Growing up with a stately pile like Kedleston Hall just up the road, it’s no surprise that I developed a love of eighteenth-century country house art and architecture. Designed by Robert Adam for Sir Nathaniel Curzon, this Palladian palace was not built as a family home, but with the intention of being a ‘temple of the arts’ to showcase an impressive collection of paintings, sculptures and furniture – and visitors were welcome to view the spectacle as soon as the house was completed in 1765.
On 19th September 1777 Samuel Johnson was one such visitor, but he was far from impressed with what he saw – as recalled by his friend and biographer, James Boswell:
‘Dr Johnson thought better of it today than when he saw it before; for he had attacked it violently, saying, ‘It would do excellently for a town hall. The large room with the pillars (said he,) would do for the Judges to sit in at the assizes; the circular room for a jury-chamber; and the rooms above for prisoners.’ Still he thought the large room ill lighted, and of no use but for dancing in; and the bedchambers but indifferent rooms; and the immense sum which it cost was injudiciously laid out.’
Boswell was himself more inclined to admire what he saw and describes being ‘struck with the magnificence of the building.’ However, his observation that ‘the proprietor of all this must be happy’ was met with the retort ‘Nay, Sir, all this excludes but one evil – poverty’ from Dr Johnson.*
There’s no getting away from the fact that Kedleston is opulent but it was the right mix of ‘eighteenth-century bling’ that caught director Saul Dibb’s eye when it came down to selecting filming locations for The Duchess (2008). Interior and exterior shots of the Hall stand in for Althorp, Devonshire House and Bath – which can become a little confusing when you’re so familiar with the setting!
Today Kedleston is owned by the National Trust, but the Curzon family still inhabit the private east wing of the property, with the servants’ quarters and kitchen of the west wing now converted into offices and a restaurant. The main visitor route largely comprises the State Floor (the middle level of the central block). This opulent suite of rooms was never intended to be lived in, and so, alas, the State Bedroom has never been graced by a royal guest – but you can daydream about what it would be like to wake up in such resplendent surroundings by trying out the ‘Ked Bed’ installation which currently fills the void left whilst the heavily gilded State Bed (pictured above) undergoes restoration. The impossibly high frame makes a step ladder a necessity for climbing into bed, but once perched on top you’ll feel like the Princess and the pea. Just lie back and survey your kingdom – but maybe avoid falling asleep or starting a pillow fight!
Kedleston Hall is located 4 miles north-west of Derby and despite what Dr Johnson said it is well worth a visit. Check the National Trust website for opening times and admission prices.
*James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson ed. John Canning (London: Methuen, 1996) pg. 204.