Arbella and Evelyn

Arbella and Evelyn

I’m always interested in how information is communicated.  I suppose, in some ways you could say I’m more than just interested since it’s more or less what I do for a living.  Being a visual kind of person and one of those who can’t see words of any kind without reading them, I found our visit to Hardwick Hall last week particularly fascinating.


It’s another of those places we’ve driven by hundreds of times, but always on our way to somewhere else and never bothering to stop.  But on our way home from Yorkshire, it was the perfect place to spend a few hours.


Though we’d always associated Hardwick Hall with Bess of Hardwick, when we arrived, it was clear that the focus was a little wider.  In fact, we found Bess was given a mere cameo role in the story of the Hall, because the two exhibitions right now tell the stories of Arbella and Evelyn, two ladies about whom we had no idea. 

The first person we “met” was Arbella, The Lost Queen.


My first reaction was of slight irritation, since there appears to be a current inclination to hang all kinds of heritage upon the stories of lonely young women (think Sissi, Georgiana, Marie Antoinette and, I suppose, she who may have initiated the trend: Diana)  It’s a bit of a safe route to take: there are probably oodles of tales to be told about the overlooked women in wealthy and powerful families and I think it’s hard to avoid the cliché.  However, we soon became fascinated by Arbella’s story and though my Hero was into the historical references, it was the means of presentation that caught my eye.


The initial clue to what was to come was in the very first room where pieces of paper “flew” over our heads with a question:


Which adjective best described Arbella?  Wilful? Deceitful? Lovable? Unfortunate?  The answer was probably all of the (literally) above.


The historical facts were presented in bite sized chunks in an assortment of frames on one wall.  Though I can’t say I read every one, I paid particular attention to the story of Elizabeth 1, the Earl of Essex and William Cecil, Lord Burleigh, because we were going to the opera that evening and Roberto Devereux was on the programme and I knew nothing!  Those short paragraphs were perfect to capture my attention, because I am no historian.


But yes, I will read any words placed in front of me, especially if they are concerned with fabrics and textiles of some kind and are presented in an eye catching setting.  Like on a fabric hanging.


Or on a flight of steps.

(My hero and I had a discussion about which way around these should be placed – I stood at the bottom and read from the top; he read individual steps as he went and felt they’d be better ordered from bottom to top!)


It was hard to know where to look, such were the riches on every wall.  I’ve never seen so many tapestries in a single building before!


Even the walls which could not practically be covered by tapestries were furnished with interesting and attractive alternatives.


By now, though, we were getting quite a good picture of Arbella.


I still felt the need to go and read every cushion though.


Each one was different.


There were other artworks in the hall to look at as well.  My goodness, how could we have left it so long to come here?


Anyway, more information to take in.  This time, along a wall in the gallery where a tapestry had been removed for conservation, a rack of wooden boards with further chunks of the story were set out.


I didn’t re-order them but I did take an opportunity to interact.


The mirror was carefully angled and presented a few more details.  Nothing took too long to read and as we wandered around, we were learning quite a lot about Arbella and her sad story.


But suddenly, it came to a close.  Her residence at Hardwick Hall ended and the remainder of her story was told in a single sheet.  Did they run out of space?  I have no idea, but I thought it a shame that the exhibit fizzled out like this.


Because in the next room, we were to lurch into another timeframe altogether.


I read doormats as well.


Thankfully, our first queries about where Evelyn fitted into the general Cavendish/Devonshire family were answered by the family history laid out like a place mat on the huge dining table.  Evelyn was the current Duke of Devonshire’s Great Grandmother and lived at Chatsworth until the death of her husband, when as the Dowager, she moved to Hardwick Hall, part of the Devonshire Estate.  (Of course, the Devonshire Fell Hotel, where we’d spent Wednesday night is also part of that considerable estate too)


The principal attribute of Evelyn’s story was that of her interest in needlework and as a result, much of the information was presented on embroidery frames or similar.


In modern National Trust style, some places were set out for “audience participation” – a couple of chairs were set by a table with baskets of knitting and sewing.  I quite liked the cushions


even if I don’t really need a reminder of what a chair is for.


The stories of Evelyn’s life travelling the world were shown in suitcases.


And her interest in trying to conserve the wealth of textiles at Hardwick Hall was highlighted, too.  It seems that not only did she try painting in some of the faded areas of Elizabethan tapestry, she actually had a go at washing one of them and was horrified when it shrunk!


On the landing was, in my opinion, the weak spot of the exhibition.  One of Evelyn’s roles had been the “mistress of the robes” to Queen Mary and the gown she wore to the coronation of King George V had been recreated and displayed on the landing.


It was a good vehicle for telling the story of the relationship between Evelyn and Queen Mary, but I found the whole thing rather clumsy and less sensitive than other areas.


Or maybe it’s just my aversion to pink and white satin!


Her bedroom contained what was described on the pillowcase as “a modest bed for a Duchess”.


Surprisingly modest furniture too, but chock full of interesting bits and pieces.


Yes, of course I had a good poke around!


I really like the way the National Trust are starting to present information in this way though I imagine it takes quite some maintenance to keep it all crisp and fresh.


Handwritten letters such as this give a real insight to the person, I think, and I enjoy taking a close look at them.


It’s always worth opening that drawer that no-one else did, too, because you never know what you might find!


Throughout the house, we’d appreciated the lack of ropes and barriers to taking a closer look but it was only here in the last room that I noticed the “marker” – there on the floor was a wooden moulding which was surprisingly effective as a borderline not to be crossed.


The story of Evelyn’s life told, then, we felt it was time for a sit down, even if we did have to go and find the cafe!


I suspect it won’t be long before we return to Hardwick, too.  it’s another one of those “just off the motorway” places well worth visiting, if only we’d bothered…!



Just off the motorway

Just off the motorway