Art History

Stately Homes and Tourism: Chatsworth House

Stately Homes and Tourism:  An Extension of Eighteenth Century Exhibition Culture A discussion of the exhibition and tourist culture of the eighteenth century, and the importance of the spectator’s specific social circumstances in understanding a work of art.

With Reference to three eighteenth century landscapes of Chatsworth House, by Wilson, Smith of Derby and Marlow.

In his study of ExhibitionCulture,[1] Hemingway states that the eighteenth century audience did not view art as we do now.  Art was in a gradual state of transition, previously being understood as a commodity, created by the skill of a ‘humble’[2] craftsman, and was yet to be placed in the same category as music or literature.  His study breaks away from previous academic research, which has tended to focus on the artist and their work, in what Pollock refers to as ‘art history as the history of the artists.'[3]   Instead, Hemingway shifts concern to the actual spectators of the art, the ‘unspoken partners.’[4]  Clark argued that history should not be considered a mere ‘background’[5] when analysing a work of art.  He concurs that an empirical study of the audience viewing the artworks, can lead to a clearer image of a ‘public’ that the artist had in mind when executing the painting.

This article will analyse three paintings of Chatsworth House.  By applying Hemingway’s technique of interdisciplinary sources to recreate the situation of viewing, it will aspire to cast light on the beginnings of stately home tourism, as shown through the artworks of the time.  As a wider issue, it will be considered whether the social history of art has been integrated into art historical discourse successfully, or whether the ‘radical interventions’ within the 1970s have lost momentum in current times. Where Hemingway situates the exhibition experience in the City of London, this article relocates to the stately homes of the English countryside.  Hazlitt compared the city exhibition halls to ‘brothels,’[6] whereas the country house provided a more serene atmosphere in which to inspect artworks and architecture.    Instead of the swelling crowds and the market-like cacophony evoked in Art Exhibitions as Leisure,[7] a country house viewing would have consisted of a party typically limited to such that could comfortably fit into a carriage for the long journey there.[8]   Troost states that ‘travel was for people who had the leisure and the income for the long trips through the countryside, who owned a carriage and at least four horses.'[9]

Smith of Derby, Thomas A View of Chatsworth from the south-west 81.9×109.2cms Oil on Canvas, 1743, Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire [Accessed 24/05/2012]

 In Smith’s A view of Chatsworth from the south-west[10] such a group is possibly depicted and the spectator is invited to gaze upon the house and grounds alongside them.  The gentlemen in the middle-foreground appear to admire the surroundings, one of them identifying a point of interest by raising his walking cane.  A young lady in the group seems to look back at Chatsworth House through opera glasses and there is couple close by her, who could be perceived as perusing a map or guidebook together. [11]  In the distance, a carriage heading towards the house suggests that another group of tourists is just arriving.  It extends an invitation that, although situated in the rugged Peak District, Chatsworth is accessible and the roads can accommodate a large carriage pulled by six horses.  If, as Hemingway states, art was still viewed very much as a commodity in the eighteenth century, then the painting’s spectators would have understood it as serving a purpose, in this case, as an advertisement.  It is a welcoming scene; the richly dressed figures have untarnished clothes as they walk across the field, presumably having used the conveniently located steps to traverse the hedge.  It presents the prospective tourist with the opportunity to view nature, but in a safe and tamed manner.   If such a painting were presented at one of the exhibitions that Hemingway describes, for the viewer there would be a stark contrast between their present situation and the beckoning serenity of Derbyshire.

Wilson, Richard A View of Elizabethan Chatsworth (copy of a lost 17th Century painting) 99.1x124.5cm, 18th Century, Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire [Accessed 24/05/2012]

Marlow, William A View of Elizabethan Chatsworth (copy of a lost 17th Century painting) 99.1×124.5cm, 18th Century, Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire [Accessed 24/05/2012]

Marlow, thirty years later than Smith, selected a slightly different angle from which to present Chatsworth, moving approximately forty five degrees around to the west.   Here, ‘vast changes’[12] are apparent; the formal gardens have been cleared by the Fourth Duke and ‘Capability’ Brown, in order to create a more ‘natural’ effect, moving ‘villages […] and diverting rivers.’[13]   Great care has been taken to emphasise the new landscaping;  the orderly avenue of trees, which take a proud, central position in Smith’s work, are, from this vantage point, camouflaged against the woodland beyond.    It echoes the eighteenth-century ideal that ‘the owners wanted to see (and have visitors see) how extensive their property was and placed their houses in the landscape accordingly.'[14] In Marlow’s A View of Chatsworth,[15] the view is remarkably different, and perhaps seems devoid of Smith’s lavishly detailed tourist attractions.  For the eighteenth century viewer, however, the key markers of English landscaping are clearly there; ‘the winding road, the artificially enhanced stream, the careful arrangement of vistas.'[16]  In the style of many eighteenth century stately home landscapes, ‘where the estate ends is designedly vague,’[17] giving the impression that the aristocratic family own all that the viewer can see and beyond.   Here is an example of ‘Capability’ Brown ‘softening the transition from garden to parkland to the point where one could hardly tell where one ended and the other began.’[18]

Wilson, Richard A View of Elizabethan Chatsworth (copy of a lost 17th Century painting) 99.1x124.5cm, 18th Century, Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire [Accessed 24/05/2012]

Wilson, Richard A View of Elizabethan Chatsworth (copy of a lost 17th Century painting) 99.1×124.5cm, 18th Century, Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire [Accessed 24/05/2012]

In contrast to this, Wilson’s A View of Elizabethan Chatsworth[19] stakes out its territory with high, impenetrable walls.  Here, there is the feeling of defence and containment around the fort-like Chatsworth House.  There is a ‘sharp division between the cultivated and the wild.’[20]  Lopatin details how, during the eighteenth century, ‘the new Whig ruling class began to build […] grand houses that attracted a significant tourist trade,'[21] and Wilson’s artwork, based upon a now-lost copy, was perhaps intended to establish Chatsworth’s credentials as an ancient seat, juxtaposed against the newly-built country houses of others.  The age of the building was an indicator of power and wealth over the course of centuries, rather than that which was recently attained.    It certainly seems a distinction that one traveller in 1818 found important enough to mention in their account, remarking that, ‘Chatsworth appears to have been for nearly two centuries the seat of […] the noble family to which it now belongs.'[22]

In addressing the role of the spectator in understanding these three artworks, it is interesting to note that modern-day Chatsworth chooses to use Smith’s landscape as the recognisable emblem on all of their marketing banners and merchandising.[23]  This gives the misleading sense that nothing has changed, as far as the artwork’s spectators are concerned; are we not still appreciating the same representation of the same landscape? [24]   In actuality, it represents a great shift, our modern sensibilities are appreciating a sense of the historic, whilst for the intended viewer, the painting depicts their present-day.    Troost concurs that the eighteenth century tourist had a ‘tenuous connection to the past,’ and that ‘country-house tourism focused largely on pragmatic concerns of the current day:  economics and power, not history.[25]  Hemingway cautions against drawing parallels between the spectators of different eras, stating that ‘the fact that the same objects continue to have art functions in our own society is another matter – those functions are different, if genealogically related.'[26]  Here, then, is evidence that social history can bring forth a deeper understanding of how an artwork would have been viewed.  In a further example of this, the tranquility that a modern viewer may perceive in Marlow’s A View of Chatsworth, may have evoked a shocked response in an eighteenth century viewer,  where the grounds of historical buildings, ‘were being sacrificed for instant, flashy effects, designed to attract the tourist,’[27] (such as the removal of the formal gardens as detailed in Wilson’s and Smith’s paintings, but absent from Marlow.)

Troost is in agreement here, that ‘the way country-house tourism is depicted in art and literature is a direct commentary upon that relationship at a specific temporal moment and […] that relationship has changed.[28] In bringing this social difference into modern times, organisations such as English Heritage now seek to highlight the ‘below stairs’ aspect of how the stately home functioned in its prime.   Audley End House, for example, boasts a ‘Victorian Service Wing, complete with kitchen, laundries and a dairy.’[29]  A recent BBC documentary on Chatsworth House placed a strong focus on ‘behind the scenes’ footage of cleaners, catering staff, gardeners and estate workers, rather than the lives of the Duke and Duchess, the artworks or the architecture of the house.[30]  The Grand Dining Table, laid with antique silverware, was shown, but the emphasis was placed upon the laundry team’s difficulty of ironing the tablecloth.  The eighteenth century tourist, Troost tells us, would not have been interested in the workings of the estate and instead, ‘came to see things unlike their own possessions at home […] most of all, paintings and sculpture.'[31]  There is a notable absence of servants in the selected artworks; In Smith’s Chatsworth, a range of their residences, such as a watermill, stables and a worker’s cottage can be determined, but the workers themselves remain unseen.  The three paintings of Chatsworth House emphasise that this is the case, depicting in turn a house that welcomes tourists, an estate with modern ‘natural’ landscaping and a reminder that Chatsworth belongs to a powerful, ancient family. This serves to emphasise the importance of Hemingway’s work, of comprehending the very specific circumstances of the intended audience of the paintings.  Visiting aristocratic houses whilst they still functioned as private residences and estates, tourists would be able to gaze upon the influential people who ran their country.   The modern-day equivalent would perhaps be an informal visit to Chevening House.  It immediately becomes understandable that the eighteenth century tourist would be keen to see possessions, rather than staff, when put in such a context.   In the eighteenth century, ‘secular shrines’[32] had taken the place of cathedrals and holy sites, where ‘pilgrims’ now visited the aspirational ‘homes of the rich, famous and powerful.'[33] According to Lopatin, country estates remain ‘treasures, created and valued by humans,’ and must, ‘like humans, evolve to survive.'[37]

The three paintings selected capture Chatsworth House’s adaptation, presenting it as both historical monument and tourist attraction.  Mandler presents this transformation as a successful one, stating that by the late eighteenth century, ‘ the older stately homes’ had become symbols of ‘universal values and tastes shared by all classes and were seen as common property rather than private homes.'[38]  By opening their doors to tourists, the aristocratic estates could give the impression that the status symbols of their wealth were being collectively shared, rather than hoarded, and their role as custodians of culture began.  In Smith’s painting the (presumed) visitors are in front of the house, with no reference to the owners, permitting the spectator to put themselves in the position of the aristocrats, effectively saying ‘our home is yours.’ The discussion in this article leads to wider issues, within current art historical discourse, about the role of the Stately Home, and more generally, museums, and their impact on how art is viewed by the spectating public.

As stately homes became leisure time tourist attractions, they themselves became exhibition spaces.  One must visit and enter these ‘palaces’[39] in order to view the works of art they curate.   Pollock refers to such closed communities as ‘self-referential ghettoes,’[40] where only members (or in this case, those who choose to pay and visit a Stately Home) participate in the viewing of art, as opposed to an entire public.  Mandler ‘asks us to examine our own ‘obsession’ with English ‘treasure houses’ and why we associate these ‘former private residences of the rich with the heart and soul of what it means to be English,'[41] whilst Pollock would caution against such an institutionalisation of art.[42]  Are stately homes of the modern era continuing the ideal of the landed gentry in eighteenth-century Britain, ‘combin[ing] the ornamental with the economically profitable[?]’[43]  What implications does this have for the selection of art they curate and are artworks that are deemed less popular, less likely to be purchased and shown? In developing the lines of enquiry explored here, it would also be of interest to enquire why Chatsworth House now chooses to represent itself with Smith’s artwork, rather than the Marlow, which provides a more accurate representation of the house and grounds as they are now, or indeed, a photograph or recent representation.  This would provide an interesting insight into the modern stately home’s perception of the spectator and their interaction with the three artworks.  Is it presumed that the modern visitor’s expectation of a country home is more in line with the pre-landscaped 1743 Chatsworth, which seems more akin to a tamed pleasure-ground, with man-made spectacles to amuse?  Perhaps the Devonshire Trust agrees with Troost that our expectations have shifted and ‘nowadays, we visit great houses because they are old and beautiful, not because they signify power and prosperity.'[44]

Taking Clark and Hemingway as a starting point, recognising how the three paintings would have been viewed within their own time, allows us to better understand the historical era they represent, and, in so doing, we can start to explore our current relationship with art as spectators – and our relationship with stately homes.   Pollock’s recent work leads us back to the tourism within old estates such as Chatsworth.  What are the implications of them acting as custodians of culture?  What should we be aware of in the public’s relationship with the stately home?  Tinniswood argues that ‘the country house is a cluster of images, with as much to say about contemporary society as it has about what has gone before.’[45] Pollock laments that the social history aspect of art has become ‘part of a cheerful diversification of the subject, taking its place alongside other varieties.’[46]  This article has sought, through comparing modern and eighteenth century expectations of stately home tourism, to provide evidence that social history is not an optional extra, to be selected or avoided as academic preferences dictate.  An understanding of the spectator, how they viewed the artworks and the conditions of their viewing experience are of prime importance in gaining a full understanding of the artistic intention.  Without such details, critical theory ‘amounts only to art appreciation.'[47]   As Clark would argue, the artist has ‘a public’ in mind when he or she ‘stands in front of the canvas’[48] and this concept would be heavily influenced by their awareness of how the artwork would be displayed, and to whom.    This paper has sought to emphasise the importance of the spectator in interpreting a work of art; their circumstances and aspirations.  It aims to show that social art history, and particularly the functional, contextual branch of the field, can, and should, be brought effectively into the modern day.

This article is adapted from the author’s postgraduate Masters essay written in March 2012


[1] Hemingway, Andrew Reading 2.3: Art Exhibitions as Leisure – Class Rituals in Early Nineteenth Century London (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 2011)[2] Art Exhibitions as Leisure p. 4 [3] Pollock, Griselda ‘Women, Art and Ideology: Questions for Feminist Art Historians’ Woman’s Art Journal 4:1 (1983) [Accessed 27/05/2012] p. 41 [4] Art Exhibitions as Leisure p. 4 [5] Clark, T. J. Reading 2.1: On the Social History of Art (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 2011) p. 2 [6] Art Exhibitions as Leisure p. 6 [7] Ibid. [8] Troost, Linda ‘Filming Tourism, Portraying Pemberley’ Eighteenth Century Fiction, 18:4 (Summer 2006) [Accessed 26/05/2012] p. 480 [9] ‘Filming Tourism’ p. 480 [10] Smith of Derby, Thomas A View of Chatsworth from the south-west 81.9×109.2cms Oil on Canvas, 1743, Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire [Accessed 24/05/2012] [11] ‘Filming Tourism’ p. 482 [12] Devonshire, Deborah, Duchess of, Chatsworth: The House (London: Francis Lincoln, 2002) p. 99 [13] ‘Filming Tourism’ p. 479 [14] Ibid. p. 481 [15] Marlow, William A view of Chatsworth 120×181.6cm Oil on Canvas, Approx. 1773, Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire [Accessed 25/05/2012] [16] ‘Filming Tourism’ p. 482 [17] Andrews, Malcolm Landscape and Western Art (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999) p. 168 [18] Ibid. p. 70 [19] Wilson, Richard A View of Elizabethan Chatsworth (copy of a lost 17th Century painting) 99.1×124.5cm, 18th Century, Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire [Accessed 24/05/2012] [20] Landscape and Western Art p. 20 [21] Lopatin, Nancy ‘The Rise and Fall of the Stately Home. By Peter Mandler’ (Book Review) Journal of Social History 32:2 (Winter 1998) p. 479 [22] ‘Bott, William ‘Description of Buxton, and the adjacent country: in which will be found a correct guide and directory, to which is added an account of Matlock’ Foreign and Commonwealth Office Collection (1818) [Accessed 25/05/2012] p. 42 [23] [24] Chatsworth: The Housep. 99 [25] ‘Filming Tourism’ p. 478 [26] Art Exhibitions as Leisure p. 1 [27] Daniels, Stephen et al. Reading 2.4: Border Country: The Politics of the Picturesque in the Middle Wye Valley (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 2011) p. 12 [28] ‘Filming Tourism’ p. 478 [29] [30] ‘Filming Tourism’ p. 493 [31] Ibid. p. 483 [32] ‘Filming Tourism’ p. 478-9 [33] Ibid. p. 478-9 [34] Mulvey, Laura ‘Looking at the Past from the Present: Rethinking Feminist Film Theory of the 1970s’ Signs 30:1 (Autumn 2004) [Accessed 27/05/2012] para. 8 [35] ‘Looking at the Past from the Present.’ para. 8 [36] Landscape and Western Art p. 20 [37] ‘The Rise and Fall of the Stately Home’ p. 444 [38] Ibid. p. 443 [39] ‘Description of Buxton and the Adjacent Country’ p. 37 [40] Pollock, Griselda ‘The Virtual Feminist Museum’ (paper presented at) Connecting the Dots: Virtuality, Technology and Feminism in the Museum (Washington: Smithsonian, 2011) [Accessed 26/05/2011] para. 23 [41] ‘The Rise and Fall of the Stately Home’ p. 444 [42] ‘The Virtual Feminist Museum’ [43] Landscape and Western Art p. 167 [44] ‘Filming Tourism’ p. 483 [45] ‘Filming Tourism’ p. 477-8 [46] ‘Women, Art and Ideology: Questions for Feminist Art Historians’ p. 39 [47] ‘Women, Art and Ideology’ p. 41 [48] On the Social History of Art p. 2

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