Hardwick Hall

Hardwick Hall exudes the ego of Bess of Hardwick — its builder — as much as it is today buffeted by the constant drone of traffic from the nearby M1 motorway, both equally transient and fleeting yet strangely permanent. You can block out the noise pollution that arises from below but the ego from the past pulses through the place with unstoppable energy.

Hardwick Hall is one of the National Trust’s flagship properties. As an Elizabethan masterpiece it is important nationally and thus deserves a significant upkeep budget to keep attracting visitors (well over a quarter of a million of us in 2018). Its famous soubriquet of “Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall” attested to Bess’s wealth at a time when glass was more expensive than stone or brick. With such fragile and thin glazing the requirement for tapestry to keep out the drafts resulted in Hardwick also having an extraordinary collection of Elizabethan tapestries. Externally, the Countess of Shrewsbury’s initials and coronet adorn the parapets fourteen times. There is no modesty in this abode of the Queen of the North. It’s been a flagship since the day it was built, a prodigy house intended to welcome the true Queen, Elizabeth, who never did visit.

Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall
Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall, where Bess of Hardwick’s initials and coronet adorn the parapets fourteen times
The west façade of Hardwick Hall

The west façade of Hardwick Hall

The east façade of Hardwick Hall

The east façade of Hardwick Hall

The west façade of Hardwick Hall, detail

The west façade of Hardwick Hall, detail

The south façade of Hardwick Hall

The south façade of Hardwick Hall

The west façade of Hardwick Hall, detail

The west façade of Hardwick Hall, detail

Parapets and towers of Hardwick Hall

Parapets and towers of Hardwick Hall

The Hardwick coat of arms atop the west façade - with real antlers fixed to stone

The Hardwick coat of arms atop the west façade — with real antlers fixed to stone

Finials atop the west court garden wall at Hardwick

Finials atop the west court garden wall at Hardwick

Old Hardwick Hall

Old Hardwick Hall

The procession upwards to the Elizabethan Long Gallery

Hardwick was designed to provide a theatrical experience, particularly for those who visited its wealthy owner. The entrance hall spanned the depth of the building, front to back, and was filled with light and bright furnishings, an unusual and distinctive configuration. The owner would be waiting at the top of the building, on the second floor, so a procession up three flights of stairs was necessary, the final one being a curved, stone staircase. Up on this second floor are Hardwick’s two principal spaces, the High Great Chamber and the Long Gallery. No visitor to Hardwick will easily forget either.

The Hardwick coat of arms in the Great Hall

The Hardwick coat of arms in the Great Hall

Tapestries flank the steps up through the house to Hardwick's state rooms

Tapestries flank the steps up through the house to Hardwick’s state rooms

Ascending with anticipation towards the state rooms

Ascending with anticipation towards the state rooms, one is reminded of the curved stone steps at Wells Cathedral

Hardwick Hall's extraordinary Long Gallery, here hung with an exhibition of photographs of contemporary high-achieving women

Hardwick Hall’s extraordinary Long Gallery, here part-hung with an exhibition of photographs of contemporary women — Rachel Adams’ We are Bess exhibition

The alabaster chimney-piece in Hardwick's Long Gallery

The alabaster chimney-piece in Hardwick’s Long Gallery

Full-length portrait of Mary Queen of Scots

Full-length portrait of Mary Queen of Scots, whose custody was assigned to Bess’s last husband the Earl of Shrewsbury (amongst others)

Hardwick’s Long Gallery is not the longest in the country. Montacute (this website) pips it at the post. However, it is the largest, due to its height and width.

Our visit coincided with the We Are Bess exhibition arranged in conjunction with the National Trust. Hardwick’s Long Gallery is the archetypal space for hanging historic portraits. Bess of Hardwick used the space for portraits of her own family and for important and influential people of the day. Twenty new, large photographic portraits of contemporary women were hung alongside these for the exhibition. Many of these women were household names, familiar to us from the TV, such as the historian Professor Dame Mary Beard and the news presenter Cathy Newman. Others were less well-known, private individuals. Their portraits attempted draw out the similarities between themselves and Bess, Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury.

The High Great Chamber and its plaster friezes

Extraordinary though Hardwick’s Long Gallery undoubtedly is, it is the High Great Chamber that leaves the stronger mark. This is where the countess would have greeted her guests and served them dinner. A massive alabaster and marble chimney-piece and Brussels tapestries telling the story of Ulysses and his wife Penelope decorate the lower walls. Above them ranges an extraordinary plaster frieze depicting Diana the huntress flanked by a sinewy forest of trees through which deer, lions and wild boar are chased down and slaughtered by hunters and their hounds, all in three-dimensional relief. The original foliage green and red of blood and robe stand out against a background of ghostly grey. On one wall, elephants and camels attend the hunter-goddess’s commands. On another, a unicorn witnesses a hunter plunging a halberd (or boar spear) into the rump of a wild boar. Here is Diana, virgin goddess of the hunt, in her sacred grove, co-opted by Bess of Hardwick as amplifier of her own feminine power. If anything, the comparison served to amplify the magnitude of Bess of Hardwick’s ego. (The photograph below — captioned with asterisks — is a panorama stitched from three separate photographs. This was tricky to accomplish so the detail captured might not be widely available. Worth a click for the large version.)

Hardwick Hall's High Great Chamber

Hardwick Hall’s High Great Chamber

Detail of Hardwick Hall's High Great Chamber frieze with canopied chairs

Detail of Hardwick Hall’s High Great Chamber frieze with canopied chairs

Hardwick Hall's High Great Chamber royal crest frieze

Hardwick Hall’s High Great Chamber royal crest frieze

Panorama of Hardwick Hall's High Great Chamber frieze, north wall
* Panorama of Hardwick Hall’s High Great Chamber frieze of Diana the huntress, north wall *
Detail of Hardwick Hall's High Great Chamber frieze
Detail of Hardwick Hall’s High Great Chamber frieze

I remain largely dispassionate about Hardwick. Even its Elizabethan heritage fails to help its bling-factor get through my defences. This post is unashamedly intended as a vehicle for pixels so much more than words.