Chatsworth House and Park, Pieter Tillemans, about 1725
Though at first glance this painting may appear to show little more than a peaceful summer day in the English countryside, it is actually a carefully crafted representation of one family’s position and interests.
The manor in the middle distance is Chatsworth House, the ancestral seat of the dukes of Devonshire, patriarchs of one of the most wealthy and powerful aristocratic families in England. Located in the East Midlands county of Derbyshire, Chatsworth has been home to the Cavendish family for nearly 500 years. Bess of Hardwick (c. 1527-1608), then wife of Sir William Cavendish (c. 1505-1557), began its construction in the 1550s. In the last decade of the 17th century, William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Devonshire (1640-1707), renovated and extended the original Elizabethan structure, including the distinctive south and west fronts visible here. With well over 100 rooms, Chatsworth – one of several of the Cavendish family’s residences – was a symbol of their wealth.
The painting’s high viewpoint, looking southeast, captures an expanse of the family’s holdings in Derbyshire, centered at Chatsworth. The village of Edensor, stretching from left to center here in the middle ground, provided a home for many of the people who tended to the house and land. To the east and south of the house are formal gardens built by the 1st Duke and expanded by the 2nd Duke (1672-1729), including spraying fountains, a classical temple, and marble sculptures. Formal gardens were fashionable in France, Italy, and Holland at the time, and the Cavendish family was among the first to add them to an English estate.
The 2nd Duke himself may be the principle mounted figure on the left, surveying his prized possessions – he was well-known for successfully breeding and racing horses. Indeed, the expansive house and grounds seem secondary to the horses, which stand in a line across the front of the painting. Of the 2nd Duke, a contemporary once said, “…his chief skill lay in painting, medals, and horses[;] he was more able as a virtuoso than a statesman, and a much better jockey than he was a politician.” The three foals closest to the viewer may be the offspring of the 2nd Duke’s greatest thoroughbred, Flying Childers – who never lost a race – and the mare on the far left may be Old Ebony, known for her rare black color.
Chatsworth House and Gardens effectively showcases the Cavendish family’s influence and interests, but it may have also served a more personal use. It dates to about 1725, around the same time that Lady Elizabeth (1700-1747), daughter of the 2nd Duke, married. This painting may have been made for her as a memento of a beloved father or childhood home, or perhaps as a symbol of her illustrious background for her new family relations. It hung primarily at Holker Hall, a home that descended through Lady Elizabeth’s family, until recently. The Museum acquired the painting – an interesting take on sporting art as well as an early exploration of prospect painting and picturesque landscape – for the European collection in 2013.
Have a sense of déjà vu?
Does Chatsworth House look familiar? It provided the location for Mr. Darcy’s home, Pemberley, in the 2005 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, as well as its recent spinoff, Death Comes to Pemberley (2013). The 2008 Oscar-winning film The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes as the 18th-century duke and duchess of Devonshire, also filmed at Chatsworth.
The house and gardens are still open every day to the public. Click here to visit Chatsworth’s website.
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