The survival of Sutton Scarsdale

Sutton Scarsdale Hall, Derbyshire

Sutton Scarsdale Hall, Derbyshire

Southbound travellers on the M1 in Derbyshire are sometimes intrigued by a splendid ruin on the offside which is virtually invisible travelling north.  This is Sutton Scarsdale Hall, second only in scale to Chatsworth among the surviving classical country houses of Derbyshire.  It has survived, but only just.

It was built in 1724-9 for Nicholas Leake, 4th Earl of Scarsdale by the major provincial architect Francis Smith of Warwick.  Smith’s grand façades are oddly oriented because he built around a much older core which stands alongside the medieval parish church, so the main entrance is on the north front.  When the house was intact its chief glory was the plasterwork by the Italian stuccadores Giovanni Battista Arturi and Francesco Vasalli.

Lord Scarsdale died without heirs and deeply in debt, and Sutton Scarsdale passed through a succession of owners until it was bought by Richard Arkwright of Willersley, the financier son of the cotton inventor, for his younger son, Robert Arkwright, who married the “single-minded, simple-hearted” actress Fanny Kemble.

Their descendant William Arkwright is thought to be the model for D H Lawrence’s Clifford Chatterley, though the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover is not set at Sutton Scarsdale.

After the First World War, the Arkwrights sold up the Sutton estate, but couldn’t get rid of the house, which was first vandalised and then stripped by a speculator for the value of its materials.

Fifty tons of lead were removed from the roof, and a collection of interiors including the drawing room, the main staircase and some fireplaces were shipped to the United States.

Three rooms, their proportions altered and their provenance irreparably confused, can now be seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and a fourth, purchased by William Randolph Hearst for San Simeon, remained in a New York warehouse in packing cases until it was bought by Paramount Studios and used as a set for the film Kitty (1945).

This was donated in 1954 to the Huntingdon Library, Pasadena, but remains, apart from two doorcases, in storage.

Chairs made for the 1724 house are now at Temple Newsam House, Leeds and in New York City at the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick Collection.

The shell of the house stood abandoned, until it was rescued by Sir Osbert Sitwell in 1945, just before bulldozers were about to clear the site.

By the time his nephew, until then Mr Reresby Sitwell, inherited it in 1969 the ruins were unstable.  Sir Reresby found himself caught in a bureaucratic maze:  the then Ministry of Public Buildings & Works wouldn’t help because Sutton Scarsdale was built after 1700, while the Historic Buildings Council, as part of the Ministry of Housing, couldn’t support a building which, being roofless, was no longer a house.

Eventually, after a change of legislation, it was taken over by what is now English Heritage, and travellers who can find their way through the by-roads from the M1 junction 29 at Heath may wander the ruins that were very nearly flattened in 1945.

Opening arrangements for Sutton Scarsdale Hall can be found at

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