scaffolding has come down. At one point, with two sides of the house entirely encased in scaffolding and white cloth, it resembled nothing less than a sugar lump. ‘That white cloth was like bandaging and the house is now healed,’ Anna says with satisfaction. All the new stone used for repairs has come from the same, specially re-opened quarry that provided the stone for the building of the North Wing in the 1820s.
And just as in any domestic building project, the work on the outside has triggered work on the inside: when things have to be moved or taken down, ‘you may as well sort it before you put it back,’ Diane comments. Areas of the house have been re-modelled or re-presented and there has been much restoration of furniture and upholstery. The rare and precious Mortlake Tapestries from the 1630s, based on Raphael cartoons of Acts of the Apostles, represent the birth of the English tapestry industry. Damaged by atmospheric pollution in the 19th and 20th centuries, they have undergone significant restoration and will be hung together on 54 square metres of wall in the State Drawing Room.
The work has cost over £32 million, all of it from the Chatsworth House Trust set up by the Eleventh Duke in 1981 to ensure the long-term survival of the house and collection. Since 1949, the entrance money paid by more than 25 million visitors has made a vital contribution to the maintenance of the house and garden. ‘It’s really important that people come and enjoy it and make that financial contribution, because without it, the house couldn’t continue,’ Diane concludes. ‘Everyone here is resolved to make it last for the next 500 years.’
View www.chatsworth.org for details of visiting times
Photographs: © Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth.
Reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees