Christmas at Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire

Robert Innes-Smith has a preview of the openings and tours of this intriguing house over the Christmas period

Christmas is not only an important Christian festival to rejoice in the birth of Christ but it also incorporates the Saturnalia – the feasting and drinking of pagan times.

At Christmas we look back nostalgically and what better place to experience that glow of Christmas past than to visit Renishaw Hall in North Derbyshire? The rooms, great and small, are bright with decorations and huge Christmas trees shining with myriad twinkling lights.

Here in this great house, still in the hands of the family which has lived here for centuries, all is set for a Victorian Christmas, only awaiting the arrival of the family, their guests and their servants. However cold outside, Renishaw is a warm house within thanks to Penelope Lady Sitwell and the late Sir Reresby Sitwell who, on inheriting the estate in mid-winter, were sometimes obliged to sit in a warm car rather than freeze inside! None of that now. In the 1950s there was no electricity and everything had become run down but the Sitwells have transformed the Renishaw of that time to its present friendly and elegant state. It probably looks better now than it has ever looked since completion in 1625.

Renishaw stands for the very best in country living. It is the centrepiece of a very well-run agricultural estate; the family still live in the great house and love it and, thanks to the late Sir George and the present Penelope Lady Sitwell, n�e Forbes, a granddaughter of the 7th Earl of Granard, the gardens rank among the finest in Britain.

Of course, as in all such places, it is the family which makes the whole thing tick. Whether, over the generations, they be gamblers, drinkers, eccentrics or black sheep these are far outweighed by the sensible squires, the dedicated landowners; the careful custodians of their heritage and fair and kindly landlords. It the case of the Sitwells there is another dimension – a literary one. Who has not heard of Dame Edith the poet and her brothers Sir Osbert, one of the greatest literary figures of the 20th century, and Sir Sacheverell whose literary output of prose, poetry and travel books was prodigious?

This started with their father, Sir George Sitwell, 4th Baronet, immortalised as an eccentric in his elder son’s autobiogrphy Left Hand! Right Hand! Sir George was actually a formidable scholar deeply in love with the Middle Ages and writing esoteric monographs. His greatest achievement was the creation of the famous garden at Renishaw. He spent a lot of his time in Italy and owned a vast house in Tuscany called Castello di Montegufoni. Sir George based his English garden on Italian style and was author of On the Making of Gardens.

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Throughout the tour of the house reminders of the family are everywhere – the famous portrait of the Sitwell children by John Singleton Copley (1737-1815) in the Dining Room and its companion piece in the Great Drawing Room by John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), commissioned by Sir George, of himself and his family. The guides have stories about these and many other exhibits but it would rather spoil the fun to reveal them now.

Visitors see, among other rooms,he entrance hall with its many pictures by John Piper; the grand staircase hung with equestrian paintings by J.F. Herring who worked in the stables; the Smoke Room which displays a large portrait of Sir Reresby and Lady Sitwell painted for their silver wedding, and Sir Reresby’s proud acquisition – Robin Hood’s bow; the Library; the enormous Great Drawing Room (with blazing fire) containing the Sargent, a famous piece of furniture and portraits of Penelope Lady Sitwell by Molly Bishop and Sir Osbert in later life by James Fosburgh. The even larger Ballroom was built by Sir Sitwell Sitwell to entertain the Prince Regent and his daughter Princess Charlotte (‘Prinny’ enjoyed himself so much he made his host a baronet on the spot); the spectacular Dining Room all set for a huge family dinner with fine porcelain and silver and, finally, the Kitchen which contains many relics of the days when it was full of busy staff looking after the family, together with their many guests accompanied by nannies, governesses, valets and maids. 

On the day of my visit I noticed at the base of a large fireplace a small display on a plate which looked as if someone had put down their glass of wine and nibbles and forgotten them. I overheard one of the visitors asking jocularly ‘Is this supposed to be a bit of modern art then?’ ‘No’ said his companion ‘that’s for Santa you daft beggar!’

Through the windows, even in deep winter, the garden looks spectacularly serene and beautiful with seemingly infinite vistas. It is difficult to believe that the great metropolis of Sheffield is but a few miles away.

In his youth Sir Osbert remembered Christmases at Renishaw and wrote a wonderfully evocative article called ‘A Bunch of Snowdrops’. In it he mentions poinsettias and they still feature in the decor of many of these rooms.

To visit this magical house is to feel the hand of history. Renishaw has for many years been a cynosure of the literary and artistic world of the 20th century and is mentioned in countless biograpies and autobiographies. Here came Evelyn Waugh, Sir William Walton, John Piper, Oscar Wilde’s friend Ada Leveson, Rex Whistler, Peter Quennell, Lord Berners, Cecil Beaton, Walter Sickert, Constant Lambert and many more.

Now a new generation has taken over. The baronetcy was inherited by George Sitwell, the son of Sir Reresby’s brother Francis and the new Sir George and his wife live in Northamptonshire. Alexandra, Mrs Rick Hayward, is the only child of the late Sir Reresby and Penelope Lady Sitwell. She is married to the son of Sir Jack Hayward and Renishaw is now their home. The Haywards have a son, Bertie, and a daughter Rosie, so a continuing line of this remarkable family is living in Templum hoc artium et musarum (‘This temple of Arts and the Muses’).

The late Sir Reresby and his wife Penelope spent decades in restoring both the house and gardens to their present standards and, with the help of their faithful and dedicated staff, keeping up the old standards of entertaining. The spirit of Sir Reresby, a formidable Sitwell in his own right, still pervades Renishaw, which is still the comfortable family home of his successors.

A visit here at Christmas is an experience never to be forgotten.           8th – 19th December Family Film Festival; Christmas Hall Tours (include mulled wine or soft drink and mince pie or Christmas treat)General tours at 2.30pm  on 8th, 14th, 16th, 17th December.Christmas Entertainment: 9th Sonara, Ladies Choir 7.45pm �12; 10th Dec Nick Fletcher, Classical Guitarist; 11th Music � la Carte, operatic trio; 14th Cheese and Sparkling Wine evening; 15th Wild Orchid - tall tale telling; 16th Robin Hood in Pantomime;17th Abbeydale Singers; 18th Escafeld Quartet

Sundays 12th and 19th December, 10am-4.30pm Victorian Market – an extravaganza for Christmas, with ghost stories, Dickensian characters, speciality food stalls and Christmas gifts and fare. Prebooking recommended. For details telephone: 01246 432310.

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