Review: Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire

Published 23 October 2018

A winner of our student writing competition, Robyn Wilson explores this lavish 18th-century mansion and considers a darker side to its spectacular beauty.

Imitating Athens but striving for Olympus, Lord George Curzon intended his Palladian Derbyshire mansion, Kedleston Hall, to overshadow nearby Chatsworth. This lofty legacy haunts Kedleston: the need to shine; the fear of being outshone, and nowhere is the tug of this tension more keenly felt than in Kedleston’s exhibition rooms.

As President of the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage, Curzon emphasised duty, status, and decorum in 15 Good Reasons Against the Grant of Female Suffrage. But 1500 good reasons could not entomb a woman so completely as one 10-pound dress: the ultimate homage to duty, status, and decorum, and the ultimate female prison.

Made of silver and gold thread and encased in glass, Lady Curzon’s golden, gloriously bejewelled ‘Peacock’ dress transformed her from a woman into a symbol. She became more peacock than woman, a shimmering memorial to Curzon’s – and Kedleston’s – strained splendour and legacy of desperation. The Peacock dress is the lingering embodiment of Curzon’s 15 Good Reasons – archaically bombastic and ultimately empty. Lady Curzon was the last of the peacocks. She died aged 36, leaving behind an empty dress and one good reason for the grant of female suffrage.

The Peacock dress is the sparkling heart of a permanent collection that swerves between the sublime and the ridiculous. Every room glitters with lavish original furnishings. Where chandeliers twinkle and Old Masters haunt the walls, including Luca Giordano’s magnificent The Triumph of Bacchus with Ariadne (c1682), the effect is dazzling. Occasionally, though, Kedleston’s obsession with grandeur descends into pure chaos. The beds have more tassels than Notting Hill Carnival and the awnings look like one of Grinling Gibbons’ nightmares.

One thing is for certain: you could never accuse Kedleston of being boring. Did Curzon succeed in overshadowing his neighbour? Probably not. But there is enough elegance, enough beauty, and just enough madness between the walls of Kedleston Hall to captivate visitors. Ultimately, it is the complex and challenging history of this great house that breathes life into its walls.

Entry to Kedleston Hall is free with National Art Pass and Student Art Pass (standard entry £13.60).

Robyn Wilson is from Warwickshire and works at Derby Theatre. She has a degree in American Studies that she doesn’t use very much and a Student Art Pass that she uses far too much.

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