TAITMAIL Chatsworth: The future for stately homes that can no longer be merely visitor attractions

For as long as anyone can remember, Chatsworth House’s logo has been the imposing Palladian façade, a forbidding aspect. Not anymore. 

“Because Chatsworth is more than a house” says its new – and first – director, Jane Marriott. “It’s a place of community and creativity. We wanted the visual identity to show the dynamic forward thinking, but not turn our back on history.

So this is the Chatsworth that will greet the new season, and maybe a million visitors to its 1,800 acres, 600,000 of them winding through the great house: a serpent.
 
It is the public expression of a small revolution in the world of stately homes, with Chatsworth at the forefront of a movement to make them relevant to the 21st century, in the way museums and galleries have begun to, by stretching out overseas, gathering in local communities and diversifying.  
 


Pentagram, the design consultancy commissioned to work on Chatsworth’s modern identity, came up with the creature they kept seeing in the house’s art collections and decorations, the snake. “They were looking at motifs associated with the family and the serpent is all over the site” says Marriott. “No-one knows the origin, but the serpent is traditionally associated with rebirth, transformation and growth, so it seemed right.”
 
Chatsworth is one of the great stately homes of England and last year the 12th Duke of Devonshire handed the place over to his son and heir, the Earl of Burlington, having completed a £32m much-needed repair. It is the sixth most visited attraction after Kensington Palace, Windsor Castle, Hampton Court Palace, Blenheim Palace and Warwick Castle. 

Set in the Derbyshire Dales between Chesterfield and Bakewell, Chatsworth is the Devonshires’ ancestral home, but most famously was for a while the 16th century home of the celebrated Bess of Hardwick, Elizabeth Cavendish Countess of Shrewsbury, the much-married minder of Mary Queen of Scots while she was detained at Elizabeth I’s pleasure. The present house is largely the creation of the first duke around the turn of the 18th century, the rolling grounds later fashioned by Capability Brown. The family, the Cavendishes, have always been art lovers and the Chatsworth paintings constitute one of the finest private collections in the country – from Raphael to Van Dyck to Reynolds to Landseer to Freud. It’s the basis of the new exhibition for the season, Picturing Childhood: a new perspective at Chatsworth (running until October 6), with loans including from Tate.
 
In the first half of the 20th century Chatsworth went through the crippling effects of death duties that all stately homes did, and at one point it was proposed to give the whole lot to the nation as the “V&A of the North” because of its significant paintings and decorative art. Instead, after the Second World War it was opened to the public by the 11th duke, getting 105,000 curious visitors in that first year.  Last year the 12th duke signed off the last bill in the restoration and handed Chatsworth over Lord Burlington.
 
Since 1981 Chatsworth has been owned by a charitable trust, and the incumbent residents pay a realistic rent. There are eight trustees, including the duke but chaired by the earl, and all profit goes back into the trust. 
 
Burlington’s first act was to appoint a director to devise a five-year creative programme. “He wanted one person dedicated to the charity – the house, the art collection, the 1,800 acres of parkland and gardens instead of separate departments, with the express purpose of conservation and to share it with future generations” Marriott says. “It’s about the relevance of a country house in the 21st century – the brief is no longer just to run a ‘visitor attraction’ – and he wanted someone who had experience of running charities but also an understanding of the role a house could have.”
 
She began her career as an assistant curator at Sydney’s Art Gallery if New South Wales, came to London to work on Tate Modern’s launch in 2000 and then became director of development at the Royal Academy. She went to Yorkshire to be managing director of the Hepworth Wakefield, then to Harewood House where she found an unforeseen obstacle.


 

Jane Marriott 

“I had to learn to grapple with Harewood House being built entirely on the transatlantic slave trade” she says.  Incriminating papers which it was thought had been destroyed in the Second World War came to light. “We decided on positive action, to go public and gift all the papers to the South Yorkshire Archive. The Harewoods were very clear, you can’t change history so you have to be open and honest about it.”
 
But in the story of empire none of these old aristocratic families were untainted, so Marriott is using advisory panels – “critical friends” - to test story lines for veracity as she strives to draw in local communities; primary schools from the area are contributing to the new exhibition (which runs until October 6).
 
And a major part of the programme is to make a positive difference to the communities around it, and that includes making it affordable. Last year it cost almost £16m to run the place against an income of £17.5m from charitable activities, trading, donations and investments. The admission price, then, is high, up to £32, but this season, starting at the end of March as the beginning of a five year programme, there will be concessionary fees for those on universal credit of one or two pounds, a flat £10 for children, and lesser admission fees for different aspects of the site.
 
There will be commissions of art and crafts, artists working with children from neighbouring schools, conservancy programmes, outdoor festivals, sporting events and using the landscape and gardens in wellbeing projects for visitors to engage with – “nature can ease the everyday pressures of life and give opportunities to reconnect with the world, and we can help with that” she says.
 
Chatsworth is also reaching overseas online under a new head of cultural programming – 4.7m tuned  online last year - and through  loans to exhibitions, and there are new connections with public museums such as the National Portrait Gallery, whose director is now a Chatsworth trustee.
 
“The collection has been built over 500 years and it continues to reflect the family’s taste (Burlington is a professional photographer, the duke is a ceramics connoisseur), and we want everybody to feel there’s something here for them” Marriott says. “We’re welcoming the world.”

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