Book Review: Hardwick Hall

Keeping Up with the TudorsHardwick Hall: A Great Old Castle of Romanceedited by David Adshead & David A. H. B. TaylorYale University Press, 2017Yale University Press, working in conjunction with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, has produced a stunning oversized volume all about Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, the twin-building Tudor-era masterpiece built by Elizabeth, the Countess of Shrewsbury, as a home and haven among her many other homes and havens – to the extent that history knows her colloquially as “Bess of Hardwick.”Long before she married her fourth husband, George Talbot, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, the woman born Elizabeth Hardwick was one of the most remarkable figures of an age crowded with them; she was smart, shrewd, and tremendously magnetic, a brilliant manager of money and property and a friend to Queen Elizabeth through some parlous times. She became, in the fullness of her life, exceedingly wealthy, and as her personal reach grew, her aesthetic sense broadened and refined. Into the buildings at Hardwick Hall she poured her lavish generosity and her painstaking taste, making it “the ne plus ultra of the English country house, the house of houses.”In Hardwick Hall: A Great Old Castle of Romance, that house of houses is subject to the most lovingly obsessive detailed attention it's received in many decades. Editors David Adshead and David Taylor have here assembled essays and contributions from well over a dozen leading experts in the accoutrements of the stately British home (including a parting tribute by the doyen of the subject, Mark Girouard). Virtually every aspect of the grand old pile is given a thorough and painstaking historical inventory, and everything from furniture to embroideries to staircases to tapestries to metalwork to picture frames to the justly famous gardens and park is given its own highly detailed and often quite absorbing stand-alone chapter. The sheer amount of stuff that Hardwick Hall was able to preserve until the modern era (when it was gobbled up by the National Trust, frozen in amber, and turned into a living museum for the edification of all) is unexcelled anywhere in British architectural archeology; it's a profusion somehow very fitting for a place that was of a necessity all things to all people, as David Ashtead writes in his Introduction:

We cannot now know what those approaching Hardwick in past centuries might have thought as they rode or trudged up the steep track to the plateau's edge, catching a first glimpse of the elegant stone water conduit above them, before hugging the base of the immense battered retaining wall of the Old Hall, to emerge in an irregular base court to the right of not one but two massive stone houses: that to the right irregular in form; that immediately ahead, towering above a gatehouse of curious design, symmetrical in every part, in afternoon sun the quarries of its vast windows afire with reflected light. Men of state, courtiers, local gentry, farmers, tenants, tradespeople, artificers, household and family will all have had their different perceptions, as later visitors, approaching through the park via a sinuous new carriageway, have had.

The place was an ongoing labor of love in its creator's lifetime (“Bess,” we're told in something of an understatement, “must have been used to living with builders”), and today nearly a quarter of a million people from all over the world tour its halls and rooms and feel the weird sense of immediacy the place imparts. Somewhere on the grounds (or at nearby Chatsworth, another Bess home), those visitors will almost certainly be presented with the opportunity to buy a copy of Hardwick Hall: A Great Old Castle of Romance; but even readers who only dream of becoming Hardwick visitors some day can now do the next best thing to walking around the place and gawking. Thanks to our editors and their contributors, those stay-at-homes can now gawk at leisure.