Christmas at Chatsworth - behind the scenes as the House prepares for the festive season
00:00 13 December 2015
Ruth Downing (Rural Pictures)
Penelope Baddeley takes a pre-Christmas look behind the scenes and discovers from Head Housekeeper Janet Bitton just how much work is involved
HER office presents a bewildering visual feast. Fighting for attention with the busy wallpaper is a giant model of a mole wearing purple latex cleaning gloves. Against one wall there is a mounted deer head wearing a pink tinsel necklace and no visitor can ignore the full-sized Snow Queen silver throne, a vestige of one of many Christmases past.
In the vast array of bookshelves there are manuals on cleaning amongst some otherwise esoteric volumes on the aristocracy. But centre of attention on the desk is a thick file marked in huge lettering: ‘CHRISTMAS’.
This is the work space of Janet Bitton, the Head Housekeeper at Chatsworth House and although it is early September when I call, the festive season is already in full swing.
Janet’s job involves responsibility for the upkeep of the magnificent ancestral home of the Cavendish family and other buildings on the estate including the old Elizabethan lodge known as the Hunting Tower and the Swiss Cottage, situated near the lakes in the magnificent Chatsworth parkland.
‘It’s not just getting the pledge out and spraying the furniture,’ she explains, waving aloft a brush made from finest goat’s hair.
‘It’s conservation cleaning and it’s a precise art.’
The goat’s hair brush is currently being trialled for dusting gilt work; firmer brushes made from hog’s hair are used for woodwork and carvings.
‘We also have to use white, lint free dusters which are hemmed so that they don’t catch on anything dangling,’ she adds.
Janet, who grew up in Darley Abbey and has a BA Honours degree in Illustration from Bristol University, first started work as a guide at Chatsworth before getting involved in housekeeping and all the attendant razzmatazz of Christmas at the country house, which last year attracted some 90,000 visitors.
Her earliest housekeeping tasks were to dust intricate carvings, working up on scaffolding, in the state rooms in the oldest part of the house that stretches back to the 1680s – the first Duke’s period.
She said: ‘I presumed it might be a bit boring but it was nothing like that. I got the cleaning bug.
‘And I’ve always loved history. Growing up in Derbyshire I always thought of Chatsworth as our little gem. Our Buckingham palace. So it’s my dream job.’
Her achievements en-route to gaining the post as Head Housekeeper, include a qualification as a trained scaffold erector.
‘I have a five year pass as a scaffolder,’ she announces proudly.
But Janet’s prime role is care of the public route that visitors take on their tours in Chatsworth House and the biggest part of that job is sorting out Christmas.
It’s a mammoth task undertaken by a small close knit team. She laughs: ‘You couldn’t make up my job description, you really couldn’t and this part of it is absolutely ridiculous and I love it!’
Since 2001 the house has been opened to visitors for the Christmas period and each year the décor is based on a theme and has become grander with each passing festive season, involving many dozens of Christmas trees, yards of great garlands, copious amounts of fairy lights and very elaborate large-scale theatrical props. This year the theme is inspired by the popular classic text by Kenneth Graeme: Wind in the Willows and visitors can interact with their favourite fictional characters as they explore the route through the house.
Planning for the event began sixteen months ago, with meetings by a small team from housekeeping and the Collections department. It’s an annual cycle.
‘We have little meetings and bash out the ideas. We do try and stretch the boundaries as much as we can each year. Some of our ideas are quite ridiculous and not always practical. We have gone quite mad in the past.’
As Head housekeeper Janet has contact with the Duke and Duchess and has found them both easy going and approachable.
‘Once we have a theme we will meet with the Duchess to get approval. She loves Christmas and likes to get involved with it. She will come round with us. We walk the route, scribble notes and generally get very excited.
‘The Duchess will say what she thinks. She particularly loved the theme of Alice last year and she lent us all sorts of things from her personal library; beautiful books that we used for research purposes. She pops in with ideas. She thought up the Narnia theme in 2013.
‘In fact when we had got it all set up the Duchess suddenly realised that we did not have a handkerchief for Mr Tumnus – the one he finds in the snow which belongs to Lucy Pevensie. So the Duchess got the textiles department to embroider a handkerchief with Lucy’s initials and we left it by the lamppost on a bank of fake snow.’
The Christmas team, in tandem with the Chatsworth retail department, makes its first shopping expedition for Christmas in February. They head to the NEC in Birmingham for the Spring Fair and spend a day in the Christmas section checking out the baubles and getting ideas.
‘We buy what will go with the theme, what we think we might need, stock up on colours we might be running short of. This year we’ve restocked on basic traditional colours such as holly green, Christmas red and gold. We do have a budget for Christmas but I wish we didn’t!’
Meanwhile the retail department buy gifts that will tie in with the theme to sell at the Chatsworth shops.
‘We also find companies on the internet to supply our needs and what we can’t buy we make,’ said Janet, who carves and paints props during rare quiet hours. ‘I take on anything they throw at me.’
She gestures to the large water rat currently perched on her bookcase. She’s just finished making its tail from some old rope that was once threaded between posts on the Chatsworth House guide route. Its tail has been finished with a smooth coat of plaster of Paris and by the time you read this article the rat will be happily reclined in the lap of a luxurious bath tub in an ensuite bathroom attached to a guest bedroom on the second floor of Chatsworth House.
The Christmas flurry is in full flight by mid September. During my early autumnal behind-the-scenes visit, tapestry rails have been re-commissioned as storage for huge swathes of gorgeous green garlands. A member of the textile team is knitting beautifully detailed and colourful hedgehog stockings for a Christmas hearth tableau in ‘Badger’s Kitchen’ (The Oak Room).
In the Drying Room of the Old Laundry Janet has been undertaking art work featuring the main protagonists of Wind in the Willows.
‘I’ve been allowed to take this place over,’ she says. At her feet there are huge boxes of twig decorations, which are being used in imaginative ways to create woodland and riverbank scenes throughout the Christmas Chatsworth visitor route.
We walk through the old Beer Cellar, which is now used entirely to store Christmas decorations. There are endless shelves stacked with neatly labelled boxes of baubles in every imaginable shape size and colour and paint finish; Russian eggs, candy canes, glass cupcakes.
Fake snow is stored in black bin bags and a snow machine peeps out from behind some heating pipes.
By the first week in November installation activity reaches a crescendo. A team of about 20 strong work their way through various points in the house, decorating.
‘During installation week we sometimes we stay here until ten at night,’ said Janet.
‘It is all hands on deck. It does start to get a bit stressful at this time and throughout the family has to live here. They are very amenable and put up with all sorts of work going on around them.’
Over the years Janet has picked up tips and tricks, she knows by sight how many baubles are required to dress a 24 foot Christmas tree. Some of the trees require six sets of lights.
The estate is this year adorned with 42 real Christmas trees, 15 of which are inside the house. The majority are Nordman Pine, which retain their needles well.
‘The number in the house is slightly down on last year but people aren’t going to think they have been diddled out of trees,’ says Janet. ‘Where for example there might have been two small trees in the chapel, we have gone for a single larger tree.’
An additional cohort of large and luxurious artificial trees has been used to decorate rooms with particularly delicate furnishings to avoid damage to historic carpets and hand-printed Chinese wallpapers. Thousands of baubles have been wired by the housekeeping team and volunteers have been drafted in from other departments to help dress the trees in the traditional colours. Chatsworth has been re-imagined as a story book and visitors are invited on a magical Christmas journey, with unfolding scenes bringing to life the well-loved literary characters of Ratty and Toad.
This year expectant visitors approach the magical event via a marquee, which affords shelter from the wintry weather for the queues of people who come from all over the world to visit the estate.
‘It’s an extra room to decorate which is great!’ says Janet enthusiastically. The marquee features twiggy recessed windows through which visitors can see Janet’s oil-painted scenes of Toad, Ratty and Badger.
Janet got her big break as a worthy artist at Christmas 2010 when she painted scenes of Babushka’s cottage for the Russian themed Christmas of 2010.
‘It got a bit silly after that,’ she said happily.
For 2011, she suggested re-creating the streets of Bethlehem in Chatsworth’s chapel and painted 14 MDF panels measuring 4 feet by 12 feet. The result was featured in the Times magazine that year.
This year the public route for Christmas visitors has a series of stunning focal points, which start in the North sub-corridor with a view of mole, in his house, who is to be found up a library ladder decorating his Christmas tree. Through a doorway created by the Chatsworth joiners there’s a jetty scene. Mole and rat can be seen loading presents into a boat, ready to go to Toad Hall for Christmas.
‘It’s this kind of moment that is magical for visitors,’ said Janet. ‘What the staff here at Chatsworth create is amazing.’
In the usually private area of the West sub corridor the visitor enters the Wild Wood – a glittering and colourful display installation created by Chatsworth’s head of textiles, Susie Stokoe.
Some areas of Chatsworth house present difficulties when it comes to decorating. Each year at Christmas the Christmas team tends to cover the dramatic and startling Damien Hirst sculpture in the chapel, ‘Exquisite Pain’. The art work depicts St Bartholomew, who was skinned alive, holding out his own hide. ‘It’s an astonishing work but we gently mask it,’ said Janet. This year it is being screened by a chapel door, created in wood by George the Chatsworth joiner, and visitors will be able to see a more upbeat scene of a mouse choir.
The beautifully carved Oak Room has been transformed into Badger’s Kitchen – one of the areas where members of the public can interact with a member of the guide team assuming the role of the woodland character.
‘The Duke and Duchess’s grandchildren are frequently at the house at this time of year and really enjoy looking around,’ said Janet.
There are comic and detailed touches for the observant such as Janet’s portrait of Toad, situated in the grotto, which bears a strong resemblance to a famous portrait of the fourth Duke.
The Painted Hall has been transformed into a Baronial Hall with a 24 foot traditionally dressed tree, a swagged staircase and garlanded cat walk. Visitors can climb the staircase to enter a series of rooms on the second floor.
‘It’s the first time since 2005 that visitors have been able to do this,’ said Janet. ‘The queues on the staircase used to be so heavy we were concerned about the fabric of the house and damage to the collection but we have decided to try it again this year because we have a new timed ticketing system so we can regulate numbers and make it nice and safe.’
The public is invited to dress up in The Green Satin Room, with a variety of costumes made by the textiles team.
Janet commented: ‘It is aimed at children but often adults cram themselves into the costumes – especially middle aged men!’
From a balcony there are views of a roof-suspended sleigh driven by Toad, the backdrop of which is a wall displaying family portraits of the Cavendish family.
The route then takes in the Chatsworth library and Dome Room before visitors reach The Great Dining Room to witness a weasel fight, with creatures spilling over the table and climbing the curtain pole.
But the showstopper belongs to the Sculpture gallery where the huge stone feature tazza vase has been transformed by Set One of Derby into a champagne glass fountain with a model of toad toasting the public as they enter the room.
Here there is also Toad’s crazy little car, which moves to and fro in front of a huge photographic backdrop of the Chatsworth estate created by Chatsworth’s photographic librarian Diane Naylor.
‘People can sit in the car and have their photograph taken in it as if they are bumbling along across the Chatsworth Park,’ laughed Janet.
Chatsworth at Christmas opened on 7th November and closes 3rd January. When the last member of the public is ushered out, the Christmas team will already be thinking about Christmas 2016 as they engage in a deep clean of the grand country house. As Janet concludes: ‘Ah yes, we have already had a chat about Christmas 2016.’
This year Chatsworth is operating a timed ticketing system for the house during Christmas to reduce queuing times. Book online in advance to secure a selected entry time – www.chatsworth.org.
DID YOU KNOW?
2001 was the first Christmas at Chatsworth open to the public. The event was a simple affair organised as a measure to increase visitor numbers following the devastating outbreak of foot and mouth disease which had effectively closed the countryside off to tourists. It was themed as ‘A Traditional Christmas’ and visitors flocked in their hundreds, making the event a resounding success. The late Dowager Duchess was personally involved and is said to have helped place decorations on the sculptures. By 2010, some 60,000 visitors passed through the doors during the festive opening season. Last year this had risen to 90,000.
RECENT CHRISTMAS THEMES AT CHATSWORTH
2010 A Russian Christmas
2011 Deck the Halls
2013 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
2014 Alice in Wonderland