February 7, 2013

A Great Estate in the Modern World



I recently watched a three part documentary program called Chatsworth on our local PBS station. The series showed the inner and outer workings of one of Britain's greatest estates. Viewers were treated to everything from lambing on one of Chatsworth estates' thirty-seven farms, to the Olympic qualifying International Horse Trials held on the grounds, to the potentially contentious decision by the farm shop manager and the Duchess whether or not to bring French cheeses into the all-English shop. We also got to meet some of the five hundred or so employees who work for the estate as well as visit many of the rooms in the Upstairs and the Downstairs, so to speak, of the whole operation. My husband found the series interesting for its many similarities to the hotel business in which he works, and because there was much in the way of beauty to look at for the armchair visitor. I found it fascinating because I know that the author Jane Austen based her character Mr. Darcy's 'great estate in Derbyshire,' Pemberly, on Chatsworth. I also appreciated the inside look at how this particular branch of aristocrats, the 12th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, maintain their vision of a self-sustaining operation; for Chatsworth is entirely maintained through the Chatsworth House Trust. When doing the research for this post I consulted the highly informative Chatsworth website, and found the following statement:

All visitor admission income goes directly to the Chatsworth House Trust, a registered charity dedicated to the long-term protection, enhancement and sharing of Chatsworth house, its collections and landscape, with and for visitors. 

The Duke of Devonshire and his family live at Chatsworth, paying rent to the Charity for their rooms. One of the major projects the Trust has helped to fund is The Masterplan, the colossal 14 million pound [I don't know how to make a British pound sign on Blogger] restoration project being undertaken to allow visitors to experience both the inside and outside of Chatsworth as you've never seen it before. 

This work and many other essential projects can only happen thanks to the continuing support of visitors and annual members as well as the efforts of the Trust.

14 million pounds...that constitutes a lot of visitors.

Great houses have long been admitting visitors for a small fee. The proceeds help in the upkeep of the house and estate, which would otherwise be impossible to maintain by the inheriting families; Chatsworth has taken this approach and applied it exponentially. In addition to the running of restaurants and a tea room, the estate hosts over forty weddings a year, rents out cottages, sells its high quality farm produce, holds many, many special events such an annual flower show, art exhibitions in the New Gallery and 'Christmas at Chatsworth'. All of the proceeds from these operations go back into keeping Chatsworth viable and beautiful, and a national treasure for England, while employing hundreds of people. If the documentary truly reflects reality at the estate, then from what I saw, the majority of the employees are happy and proud to work for Chatsworth. I am impressed.

I have always had a sort of fairy tale love for grand old houses drenched in history, and when I read Charles the Earl of Spencer's article in Vanity Fair a few years back, I understood the way many of the owning families feel about their great houses. Many of them believe they are merely one of a long line of caretakers of the house and contents, including centuries of collected furnishings and art as well as established gardens and acres upon acres of precious woodland. The Earl's article went on to say that when several British aristocrats began marrying wealthy American debutantes (often for the money badly needed to keep up their estates and families, especially once global trade made things difficult for British agriculture - the produce of which funded the lavish aristocratic lifestyle of old), many of these Americans did not understand the role of caretaker of the property they had also, for all intents and purposes, married. They bought and sold the belongings of the estate as if they were their own, which in a way they were, but an ownership 'not to be taken lightly,or wontonly.'*  With Americanism penetrating the English aristrocracy, divorce also became more and more common, and as the 20th Century progressed, countless estates with all their accompanying treasures were left to second, third or fourth wives to do with what they willed, instead of being passed on for safe-keeping to the eldest son. The Earl finished up by saying that great houses are what England is known for in many ways, but that the lifestyle and societal situation; i.e., class system needed to keep them up for the sake of the family attached to them, some for many centuries, are no longer understood or generally accepted by modern Britain, not to mention Ireland or Scotland.

I do not know the facts and figures so I am not sure how many great houses in the U.K. and Ireland are presently solely operated by and for the sake of the families who own them. I have also read that after the First World War, as well as the introduction of financially crippling Death Duties, so many great houses were broken up into flats, destroyed or turned over to the National Trust for historical protection and conservation, when the family money was gone. Families who have weathered the storms of war, taxation, depression, recession, and great societal changes, and have managed to hang on to their property, have funded their estates in similar ways to Chatsworth, with varying success. The Duke of Devonshire's father began the process of self-sustenance at Chatsworth and the present Duke and Duchess have carried on with his work, opening up the family home to the world to be shared, loved and appreciated, rather than resented, for all its freshly gilded grandeur and 1000 acres of woods and gardens.

I know I would love to visit Chatsworth and other houses like it. I am naturally drawn to beauty in architecture and landscape and love to see them done well. As a Canadian and part of the Commonwealth I  maintain an interest in my Queen and her relatives, and no matter what people will say to the contrary, the aristocracy will always garner interest and fascination from the international community. We only need to remember the recent Royal Wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton, or the present squabbles over which place, York or the Midlands, has the better right to claim ownership of the newly discovered bones of Richard III. I would also suggest that the ancient bones of the aristocracy's houses don't do Britain's tourism industry any harm either.

*from the Solemnization of Matrimony in The Book of Common Prayer

Addendum: Starting on February 15th, I plan to watch The Manor Reborn, a documentary four part series that, according to the Knowledge Network program guide, "follows the transformation of the 16th Century estate in Wiltshire: Avebury Manor. In a unique collaboration with Britain's National Trust, a team of historians, experts and volunteers is bringing this majestic home back to life." Apparently, the team's goal is to recreate different eras of history in its rooms, which will "tell a story - of the people who lived in the house, and of Britain's decorative arts throughout the ages." Cool!

The above photo is from www.bestukireland.com 

We've got a great new story and recipe over at Stella's. Just click on the link on the upper right hand corner of this blog.

15 comments:

  1. It a darn sight more fun watching the game being played if RIII should be buried as a Catholic or CoE.

    Remember charitable trust is a tax efficient device used by very wealthy families to minimize or nullify tax of any sort. Nor are the Cavendish's short of a shilling. No more the FitzWilliam, Percy or Thynn. Have a look around your city, see if you can find the streets they own today. Oh I forgot Grosvenor.

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  2. I'm still waiting for that decision :)

    I don't harbour any illusions about this. I'm sure the Cavendish family are not anywhere near 'middle class'. I just like how the place is able to be shared with so many. It is not right for one family to own so much and not share it. I do realize the business keeps them in their own home, but they do have to work for it these days, in many ways.

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    1. Their position has gone through something of a renaissance since they are no longer in the House of Lords. Now they are mostly seen as wealthy with that hint of nostalgia for a life long gone. But before that, the opening of the houses (sharing) was one of the reason they survived that far.
      The interesting question is where you'd see yourself in that system way back when; Scullery maid - one of the family. Then, just to test your sanity. Where would you really be. Not allowed within the walls of the estate ?. One of those for whom the Ha-Ha was designed. There's one for you, the definition of the Ha-Ha was to keep the cattle out of the lawn and they weren't talking about cows and sheep. :-)

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    2. Actually, I read that the Duke offered to abdicate because, if that was what the people wanted, he would be willing, as his Dukedom meant very little since the Lordship was taken away.
      Funny you mention where I'd see myself, because I was going to put in the post that with a name like Rebecca I would have been doing the cooking or looking after the children, as all the Rebeccas in novels seem to do. Imagine that! Ha. And thank you for mentioning the Ha-Ha and telling me what it is. I just read a Trollope novel and he kept mentioning it without telling the reader what it was.

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    3. The core of most of those houses were designed and built within 40 years of the Restoration by those that lost the English Civil War. These houses are designed as a fortress. But not one to stop something like a Star Fortress http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/6c/Fortbourtange.jpg/240px-Fortbourtange.jpg but to slow long enough that an army can coalesce further back from like houses. You need to think of these houses primarily 'on' the landscape rather than 'of' it. While the park as a killing ground with each tree marking an exact range for cannon. Remember the heaps of white stones outside the walls of Jerusalem in film The Kingdom of Heaven. The avenues of trees do the same in English parkland.

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    4. I suppose it would make sense to build a fortress in those warring days. The need to defend one's fortune and family would have been paramount. I had a look at the star fortress photo on wikipedia, too. The idea of fortresses is just so foreign to our neighbourhoods nowadays. If someone wanted to hurl a cannon through my front window, there wouldn't be much to stop him :)

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    5. What was discovered during the Civil War was that castles were easy to take while Elizabethan and Jacobean houses were virtually impossible. And not without hugely disproportionate forces and loss. They were expected to hold out for about 6 weeks. But the family and fortune thing was not paramount.
      If ever you get to Holland and I believe you have an oar in that water travel along the border between it and Belgium. It's a bit of an eyeopener when you see little villages with very major defenses. This is one I know quite well http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sluis

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  3. LOL at blaming it on the Americans. I do like that they are opening it to the public, a bit of living history.

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    1. I was only quoting the Earl of Spencer, mind you. But he makes a pretty strong case of it ;) There may be a little bitterness there, since his own father remarried and his second wife took a Victorian room and filled it with pink ruffles.

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  4. Very nice story on Chatsworth. I didn't know Jane Austin based Pemberly on it. Love Pride & Predjudice. We've been watching some shows on PBS about castles and one about the estate used in the Downton Abbey series. Really enjoy getting a look inside these beautiful and old dwellings.

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    1. The 2006 film version of P and P was filmed at Chatsworth, too. They use that fact to promote their location as a wedding mecca. I watched that Highclere Castle doc. too. Pretty amazing castle!

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  5. nice....cool story...and neat place...will have to show my wife...we have just done a marathon of Downton Abbey to catch up to current...would be pretty cool to get a look inside...hmmm....will have to look up the documentary as well and we'll watch it tomorrow...

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    1. I think your wife and I have a few things in common, Brian :) Cheers! I'm way behind on Downton, but I'll catch up I'm sure.

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  6. OH, I love the old estates as well..just would love to have a peek at many of them.

    I shunned watching Downton Abby as it was such a HYPE and then we watched an episode and are now completely HOOKED....the home is so amazing...

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