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.