Elvaston Castle

Elvaston Castle, Derbyshire

Elvaston Castle, Derbyshire

It’s good to see that the Grade I-listed Buxton Crescent is at last undergoing restoration after decades of neglect.

Derbyshire County Council has at last resolved a seemingly intractable conservation problem, only to face a formidable task rescuing a Grade II*-listed country house in the south of the county:  https://www.derbyshire.gov.uk/leisure/countryside/countryside_sites/country_parks/elvaston/elvaston_repairs/default.asp.

Elvaston Castle has a theatrical air.  The architecture of the house is pre-Pugin Gothic, and the garden was once famous for its extravagant, even outlandish design.  The succession of owners, latterly the first eleven Earls of Harrington, have been interestingly varied, attractive characters.

The manor of Elvaston goes back to Domesday, and was purchased in the early sixteenth century by Sir Michael Stanhope of Shelford, Nottinghamshire.  One of his great-grandsons, Philip Stanhope (1584-1656), became First Earl of Chesterfield;  his half-brother John (died 1638) was given the Elvaston estate, and the earliest surviving visible parts of the building, dated 1633, are his.

Lord Chesterfield’s great-grandson, William Stanhope (c1690-1756), created Earl of Harrington and Viscount Petersham, inherited Elvaston, and his grandson Charles, 3rd Earl, (1753-1829) tried to interest Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in landscaping the park, but Brown declined, declaring “the place is so flat and there is such a want of capability in it”.

Instead, the Third Earl significantly altered the character of the house.  He commissioned James Wyatt, who had been working nearby at Bretby, to rebuild the south side of the house in Gothic style.  Wyatt died in September 1813, and the work was actually started in 1815 by the much less well-known Robert Walker.

When the south front was completed in 1819 the Earl purchased the so-called Golden Gates (which have actually been painted blue since at least the late 1840s) to embellish the approach to the southern avenue.

The Fourth Earl (1780-1851) had an affair with a Covent Garden actress, Maria Foote, and married her in 1831.  Both were ostracised by what was described as polite society, and they retired to Elvaston, which they embellished as an idyll in which to spend their days together.

The architect L N Cottingham was commissioned to provide a symmetrical Gothic east front to the house, behind the main entrance of which is the sumptuous vaulted entrance hall, with niches and mirrors and ornate gilding and decoration.

The Fourth Earl’s great contribution Elvaston was commissioning the Edinburgh gardener James Barron, to develop the uninviting prospect that Lancelot Brown – and latterly, apparently, Humphrey Repton – had rejected.  Barron’s initial survey led him to realise that constructing a land-drain at a particular depth would completely alter the potential of the site:  his hunch proved correct, and he was able to claim credit for all that followed.

During the 1830s Barron created a series of ornamental gardens where topiary, some of it preposterous to modern eyes, abounded.  He developed a technique of moving conifers in a vertical position within a matter of days:  his success earned him the sobriquet, “the tree-lifter”, and his services were called on by everyone from Prince Albert downwards.

The Fourth Earl chose to keep his pleasure-grounds from the gaze of strangers, though the Duke of Wellington presumably visited, for he declared that Elvaston possessed “the only natural artificial rockwork I have seen”.  Barron’s instructions were – “If the Queen comes, Barron, show her round, but admit no-one else.”

Of his successors, the most colourful was Charles Augustus, 8th Earl (1844-1917), universally known as “Old Whiskers”, a noted huntsman, Master of the South Notts Hunt, whose kennel huntsman was, apparently in all seriousness, called German Shepherd.

The designer of a steam-powered lawnmower with a coffee-pot boiler, he died in 1917 as a result of burns following an explosion in his workshop at Elvaston.

He instructed that on the first fine day after his funeral his hounds were to go hunting:  his wish was carried out, and as soon as they were released the entire pack went straight for the churchyard where they gathered round their dead Master’s newly-dug grave.

Elvaston was little used after the death of the Tenth Earl in 1929.  It was leased as a teacher-training college from the beginning of the Second World War until 1950 and thereafter was simply neglected.  The 11th Earl took up residence in Ireland, and the estate was finally sold to a property developer in 1963.  It was taken over in 1969 by the Derbyshire County Council and Derby City Council jointly and developed as a deservedly popular country park and leisure facility.

Unfortunately, they have made very little of the house.  Its last hurrah was as a location for Ken Russell’s film, Women in Love (1969).

In a county abounding with great country houses, Elvaston Castle has been a Cinderella for far too long.

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