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The Lost Houses of Derbyshire – Old Kedleston Hall by Maxwell Craven

The Lost Houses of Derbyshire – Old Kedleston Hall by Maxwell Craven

No-one knows what the ancient hall at Kedleston looked like, except that it was built before 1198 by one the earlier Curzons, which family had inherited the estate by 1100 probably through marriage from the Domesday Book holder, Wulfbert, who held it from Henry de Ferrers.

We do know, however, that a new house had been built by about 1600, but whether it was an Elizabethan prodigy house, or a late Medieval pile, we do not know, only that by 1664 it was taxed on a pretty substantial 22 hearths, making it about the same size as Calke Abbey and Drakelow then, both of which were taxed on 23 and both of which have either gone or been rebuilt entirely. Barlborough Hall, a miniature version of Hardwick is the only house in the county to survive of equivalent size, having been taxed on 21 hearths.

However, the Curzons, by 1641 honoured with a baronetcy, decided to replace the house entirely around 1700, and the resulting very handsome house had been completed before the end of the decade, for it was described by county historian William Woolley in 1713 as having been ‘built a few years ago’. He then goes on to describe it as ‘a very useful noble pile of building of brick and stone on a little eminence which is pretty conspicuous,two of the fronts are to be good building.’ 

A painting fortunately survives, showing the house as it was about 1750, surrounded by its brick stables and late Medieval or early Tudor outbuildings, the latter closely resembling those once at Markeaton Hall, being of box-frame timber on a buttressed stone plinth. The house was of two storeys and attics, with hipped roofs punctuated by dormers, and with projecting full height pavilions at the angles. One or two windows appear to have crossed mullions and transoms, and most have pediments, possibly added later.

As the family would have had to reside in the house’s predecessor during building, we presume that it was erected on a new site, probably slightly to the west of the old one, hence the proximity of the church to the present house, a similar situation to that prevailing at Sutton Scarsdale, where the parish church (which after all originated as a domestic chapel) was perilously close to the south front. Perhaps the National Trust should have taken advantage of the dry summer to fly a drone over the site to see if any vestiges were showing up under the parched grass – but then again, they were probably too busy fighting their culture wars. 

Sir John Curzon, 3rd Bt. MP

Fortunately, a plan also survives, confirming the existence of the two bay pavilions at the angles, much like those at Calke Abbey, built at a similar date, and establishing that each symmetrical front was nine bays wide. The real prototype of this plan lies with Robert Hooke’s Ragley Hall, Warwickshire of the 1680s, and William Smith had used a variant of it already at Umberslade, in the same county. The entrance, to the south, gave into a spacious hall with a second large room, the saloon, beyond which was a lobby from which steps led down to the north terrace, where today’s main entrance is. Three of the pavilions contain a staircase, whilst the SE one merely houses the breakfast room. The west front, facing the church, consisted of a columned loggia.

We know the architect was either William or Francis Smith of Warwick (probably the two working together, as at St. Modwen’s church, Burton), because the painting, which hangs in the SE quadrant corridor of the present house, is so titled, but we do not know of the precise date of building nor which Smith designed it. Two celebrated craftsmen worked on the house, the Derby plasterer Joshua Needham and joiner Thomas Eborall, the latter charging a considerable £63 – 10s – 6d (£63.521/2). This building is usually assigned to Sir Nathaniel Curzon 2nd Bt. (1635-1719) who in 1671 had married Sarah, daughter of William Penn, whose kinsman gave his name to the American state. Yet he was already 51 by the time he inherited, and a dizzying 65 (for the time) when the house was probably started. Why would he go through all the upheavals of building a whole new and very grand house at that age?

His two sons John and Nathaniel, though, were 26 and 24 respectively, and the elder, a barrister, was elected Tory MP for Derbyshire in 1701, and one suspects was the driving force behind the move, no doubt supported by his brother, who entered Parliament for Derby just when Woolley was writing about the house, in 1713 and whose Parliamentary career continued until 1754. 

The Francis and William Smith house at Kedleston, from the painting of c.1750 at Kedleston

Woolley, in his account of the house includes an odd passage, writing, ‘There may be, perhaps, some deficiency in the roof as some critics have reported’ which is quite strong criticism for the time, but might well be the reason why Francis Smith had to return in 1724 and charged £54 – 1s – 0d (£54.05) for ‘alterations’. This visit may well have been to re-design whatever fault was found with the roof, at the behest of Sir John, 3rd Bt. Sir John also called in Charles Bridgman to design new park and gardens in 1724, and James Gibbs, fresh from designing Derby Cathedral, to design garden pavilions. 

Yet the house cannot still have been entirely satisfactory, for whilst Gibbs was there, he was asked to design a whole new house too, but Sir John died in 1727 and was succeeded by his brother, Sir Nathaniel, 4th Bt., whom he succeeded as MP for the county. Gibbs’s new house and the garden pavilions were set aside but instead, Francis Smith was called back again to re-design the interior of the house that same year, possibly on Gibbs’s recommendation, as the two frequently worked together (Smith as Gibbs’s contractor at Derby Cathedral, for instance). This must have been very drastic, for work did not conclude until 1734, which cost a further £48 – 10s – 6d (£48.521/2) in the architect’s fee alone. 

Mind you, all this was greatly helped by Sir Nathaniel’s marriage to Mary Assheton the co-heiress to two Lancashire estates in 1716, which was also a great boon when he lost his seat to a Whig at Derby in 1715, for he was able to stand successfully for Clitheroe on his wife’s patrimony seven years later, before returning to take over his brother’s seat in 1727. The last contribution Sir Nathaniel made to improving Kedleston was to appoint William Emes as his gardener in 1756, a man who went on to become a designer of landscapes almost as famous as Lancelot (Capability) Brown. 

Yet Sir Nathaniel died in 1758 aged over eighty, and his son, yet another Nathaniel, succeeded as 5th Baronet and who two years later benefited from the return to power of the Tory party on the death of George II by being elevated to the Lords as 1st Lord Scarsdale. Yet from the moment he succeeded, he was determined to replace the house, despite its being barely fifty years old.

As is well known, he engaged Matthew Brettingham to design a new house in the high Palladian style, with four separate pavilions connected by curving sweeps and entered from the north through a giant classical portico. Poor Bretttingham though, did not last long, being replaced rapidly with the much more sophisticated James Paine, who modified his predecessor’s design. Yet even that did not satisfy Sir Nathaniel, who quickly became involved in the realisation that it was the new Neo-Classical architectural style propounded by Robert Adam and Nicholas Revett that was the favoured style of the suddenly ascendant Tories, and Paine was accordingly ‘let go’, as the modern euphemism has it, being replaced by Adam, who kept Brettingham’s completed entrance front, but who entirely re-thought the rest and re-envisaged the south front entirely, which he based on the arch of Constantine at Rome and the interior, was entirely re-designed, the enfilade from the north entrance through the great hall, lined with a giant order of local alabaster columns through to the circular niched saloon beyond being one of the great architectural set pieces of Europe.  

Whilst the new house was going up, replacing its short-lived predecessor on the same site, the family lived first in the un-demolished parts of Smith’s house, and then transferred to the newly built (1759) family wing (still in use by the family today) whilst the rest was demolished.

Needless to say, not much survives. In the attic storey of the central block of the present house three splendid marble chimneypieces made for the previous house survive, re-positioned for the benefit (originally) of the staff and not on the visitors’ route through the house, otherwise little or nothing is left on site. Several carved oak panels of early Tudor work survived, too, built into a pair of George II settles, without doubt made for the Smith of Warwick house. These left the family’s possession, perhaps as early as the completion of Adam’s very thorough re-fashioning of both house and park and were last seen on offer at the Repton Hayes sale in 1935; since then, they have vanished entirely leaving just the 1750 painting of the house to see when you go to Kedleston today.


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