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Chatsworth: A Landscape History

Posted on January 25th, 2010 by Charles Boot

John Barnatt and Tom Williamson, Chatsworth: A Landscape History (Macclesfield: Windgather, 2005), 24 pp., illus. in colour and black-and-white, £19.99 (pbk), ISBN 1- 905-11901-1

Readers will probably be familiar with Tom Williamson’s Polite Landscape: Gardens & Society in Eighteenth-Century England (Stroud, 1995), which offered a genuinely radical reappraisal not only of the history of English gardens in the eighteenth century, but also, implicitly, of the discipline of garden history itself. Now, with John Barnatt, Senior Survey Archaeologist for the Peak District National Park, Williamson has applied those methods to one of the grandest and most complex designed landscapes in Britain.

Chatsworth, Derbyshire, has been exhaustively surveyed in the past decade. Since 1996 reports have been prepared on a buildings survey; a fields, boundaries and woodland survey; archaeological surveys of the park, the moorlands and the inbye land; and a historic landscape survey of the park and gardens. Landscape management over the centuries has preserved a huge range of field archaeology; while successive stewards and, latterly, librarians and archivists have preserved a mass of archival material. Over that decade these surveys have studied the evidence exhaustively, and this book is the distillation of those data.

The result is a narrative that proceeds chronologically from the Bronze Age barrows in the park to the garden sculptures of the twenty-first century. So far, so conventional, but the book is brilliant in correlating what can be learnt from the archaeology and what can be learnt from the archives. In an Introduction which should be essential reading for all students and practitioners, the authors explain how archives and archaeology each give only partial evidence of what has happened, concluding: ‘our knowledge and understanding the past are increased exponentially when archaeological and historical approaches are combined’.

In addition, the authors insist, ‘We are not garden historians, art historians or architectural historians’. Instead, they emphasize the need for a multidisciplinary approach, and it is salutary to find what a fascinating and authoritative history of the park and gardens this approach provides. The lesson is clear: it is impossible to achieve such an understanding of the designed landscape without understanding a context that goes far beyond design.

Barnatt and Williamson range widely to understand what lies behind, or beneath, the present Chatsworth landscape. In such an extensive tract of land, in which so many people have lived and worked, it was important to understand not only landscape design and the economic and social development of the Devonshire family, but also patterns of settlement and farming, communications and industry. The great house was not an isolated entity but was the hub of, and product of, a working estate that lay around it, and I am not aware of any estate history that gives such a full picture of that interdependent relationship.

This level of understanding transforms the familiar image of Chatsworth as a work of art, created out of little more than aesthetic and cultural ideas. The designed landscape used rather than discarded the materials of the past: hedgerow trees, fields, old roads and tracks, bridges, mills, quarries, and woodlands. Successive dukes of Devonshire oversaw the closure of roads, the demolition of buildings, and the grubbing-up of hedgerows, but rarely, if ever, their obliteration – and if archaeology teaches a garden historian one thing, it is that the past is rarely if ever ‘swept away’.The book is, therefore, of great significance and interest from a methodological point of view. It is also exemplary in bringing the development of a great estate into such sharp focus. It is especially valuable in challenging myths and received non-wisdom. Edensor, the estate village, for example, was not moved wholesale from the park to a position outside to improve a prospect from the house, and it was not ‘swept away’ by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in the eighteenth century. Nor was its partial demolition and rebuilding done at a stroke, but in two distinct projects. In addition, Barnatt and Williamson draw attention to the remarkable collection of field barns in the little enclosures west of the village, apparently built for smallholders in the village. At every turn close examination of the archaeology and archives undermines the casual history of this estate, and as ever the real history is much more complex and challenging than the myths.

The book also eschews using the big names in the house’s history — Bess of Hardwick, the 1st Duke, the 4th Duke and the 6th Duke — as stepping stones, and instead conscientiously identifies the often notable contribution of the intervening figures and, sometimes, just the quiet continuity of work, largely uncelebrated, that went on between. It pays tribute to the contribution to the garden’s development of figures previously unheralded, both celebrated, such as William Kent and Jeffrey Wyatville, and more modest, such as Brown’s foreman, Michael Millican, or John Robertson, Paxton’s architectural assistant.

In conclusion, this is essential reading not just for those interested in Chatsworth but as a model for the analysis of designed landscapes everywhere.

David Lambert

34:2 (Winter 2006)

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