Magazine article History Today

Hardwick Reawakens

Magazine article History Today

Hardwick Reawakens

Article excerpt

Duchess Evelyn, the wife of the 9th Duke of Devonshire, spent fifty years trying to halt the depredations of time at Hardwick Hall, the great Elizabethan house in Derbyshire that her husband inherited in 1908. Her grandchildren remember her repairing the tapestries in the late 1940s; holes or borders that she could not recreate with her needle were patched with rough textured beige repp and the missing pictures miraculously reappeared with the help of pots of paint! `One has to look very closely to distinguish the fake from the original', her daughter recalled.

Keeping the decay at bay in the years since the Duchess , death in 1960 has been an uphill struggle. The fabric of the pale sandstone house is crumbling. Large gaps have appeared at the sides and beneath the enormous windows. Rain runs in rivulets down the walls onto sills, causing pools of water on the floors. Upholstery on the centuries-old chairs and stools needs attention. Tapestries have faded; some are falling apart.

However, the maintenance of Hardwick Hall is no longer the concern of the Cavendishes. Death duties on the estates of his grandfather and father prompted the present Duke of Devonshire to give the house to the nation and in 1959 it came into the care of the National Trust on the understanding that financial responsibility for the repair of the fabric, conservation of contents and the operating deficit was accepted by the Government. With resources that have been rapidly dwindling, the Trust has done what it can to maintain the Hall. Stone is being renewed on the turrets. Some of the furniture and textiles have been repaired, and on-going conservation in the last five years has seen the frieze showing Diana, the huntress, in the High Great Chamber cleaned and its plasterwork consolidated.

But underfunding and recent drastic cuts in the sums allocated by English Heritage have curtailed the work. The backlog is steeply increasing and if the house is to remain intact for the first century of the new millennium, the programme of restoration must be stepped-up. 10 million [pounds sterling] will enable the first phase of an ambitious 23 million [pounds sterling] plan to go ahead. The National Trust will provide 1.5 million [pounds sterling] from its own resources, English Heritage will contribute 300,000 [pounds sterling] and an application for the remainder was presented to the Heritage Lottery Fund in March. It should be known by the autumn if the bid is successful, possibly in time to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the day Bess of Hardwick moved into her new house on October 4th, 1597.

Hardwick Hall is a remarkable Elizabethan house. Taller than others of the period, it stands dramatically impressive on an escarpment overlooking the M1 motorway, its six turrets crowned by pierced stonework carrying Bess's initials -- ES, for Elizabeth of Shrewsbury -- and her coronet as a countess. Stupendously high windows, which gave rise to the jingle `Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall', cover most of the facade (were the glass to be laid on the lawn, it would occupy more than 1.25 acres). Inside, where the dimensions of the High Great Chamber and Long Gallery were determined by the size of the tapestries collected by Bess, little has altered in four centuries and most of the furniture and fittings listed in the 1601 inventory are still In place.

Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, known to posterity as Bess of Hardwick, was already a wealthy woman when her fourth husband died in 1590 and she decided to build a monument reflecting her own tastes and status. …

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