If I were to tell you that for the past few months I’ve been on work placement at Chatsworth, what would be the one thing you’d really want to know? I’d hazard a guess that your first question would be ‘did you meet the Duke?’ If only I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked that very question! That everyone is so interested in the Devonshires stands as a testament to the fact that the family holds a fascination for many – myself included. Whilst I may not have rubbed shoulders with aristocracy, I did have the opportunity to view some of the highlights of the Devonshire Collection whilst working in the archive.
My work was based on cataloguing the library of Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (1694-1753), otherwise known as the Architect Earl. It’s no surprise then to learn that the vast majority of his books relate to architecture. Andrea Palladio’s I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura in particular was a highly influential text and Burlington owned multiple copies. His marginal annotations to this and other texts reveal that he was not just a patron of the Arts, but that he possessed the knowledge and skill of a professional architect. A dedicatory poem inscribed on the flyleaf of one book hails him as the ‘British Palladio’, and Burlington was indeed instrumental in popularising the Classical style in Britain. If you’re not familiar with the man you might be familiar with his work, which includes Chiswick House in West London and the Assembly Rooms in York (now a branch of Ask Italian).
Alexander Pope for one acknowledged his friend and patron’s architectural prowess and fine taste in his Epistle to Burlington (1731), the draft of which is part of the Devonshire Collection. The changes Pope made between this version and the published editions of the poem became the focus of my research during my time at Chatsworth. In a letter of Pope’s which accompanies what is known as the Chatsworth Draft of the Epistle he notes that he intends to make changes prior to publication. When it comes to Pope there isn’t a definitive version of his work. He would constantly revise poems, not purely to hone his argument, but according to the intended audience and the ensuing public response.
Of course, the archival material relating to Lord Burlington only forms part of the vast holdings at Chatsworth. Of the thousands upon thousands of inspiring documents I have to say that the item that most appeals to me is a memorial book compiled by Lady Caroline Lamb upon the death of her aunt, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. The small leather-bound volume is mounted with a lock of Georgiana’s hair alongside which the initials GD are outlined in tiny freshwater pearls, whilst inside there are poems and watercolour paintings relating to her life.
This short interview was recently filmed for the School of English at the University of Sheffield to accompany a blog post that I’d written about my work placement at Chatsworth. You can read the full text here.