The collection at Hardwick
Hardwick is internationally renowned for its collection, most notably its textiles, largely sourced and collected by Bess of Hardwick in the later years of the sixteenth century.
By the mid-1590s when Hardwick Hall was taking shape, Bess had already furnished her great house at Chatsworth, but could only bring a small proportion of the contents with her when she moved back to Hardwick.
So, in the winter of 1592, Bess went on a shopping spree in London.
What did Bess buy?
Among her purchases were the Gideon set of tapestries purchased from the estate of Sir Christopher Hatton for the huge sum of £326 15s 9d.
Five pounds was deducted because Bess had to change the Hatton coat of arms to her own.
She also purchased a smaller set of tapestries that now hang in the Drawing Room and a set of tapestries that hang in the Green Velvet Bedroom.
The set of tapestries in the High Great Chamber, telling the story of Ulysses, were also brought second-hand and have been in the place since 1601.
While Hardwick is rightly famed for its tapestries, the collection holds some of the finest and most complete embroideries in the country.
The most impressive of these are four large appliqué wall hangings depicting the ‘Noble Women of the Ancient World’.
Four of these panels survive at Hardwick, each with a strong female character from ancient history, flanked by personifications of their respective virtues.
Created for Bess
These pieces of embroidery would originally have been made for Bess while she lived at Chatsworth in the 1570s.
Once brought to Hardwick, they hung in the Countess' private Withdrawing Chamber, where the symbolism of the subject matter sent a powerful message to her visitors.
Two of the four embroideries, the pieces known and Penelope and Lucrecia, have undergone painstaking conservation at the National Trust's Textile Conservation Studio in Norfolk and are on display on the ground floor of the Hall.
Hardwick’s carpet collection
Hardwick is home to some rare and unusual carpets, some of which date back to the time of Bess of Hardwick. In the Tudor period, carpets were not generally used on the floor. As expensive materials, they were to be admired, being used to cover tables. There are a number of such carpets in Hardwick's 1601 inventory as well as an unusual reference to a ‘foote carpet’.
One example is a silk carpet from Isfahan, Iran, created in the first quarter of the 17th Century and woven in green, blue and buff silks with gold- and silver-wrapped threads, with a floral border and a complex pattern of floral palmettes and scrolling stems in the main field.
Up-cycling Elizabethan style
The high quality materials used in medieval church vestments found a new purpose in the costume and furnishings of the wealthiest in society during the Reformation in England.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Noble Women set of embroideries is this re-use of much older material.
Each panel costs around £100,000 to conserve and every visit to the Hall and cup of tea sold, helps with this work.
Lucretia, depicted with her virtues of Charity and Liberality, has been successfully reinstated at Hardwick.
The two remaining panels Zenobia and Artemisia patiently await their turn to be conserved.
Four years after Bess moved into Hardwick, she compiled a list of all the objects in the house, giving a unique insight into the furnishings of an Elizabethan house.
Besides textiles, there are other parts of the collection which have national significance.
An unusual carved table
Chief amongst these is the Sea Dog Table, a walnut table supported by chimeras or ‘sea dogs’ resting on tortoises, and partly gilded.
The table was based on engraved designs of about 1560 by the French architect Du Cerceau. Understood to be the only one of its kind in the country, if not the world, the seadog table is one of the most important pieces of furniture in England.
A decorative inlaid table
Also, one of the rarest surviving pieces of furniture in England, the Eglantine Table can be seen at Hardwick. Taking its name from the motto inlaid into the centre of its top, the central board is of walnut the upper and lower friezes are made up of fruitwood and limewood planks of various sizes. It is inlayed with floral slips, playing cards, gaming boards, including chess and backgammon and a variety of musical instruments and scores.
Another favourite is the inlaid chest initialled G T, constructed by German craftsmen in London. It is assumed that this chest was created for Gilbert Talbot, Bess' son-in-law.
Hardwick contains many portraits of family members, but the most notable among them is a famous portrait of Queen Elizabeth I.
Attributed to Nicholas Hilliard (c.1547-1619), the portrait features a dress covered with fantastical sea creatures.
Hardwick Hall is the legacy of a woman who had the vision, wealth and sheer audacity to commission a house that shouts innovation from the rooftops.
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Read how wealth, power and ambition drove Bess of Hardwick to build her grand design, filled with a treasure trove of fine furnishings that can still be seen at the Hall today.
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