Bess' fireplace at Hardwick Hall

The overmantle of Bess' fireplace at Hardwick

Anyone who has the impression of Bess of Hardwick as a severe and rather humourless old dame need look no further than the fireplace in her bedroom at Hardwick Hall to see how wrong they are.

It is a confection of ribbons and straps, gurning and grimacing and acres of cavorting (semi-) human naked flesh modelled in plaster and stone. Supported on a pair of voluptuous columns carved as terms (figures with human top halves and columnar bottoms) swags of fruit and straps, apparently of leather, create a fantastical framework on which a pair of satyrs trip the light fantastic and two comically monstrous heads pop out.

Bess' own fireplace
Carved plaster overmantle featuring cherubs and satyrs at Hardwick, Deryshire

Beneath this scene of sensual jollity two cherubs sit on the mantel smiling at the foolishness and adding a touch of Christian morality to the proceedings. At the centre is a large oval of Derbyshire blackstone (a local marble) on which later generations have hung portraits but which today is left blank, inviting the thought of what would you place in the midst of such a bacchanale?

Stern-faced support
Statue supporting fireplace at Hardwick, Derbyshire

The design was not thought up by the plasterer alone (probably Abraham Smith) but with the help of engraved designs published in collections, largely in the Netherlands.  This overmantel seems to derive from designs in Jacob Floris’ 1566 publication ‘Compertimentorum….’

The final decision, however, will have been Bess’. She oversaw the work on the New Hall and signed-off the accounts, so she must have chosen, or at least agreed to the presence of so many naked mythical creatures enjoying themselves over the fireplace in her bedroom. What a splendid vision of joy and vigour to wake up to each morning and to go to bed with each night.