Houses gradually changed their style throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries until we arrive at the Baroque Period. In England the Baroque is roughly dated from the reign of Charles II to the end of the Stewart period in 1714. The chap who put Baroque on the English map was Sir Christopher Wren in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666. St Paul’s is a Baroque masterpiece.
The Italians, who were masters of the Baroque had a thing about stairs – so halls changed once again to accommodate the aforementioned stair cases and the word stair-hall was coined. There are some extremely impressive stair halls at Versailles. They were meant to intimidate visiting ambassadors. The key elements of a Baroque stair hall are marble, niches, with illusory scenes and a sense of airiness created by trompe l’oeil as well as ceiling lights. It’s all very big and dramatic and screams money and power at you. It’s supposed to scream learning and appreciation of the arts as well…the one thing it doesn’t do is whisper understated refinement.
The most impressive Baroque stair hall I can think of is the one at Chatsworth House. Bess of Hardwick’s building project was given an overhaul in 1687 by the 4th earl of Devonshire (he went on to become the 1st duke). The Painted Hall as it is known was designed by William Talman – it has heaps of marble, sculpture, art and a richly decorated ceiling. The Devonshires appear to have a gene that demands the occasional spot of building work but although the hall has been modified across the centuries the Baroque splendour remains stunning.
I must admit that there are a several of things that I love about Chatsworth aside from the stunning backdrop and the Emperor Fuuntain – always interesting when the art exhibition is in residence; the hunting dogs situated in the Elizabethan courtyard (though they’ve shifted during renovation work), the intricate carvings of Grinling Gibbons, artifacts belonging to Mary Queen of Scots and a delightful portrait of Magdalena de Vos painted by her father Cornelius.
However, given that it’s Christmas I thought that today’s advent is Chatsworth decked for Christmas. This year there’s a Dickensian theme but the last time I went the theme was Wind in the Willows and what could be better than a Baroque stair-hall and Mr Toad? And let me assure you that there’s nothing quite so wonderful as the sight of stoats and weasels having a riot on a table fit for a queen!
John Templer The Staircase: History and Theories, Volume 1