In his 1830 sonnet dedicated to Chatsworth, the poet Wordsworth observed what he called the ‘strange contrast’ of the stately house with its surroundings in the ‘wild Peak’. He was not the first to make this observation. A Baroque house, set in the hilly North Derbyshire landscape, surrounded by wooded slopes, there is a defiant symmetry about Chatsworth. Its grandeur lies as much in its immaculate and determined stillness as it does in its size.
On days when the ‘wild Peak’ enjoys sunshine, the window frames, embossed with gold leaf, beam across the River Derwent. This was the influence of the 1st Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish, who in 1687 began an ambitious programme of renovation and remodelling, resulting in the splendid house we see today. Gold leaf is much more resilient in the face of the Derbyshire climate than paint – an important practical point which doubtless did not escape the 1st Duke’s attention.
Tasked with maintaining this contrast between the stately and the pastoral, the 1st Duke’s house reflected the court ceremony at the time and also the ambitions of the Cavendish family itself. It was his vision that transformed Chatsworth into the house that became known as the ‘Palace of the Peaks’ and the architecture and interiors reflect a definite penchant for gold. As well as the exterior window frames, the urns which crowd the roof and exterior walls have gilded parts, all recently repaired in a ten-year project which saw Chatsworth cleaned and restored to ensure its survival. Inside the house this love of gold extends to the wall and ceiling paintings.
In a letter from 1694 the Chatsworth steward records providing “colours and gold” for artist Antonio Verrio to use in his work painting ceilings at Chatsworth. The 6th Duke, William Spencer Cavendish, likened standing in the Great Dining Room to being “inside a giant trunk… you expect the lid to open”! The white and gold-coffered roof has gilded flower bosses and, at either side, the Cavendish crest in gold leaf. Gilded picture frames, clocks & chandeliers all help to project warmth and reflect light inside the house. Gilt wood furniture from designers such as William Kent and Francois Hervè ensure that gold can be seen from floor to ceiling in most rooms.