Charred tapestries go on display 90 years after devastating fire
29th August 2016 by Loren Robertson
Charred tatters that were part of one of Britain’s greatest tapestry collections are to be publicly displayed for the first time, close to the Derbyshire stable where the collection was stored for safe-keeping but was instead destroyed by fire in 1926.
More than 60 tapestries, including some from the 15th century, were completely destroyed. The surviving scraps, including parts of a spectacular series of six 17th-century tapestries on Vulcan and Venus, were rolled up and stored in one of the tower rooms. Gathering dust and forgotten for almost a century, they were recently rediscovered, cleaned and conserved so their battered beauty can finally be displayed.
The scraps form part of an exhibition at Haddon Hall on the importance of fire in a historic house – not just as a source of devastation, but in the provision of cooking, light and warmth in the centuries before gas and electricity.
Haddon Hall, parts of which date from the 12th century, is rare among English mansions in having escaped a major fire. However, in 1926 a blaze swept through its stables while the house was being restored by the grandfather of the present owner.
In 2006 the local fire brigade was bombarded with calls from horrified neighbours who believed the mansion was engulfed in flames: in fact they were witnessing a sophisticated pyrotechnic display while the house was used as a substitute for Thornfield Hall in the BBC’s adaptation of Jane Eyre; Thornfield is eventually gutted in a blaze started by Mr Rochester’s crazed wife.
Haddon Hall’s current resident Lady Edward Manners said every room in the house showed evidence of the importance of fire. “The fragments of the once magnificent tapestries which were destroyed are a poignant reminder of the impact of the burning flame, but are still so beautiful that we believe they will be intriguing for people to see today,” she said.
Although many rooms are still hung with English, Flemish and French tapestries, the family’s most prized works – including some by the famous Mortlake workshop in south London, and the Gobelin in Paris – were in the stables when the blaze started.
The house, now a family home as well as a tourist attraction, was empty for centuries before the Manners family moved back in the 20th century. One 19th-century guide book suggested that for poignant contrast, a tourist should visit the bustle of Chatsworth and the deserted beauty of Haddon on the same day: “Now all is silence and loneliness within its bounds. Two hundred years have elapsed since it was inhabited.”