Literature of the English Country House: Exploring the Archive at Chatsworth House

Hannah Moss, who is currently undertaking an MA in Eighteenth-Century studies in the School of English, shares her experiences of working in Chatsworth House as part of the MA Work Placement module. 


After completing the Literature of the English Country House MOOC last year I returned to postgraduate study at the University of Sheffield, and am currently a student on the MA in Eighteenth-Century Studies. As part of the course I have been lucky enough to undertake a work placement at Chatsworth House. This year two students from the School of English and two students from the Department of History had been working in the archive one day a week through the Spring Semester.

We each had a separate project to work. My project was based on cataloguing the library of Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (1694-1753). Dubbed the ‘Apollo of the Arts’ by Horace Walpole, Lord Burlington was an active patron and supported the likes of George Frederic Handel, William Kent and Alexander Pope, but he was more than a mere connoisseur.

Burlington was an architect and a key figure in promoting the revival of Palladian design principles and Chiswick House in West London and the Assembly Rooms in York stand testament to his architectural skill and classical design ethos. His daughter, Lady Charlotte Boyle, married the 4th Duke of Devonshire, and when Burlington died without a male heir, Charlotte inherited his property – including the books which now form an integral part of the Devonshire Collection at Chatsworth.

The library holds around 30,000 books, including Henry Cavendish’s collection of scientific texts and a large number of books owned by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes who was tutor to the 2nd and 3rd Earls of Devonshire, but the vast majority were collected by the 6th Duke, who would acquire entire libraries at a time and had a particular interest in botany. As for Burlington, his collection is unsurprisingly noted for its works on architecture, including numerous editions of Andrea Palladio’s designs and original drawings by Inigo Jones. My work at Chatsworth involved transcribing a section of the Burlington library catalogue from 1741 and checking whether or not these books are still held at Chatsworth. I was then able to create up-to-date catalogue entries for those texts found. Aside from cataloguing, I also had the opportunity to conduct research on Alexander Pope’s Epistle to Burlington (1731). Access to the handwritten draft sent to Burlington prior to the poem’s publication allowed me to study precisely what changes Pope deemed necessary before the Epistle was ready for a wider audience.

The library at Chatsworth House (Photo by Hannah Moss)

The library at Chatsworth House (Photo by Hannah Moss)

The Epistle to Burlington can be seen as being born of the Country House Poem tradition. However, rather than overtly praising its addressee, the poem offers a warning of what constitutes false taste in architecture, and Pope describes a visit to ‘Timon’s villa’ to make his point. This is a fictional country house which is the embodiment of bad taste. For Pope, this means an ostentatious building of unsuitably vast proportions that is ill-suited to the surrounding landscape, whilst inside antiquities and rare books are displayed merely for show, not use. Pope claimed Timon was not based on any one particular person, but speculation was rife. The chief candidate became the Duke of Chandos of Cannons Abbey, but the criticism levelled at the chapel ceiling painted by Verrio and Laguerre suggests Pope had Chatsworth in mind. I may be biased, but I don’t see how anyone could possibly think Chatsworth represents bad taste. It is a beautiful place to visit with a fascinating family history.

Alexander Pope's 'Epistle to Burlington' (Photo by Hannah Moss)

Alexander Pope’s ‘Epistle to Burlington’ (Photo by Hannah Moss)

Personally, I’ve always been drawn to Georgiana Spencer (1757-1806), wife of the 5th Duke and doyenne of the Whig party, remembered for her big hats and even bigger gambling debts. In recent years there has been renewed interest in her life thanks to Amanda Foreman’s biography and the 2008 film The Duchess starring Keira Knightley. The highlight of my time at Chatsworth was getting to see an early edition of The Sylph (1778), a letter written in Georgiana’s blood, and a memorial book containing a lock of her hair. It sounds a bit creepy, but there really is no substitute for gaining access to an archive and handling original documents of this kind. The handwriting alone can reveal so much about a person. The library and archive at Chatsworth are a treasure trove of information and a day would not pass by without discovering something of interest. The library is not part of the visitor route (but you can peer in to get a good view from the ante-library) so it was a real privilege to venture beyond the velvet rope. Of the thousands of rare books that line the shelves it is amusing to learn that all is not quite as it seems. There are false panels at either end of the room cunningly concealing stairways up to the gallery level, and although these books are not real, the spines are still worth a read if you appreciate a good pun. Two of my favourites are Studies in Sentiment by E. Motion and Intuition by Ivor Hunch. Alexander Pope would definitely not have approved!

To find out more about Hannah’s work be sure to bookmark her blog and follow her on Twitter.

Join us again next week when we’ll be hearing from Kate Gath, who will be discussing what it is like write a PhD on 17th-century literature!

School of English MA student Hannah Moss, settling in at Chatsworth House School of English MA student Hannah Moss, settling in at Chatsworth House



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One comment to “Literature of the English Country House: Exploring the Archive at Chatsworth House”
One comment to “Literature of the English Country House: Exploring the Archive at Chatsworth House”
  1. Pingback: Exploring the Archive at Chatsworth House | georgian jezebels

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