Many a householder has hacked away a bit of post-war “modernisation” to reveal a stunningly intact vintage fireplace beneath the plasterboard, but it’s a phenomenon usually associated with Victorian terraces – not one of England’s most magnificent stately homes.
But the biggest restoration in 200 years of Chatsworth, often cited as Britain’s favourite country house, has revealed an intriguing secret history.
Beneath the floorboards and behind walls, workmen found tools and other artefacts abandoned decades or even centuries ago, as well as examples of previous generations of tradesmen having “signed” their work in the manner of an Old Master.
One joiner writing in the 1880s, scribbled a note to his employer: “God bless the Duke of Devonshire... may he live forever for the sake of poor people.”
Another inscription, believed to date from the First World War noted that it had been “a sobering day” because so many lives had been lost.
Diane Naylor, a curator at Chatsworth, who has recorded the decade-long renovation in 16,000 pictures, said there were also many examples of tools, shoes, cigarette packets and bakers’ paper bags that had been dropped into voids and rendered irretrievable at the time, now having been discovered.
But she said the fireplace was the most surprising find of all. “It wasn’t on any of the plans,” she said. “Nobody knew it was there until a group of workmen discovered it behind a wall that backed onto the sculpture gallery.”
Repairers also found a plank with the names of people from nearby villages, together with comment on the news of the day.
One jotting from 1841 reads: “The Queen Victoria would not honour the Tories with her presence. The weather is very unfavourable for the harvest. Flour is 3/6 per stone. Trade is very dull. Many out of employ and starving. This winter will be a severe one. So down with the Tory rascals.”
The most obvious outward sign of the work, and the one visitors will see first when Chatsworth reopens in three weeks’ time, is the restoration of its gold leaf and pale yellow exterior stonework.
The 12th Duke of Devonshire, who has been behind the project and whose quarters will benefit from wi-fi as a result, said the “forensic research” that had gone into the work had been “inspiring”.
He said: “With the years of blackened grime now removed from the stone, it looks truly magnificent.”
The work has also seen improvements to Chatsworth’s infrastructure, much of which dated from the time of the 11th Duchess, Deborah Cavendish, who had installed a suite of new bathrooms.
“Her sister, Nancy Mitford, asked how she could possibly manage with so many,” said Ms Naylor.
“By today’s standards, it doesn’t seem many at all.”
An exhibition at Chatsworth, running from later this month to December, will detail its £32m renovation.
Weather damage and industrial pollution over the centuries meant cleaning and replacing gritstone across the whole exterior of the 300-room mansion.
All the new stone for repairs came from the same quarry, specially reopened, that was used for the building of the north wing in the 1820s by the sixth Duke of Devonshire.
Curator Diane Naylor said: “You can’t tell the difference between the old materials and the new ones.”