Uncovering the secrets of Chatsworth House

'Warrior Queen' of Zenobia dress by The House of Worth

'Warrior Queen' of Zenobia dress by The House of Worth - Credit: Archant

Susie Stokoe, Head of textiles at Chatsworth House, offers a guided tour of a very poignant and personal family collection

Re-upholstered Regency sofa

Re-upholstered Regency sofa - Credit: Archant

Glistening on the approach in the early morning sunshine, the ‘Palace of the Peaks’ slowly emerges from an ethereal Summer haze. A scene of majestic beauty with historical significance, Chatsworth House stands proudly amongst the flowing Derbyshire hills.

It is always a pleasure to visit, and today is no exception as I am welcomed by Susie Stokoe for an enviable ‘behind the scenes’ guided tour of the clothing and textiles archives at Chatsworth. As head of the department for the past ten years, Susie along with a dedicated team of experts manage the storage, conservation and restoration of an extensive and very poignant family collection.

Having trained in woven textiles for fashion with a strong skill set in sewing, Susie has a diverse and interesting background; previously creating bespoke soft furnishings and as a weaver, developing a deep understanding of fabric construction. Eventually she retrained in conservation after becoming ‘jaded’ by the disposable nature of design and passionately explains that ‘the object, it’s life, it’s history are bigger than what it looks like, it is not just pretty, it has a life’.

Working closely with a committee that includes the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and Lord and Lady Burlington, her aim is to ‘protect the legacy and integrity’ of historical and contemporary pieces. Over ten years, Susie with her wider team of experts, has planned numerous exciting and logistically demanding exhibitions which, as she explains, have to be carefully and precisely organised.

The Mortlake tapestries, Christ's charge to St Peter post conservation

The Mortlake tapestries, Christ's charge to St Peter post conservation - Credit: Archant

‘We order and prepare mannequins to fit the garments with numerous layers of protective cushioning. Through this demanding practice of protection and made to measure mannequins, the garments will give an interesting insight and accurate representation of the individual and past generations.’

Previous exhibitions have included ‘House Style’, which ambitiously displayed five centuries of Chatsworth fashion. This highly anticipated exhibition demonstrated the diverse collections that form part of the Devonshire family’s historic, and contemporary fashion archives.

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We begin at the historic costume store - originally used to store props from the family theatre and, which Susie explains, once contained the belongings of Major William John Robert ‘Billy’ Cavendish, son of the tenth Duke of Devonshire who tragically died in action during the Second World War.‘The room was locked upon his death, storing many of his clothes and possessions’ says Susie. ‘This remained so until some ten years ago when the current Duke agreed that the room be used for historic clothing storage.’

From 19th Century household livery to an eclectic mix of family clothing, accessories, trunks and Piccadilly hat boxes, this room has become a store to showcase a rich collection of treasured family pieces. This space that once represented such a harrowing event now contains rails of well documented and fastidiously labelled protective garment covers, each listing the uniquely historic item within. These codes in turn create a database of the entire collection – a monumental piece of documentation which Susie, over a period ten years, has been determined to complete and organise - a ‘sweetie box’ of mismatched items into a logical set of recorded contents which stay protected and are stored properly in order to preserve them for future generations.

Gloves belonging to Lady Blanche Cavendish, Countess of Burlington seen in the painting by John Lucas

Gloves belonging to Lady Blanche Cavendish, Countess of Burlington seen in the painting by John Lucas - Credit: Archant

Unfortunately, the influential designs of Duchess Georgiana Cavendish, a prominent fashion icon and wife of the fifth Duke of Devonshire, do not form part of the collection as Susie explains. ‘Her garments would have been made out of very fine and expensive materials, which would have been carefully reused or handed down to her Lady’s maid. Their clothing was a statement of affluence as much as their mistresses; a richly dressed Lady’s maid was an illustration of her mistress’s status and wealth.’

Most recently, in collaboration with the Duchess of Devonshire, Susie has redesigned the guides uniforms, taking inspiration from the historic livery worn by Chatsworth’s footmen in the early 20th Century - demonstrating the importance of conserving a significant historic collection.

This store also includes a number of key pieces which have been worn for more recent family occasions; ‘Christening gowns dating back many years have been re-worn by the family and perhaps the coronets will be worn for a future state occasion’, Susie anticipates.

Next, through a labyrinth of corridors, we enter the contemporary fashion collection, which has recently been carefully organised to house a private collection of personal and iconic family pieces. Chatsworth is, Susie suggests, a ‘living, breathing, working house, but ultimately still a family home’.

Lady Blanche painted by John Lucas

Lady Blanche painted by John Lucas - Credit: Archant

Included in this collection are many joyfully extravagant pieces owned by the late Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and notably early millinery by the acclaimed designer Philip Treacy which, as Susie explains, are not only important as iconic fashion pieces, but also ‘provide an insight into the story of a person and their personality’.

As the tour continues, she illustrates that the contemporary fashion store has been part of a series of five-year initiatives to provide an accessible and organised collection. Part of this ‘masterplan’ is an ongoing ambition to form a chronologically organised catalogue of unique textile pieces, including soft furnishings dating back to the 19th Century.

Eventually, these will become part of a valuable working archive of which designers can access original pieces to use for inspiration in contemporary textile design. This archive will also form a vital link to date and match many furnishings which have created the exquisite interior design concepts in each room; an example is visible in the library.

‘We found a 19th Century piece of cloth which matched a coloured illustration by William Henry Hunt from 1822 of the saloon at Devonshire House, in London, depicting the furniture commissioned by the sixth Duke of Devonshire,’ explains Susie. This astonishing find enabled an accurate reproduction of the cloth to be manufactured by skilled English textile experts matching the original design.

Original 19th Century furniture cloth

Original 19th Century furniture cloth - Credit: Archant

A striking sapphire blue and golden yellow decadent floral design is visible in the library today as beautiful chair coverings on a suite of furniture that form a centre piece for the Devonshire family to admire and enjoy. Framing the windows of the library, and part of the series of five-year initiatives, hang a series of ornate and heavily embellished floral curtains which were not always intended for this purpose. ‘The sixth Duke originally used the fabric as walling cloth to line the drawing room,’ explains Susie. ‘However, he didn’t like its appearance so instead had the cloth made into curtains.’

Over time, the curtains have unfortunately deteriorated and are currently being painstakingly conserved by hand through the dedicated and immensely talented sewing skills of Marie White - a dexterity, we concur, which is a not only a passion, but a natural intuition. ‘You have to have a respect and love for the object and a joy for the craft,’ Susie insists.

The curtains are one of many examples of textile corrosion - part of the constant challenges caused through a variety of environmental factors, including humidity, light, pollutants and pests which are controlled and maintained with speed and proactivity.

In order to protect the collection, many processes of restoration and conservation are employed, which, explains Susie, are done ethically and sensitively. ‘Restoring an object to an original appearance will involve sourcing and recreating like-for-like materials whilst conservation protects and maintains the strength of an item through careful conservation treatments and storage conditions. It is a conservator’s role to make an item safe, not to eradicate it’s history – it is complicated and has to be ethically managed.’

Venetian seventeenth century 'Point de Neige' lace

Venetian seventeenth century 'Point de Neige' lace - Credit: Archant

Interestingly, in keeping with the family’s desire to continuously enhance the visitor experience at Chatsworth, Susie will be leading ‘live conservation’ in the State Drawing room and will answer questions whilst working on the conservation of an 18th Century Axminster carpet. ‘Many people view carpets as two-dimensional,’ says Susie. ‘But carpets with a pile are actually very much three-dimensional pieces sometimes designed to echo important design features in a room.’

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We pause in the dining room to study an example of this theory, Susie noting the ‘floral motifs in the corners of the carpet echo the ceiling’.

One of the most challenging examples of conservation has been the 17th Century ‘Mortlake Tapestries’; an important group of English tapestries based on Renaissance artist Raphael’s designs for a set known as The Acts of the Apostles. This extensive project, as Susie proudly explains, will be her lasting ‘legacy’ and will be preserved for the foreseeable future.

Unexpectantly, during conservation, the tapestries revealed surprising evidence of Chatsworth’s mischievous past occupants. ‘We found Cadbury chocolate wrappers had been inserted behind the tapestries through a slit. These were sent to the manufacturer and dated as early Second World War - the only logical explanation was that the Penrhos school girls who used the rooms as dormitories during the war had attempted to conceal their midnight feast. Unfortunately, we found the wrappers soon after a Penrhos reunion; I wanted to be the headmistress and wave them in the air to say – ‘and whose are these!’’ Susie exclaims jokingly with an arm gesture.

The Cadbury chocolate bars are one example of many surprising finds which are often discovered in unusual places or through conservation projects. A day before visiting the archives, concealed in a drawer, an extremely rare piece of Venetian 17th Century lace had been discovered, which it is believed had belonged to Christian Bruce – wife of the second Earl of Devonshire. Astonishingly, this beautifully intricate lace is one of the oldest items in the Chatsworth textiles archives. When asked what future objects Susie wishes to discover at Chatsworth, she replies: ‘I would want to find the documentation to support an object, to give it provenance’. Wonderfully unpredictable and found in the most unusual places, the lace is just one example of many extraordinary finds which can happen most unexpectantly.

One of the most valuable items of clothing which Susie describes as the ‘jewel’ of the collection is an elaborately embellished gown that glistens with thousands of tiny silver sequins which flourish into a stunning array of beaded peacock feathers. Designed as fancy dress to represent the ‘Warrior Queen’ of Zenobia by The House of Worth – one of the first couturiers in Paris; this was worn in 1897 by Louisa Cavendish, the ‘Double’ Duchess of Devonshire at the Devonshire House Fancy Dress Ball to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Susie imagines how this would have ‘sparkled in the candlelight’ and that she would have been ‘the belle of the ball’.

Consequently, we discuss the ‘value’ of objects in the collection – notably this is not primarily determined by beautiful design aesthetics as displayed in the embellished ‘Queen of Zenobia’ gown, as Susie explains. ‘Billy Burlington’s army coat had dirt on the inside of the collar, he may have worn this soon before he died - this is personal, this story has value, these garments keep his humanity alive.’

Discussing this with Susie, I understand that the archives at Chatsworth House reveal a very special and unique connection between object and wearer. This concept is illustrated perfectly through a painting which had previously been in conservation and depicts Lady Blanche, niece of the sixth Duke of Devonshire who tragically died aged 28 years, sensitively painted with a distinctive pair of delicate cream lace edged gloves. Blanche is holding one glove whilst wearing the other, which Susie poignantly explains is a symbol of a posthumous work of art.

‘We found a box of gloves which had the exact design and matched the gloves in the painting; these gloves tell a story, they are not just old gloves, this is very touching and gives me a shiver. There is something very personal about clothing that’s been next to the skin, that someone has worn – it’s where my role becomes a complete privilege.’

Sharing this sentiment, I leave Chatsworth House, leisurely meandering through grounds of sweeping Derbyshire countryside; the morning haze has lifted and the ‘Palace of the Peaks’ glistens in a piercing summer sunshine.

For more information, visit www.chatsworth.org.

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