Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Hardwick Hall

Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, is one of the most significant Elizabethan country houses in England. In common with its architect Robert Smythson's other works at both Longleat House and Wollaton Hall, Hardwick Hall is one of the earliest examples of the English interpretation of the Renaissance style of architecture, which came into fashion when it was no longer thought necessary to fortify one's home.

Hardwick Hall is situated on a hilltop between Chesterfield and Mansfield, overlooking the Derbyshire countryside. The house was designed for Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury and ancestress of the Dukes of Devonshire, by Robert Smythson in the late 16th century and remained in that family until it was handed over to HM Treasury in lieu of Estate Duty in 1956.
Hardwick is a conspicuous statement of the wealth and power of Bess of Hardwick, who was the richest woman in England after Queen Elizabeth I herself. It was one of the first English houses where the great hall was built on an axis through the center of the house rather than at right angles to the entrance. Each of the three main storeys is higher than the one below, and a grand, winding, stone staircase leads up to a suite of state rooms on the second floor, which includes one of the largest long galleries in any English house and a little-altered, tapestry-hung great chamber with a spectacular plaster frieze of hunting scenes. The windows are exceptionally large and numerous for the 16th century and were a powerful statement of wealth at a time when glass was a luxury, leading to the saying, "Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall". 
Interestingly, each pane of glass is set in a stone sash.  The Countess also made certain that noone could mistake that this estate was not hers as her monogram "ES" (Elizabeth of Shrewsbury) adorns the crown of the house on all sides.
There is a large amount of fine tapestry and furniture from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A remarkable feature of the house is that much of the present furniture and other contents are listed in an inventory dating from 1601.
Hardwick Hall contains a large collection of embroideries, mostly dating from the late 16th century, many of which are listed in the 1601 inventory.
I would have really liked to have been able to go inside and see these for real, but the National Trust closes the building during the off season, starting November 1... Even the gardens were closed, so I had to climb a wall just to get a decent shot of the exterior. 

I did have an opportunity to speak with a 77 year old Derbyshire native while visiting.  He was riding his bicycle, an exercise routine which seems to have given him remarkable vitality.  He had lived in the area his entire life, and knew a lot of the local lore.  He said that during the war, the RAF used to train airborne units in the fields below the Hall.  There was a plaque commerating the fallen within the grounds.  He was a boy then, and he said that sometimes they were warned about live fire exercises, that they totally ignored as they played in the assault training course.  We chatted about a whole slew of topics, including the use of lead in construction and the mining of it at Cromford.  He also informed me that Hardwick Hall was, in fact, one of five buildings chosen in a series called "Britain's Best Houses". 

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