Chatsworth House Gardens Derbyshire

Chatsworth, of the several great houses owned by the Duke of Devonshire, lies in one of the finest and most rugged parts of England. Its very name spells grandeur, and the contents of the house itself, are fabulous. The gardens, in any garden history of England, enjoy an equal fame. Several celebrated garden architects have had a hand in them, and not so many years ago – perhaps seventy-five – an army of eighty gardeners attended to their upkeep; yet, today, with but a handful of gardeners to do the work of that army, the gardens at Chatsworth present as fair a face as ever they did. This has been possible partly as a result of the use of modern methods, certainly, but also, and it is a big also, to the imagination and enthusiasm of the present owners.

Ths history of the gardens at Chatsworth can be approximately divided into five periods. Nothing remains of the Elizabethan garden which, doubtless, once lay beneath the walls of the Tudor house. Of the First Duke’s seventeenth-century garden with its elaborate parterres and serried statues, only some fountains, some balustrading and the famous Cascade, one of the sights of Chatsworth, survive. ‘Capability’ Brown was employed by the Fourth Duke in the eighteenth century to make sweeping changes. The Sixth Duke, born in 1790, restored some of the seventeenth-century formality of the gardens, and made enormous additions of his own, of which more later. In these developments he was aided by the celebrated Joseph Paxton, creator of the Crystal Palace. When the Duke and Paxton had done their work, it has been recorded, ‘there ensued a long sunlit century when successive Duchesses loved and nurtured the garden, which grew, under their care and that of countless gardeners, to splendid maturity’. Today, the present ducal couple have devoted imagination and zest to the maintenance of the gardens, and have succeeded in endowing them with new life.

Let us go back to the garden at the time of the First Duke, some of which, as we have seen, still remains. The house, in the late 1600s, was set in a series of terraces, decorated with statues by one of the great sculptors of the day, Caius Cibber. The west parterre, also undertaken at this time, was laid out by George London, partner of Henry Wise, who was afterwards gardener to Queen Anne. He was praised by the diarist John Evelyn for his ‘industry, knowledge of nature and genius of soil’.

Chatsworth House Gardens

Above: The ‘Palace of the Peak’, with daffodils beneath the still leafless trees.

But the greatest development of the garden in this period resulted from the realization of the existence of the local high-level supply of water, which could make possible the Cascade and fountains that are still the glory of the garden today. These sensational waterworks were the achievement of a Frenchman,

Monsieur Grillet, and were to make the garden famous throughout the land. Mr Francis Thompson, in his admirable History of Chatsworth, has written:

The waterworks were the chief note of the First Duke’s garden. Whether in the form of ponds or of mere fountains, there was water everywhere. The total area of water, in relation to the size of the whole garden, must have been enormous. Of the fountains, nine (excluding those connected with the Cascade) are mentioned by name in the accounts: the Venus Fountain, the Boreas Fountain, the Neptune Fountain, the Triton Fountain, the Willow Tree Fountain, the Sea Horse Fountain, the fountain in the new garden (the West parterre) the Greenhouse Fountain; but there were no doubt many lesser ones. An underground network of pipes and streams survives to this day, although the fountains themselves have mostly vanished.

But of all the waterworks, the Cascade, completed in 1696, was the most sensational, and still is.

Of all M. Grillet’s water toys only the Cascade and the Sea Horse Fountain survive; the quaint Willow Tree Fountain, a copper tree which spouts water over the unwary, is a clever reproduction. As fashion changed, the rest were swept away, though two architectural relics survive from this earlier garden, the great twin pedestals, on the western terrace, surmounted by sphinxes, carved by Cibber.

When Brown had done his work the park at Chatsworth swept right up to the walls of the house. After some initial doubts, that eighteenth-century arbiter of good taste, Horace Walpole, approved, and wrote that he found the garden ‘improved by the late Duke, many foolish waterworks being taken away, oaks and rocks being taken into the garden, and a magnificent bridge built’. The bridge, built by James Paine, spans the nearby Derwent river.

No great changes were made in the garden after this for half a century -until the succession of the Sixth Duke in 1811. He was a bachelor, and with no role in public life and no wife to distract him, he devoted his whole life to Chatsworth and, in particular, to its gardens. In 1826 he met Joseph Paxton, and the gardens were never to be the same again. Paxton was of humble origin, but his career was meteoric: as a boy he worked in the Royal Horticulture Society’s garden in London for 18s a week; a few years later, after a fortuitous meeting with the Duke, he was in charge of the Chatsworth gardens, where he built the world’s largest greenhouse, and came to be recognized as one of Britain’s leading horticulturists; a few more years passed, he built the Crystal Palace and was knighted.

Paxton encouraged the Duke’s love of plants, and in the garden at Chatsworth flowerbeds were immensely extended, groves of exotic shrubs planted, and the surrounding hills were clothed with trees. Enormous rocks were moved into the gardens for their romantic and dramatic effect and were given the names of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Duke of Wellington; they are there still. This involved vast expense and labour, but it was nothing to the Duke, who said complacently, ‘The spirit of some Druid seems to animate Mr Paxton in these bulky removals.’ In comparison, it was the merest child’s play to have a Greek column shipped from Greece – the Sunium pillar, still there for all to see.

However, the greatest near-miracle which Paxton conjured at Chatsworth was a vast greenhouse. This, alas, is no more. In its day it was one of the wonders of Britain, and in it the extraordinary Victoria Regia water lily, with leaves 6 feet across and flowers to match, was coaxed into flower in 1838. The greenhouse, or Great Stove as it was then called, was a casualty of the First World War; it had become impossible to heat owing to fuel shortages and most of its pampered inmates died: so the Ninth Duke decided, somewhat drastically, to blow it up.

From Paxton’s day the gardens at Chatsworth changed very little until the last war, when labour problems really became acute. Acres of lawn reverted to rough grass and bedding-out was curtailed. But the splendid overall picture remains surprisingly the same.

The present Duke and Duchess, in spite of all difficulties, have cast a very special spell over their great garden, and some of their additions add a pleasing note of fantasy to the scene. A serpentine hedge undulates towards the Sunium Column. A ground plan of Chiswick Villa, in London, once another Devonshire property, has been traced, in low clipped box, on a lawn, and smaller borders, one in tones of red, orange and gold, and another in Wedgwood shades of blue and white, have been planted near the door to the Statuary Gallery. A new greenhouse, in the most modern taste, houses a collection of exotic plants, while a newly planted maze marks the site of Paxton’s Great Stove: this is a special delight for the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to Chatsworth every year, and, incidentally, substantially contribute to its upkeep.

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