Christmas has arrived at Chatsworth. The celebrations are the result of months of planning and preparation by Chatsworth’s Christmas committee, comprising members of the family, the exhibition team and the collections team.
Here, Christmas creative lead, Susie Stokoe, provides insight on this year’s theme and the work that goes into putting a display together.
Why did you choose a Nordic theme for this year’s Christmas at Chatsworth?
We wanted to achieve a different atmosphere in the house this year, inspired by the calm and tranquillity of Nordic places. The theme celebrates the natural world and places an emphasis on natural materials and sustainability. We have made a conscious effort to use reusable or recyclable items in our Christmas displays and strive to make small but significant changes, such as reducing our use of glitter and plastic.
We were also really excited about how the Nordic theme might translate to our garden light trail. The look and feel of the house is embedded in the experience visitors have in the garden, and it's been great to bring in a consistent colour palette and to echo features like the Northern Lights over the Canal Pond and the wands of light around the Maze.
Where do you source all of your Christmas decorations?
We make as many decorations as we can ourselves using sustainable or natural materials. There are a number of garlands and wreaths in our display, including those in the West Sub Corridor and around the dining room table, that have been made using foliage from the woodlands and hedgerows on the estate. It’s a great way to use cut back branches from annual husbandry at Chatsworth and brings an authentic woodland aroma to the displays. All foliage is dried and thoroughly debugged before use.
Where we can’t use live foliage, either due to weight or because we can’t easily replace them if they start to wilt, we use faux foliage and store it to reuse again in the future.
This year a lot of time was invested making the giant Finnish himmeli decorations in the Green Satin Room. These are constructed from recyclable pure paper straws and cotton. The gingerbread house in the Ante-Library was baked by hand and includes windows made from melted boiled sweets rather than plastic.
We sometimes commission the larger pieces. This year, the large sculpted ‘ice’ wall in the Oak Room was outsourced and is made from wood, wire and a papier-mâché style card covering.
If we have to buy in decorations we start shopping in February and actively seek items made from sustainable materials, such as glass, wood, metal and paper. New baubles go into our general bauble ‘stock’ and will be reused in future displays, such as the paper stars on the West Sketch Gallery, copper floral rings on the North Sub Gallery and the cute brush woodland animals in the dining room display.
How long does it take to decorate the house?
Three weeks before launch we begin to move collections objects and artworks on and off the Christmas visitor route. As you can imagine, when handling items that are very precious and hundreds of years old this is a delicate and precise task. We then have one week where we install all of the pre-built or bought items and decorate 50 different Christmas trees. We have 29 artificial trees and 21 real trees, which are grown on a farm in Yorkshire.
How many baubles do you put on the trees?
This year, we have more than 140 different types of bauble and, altogether, we use around 19,000 baubles around the house. Some of our favourites include the hand-blown glass baubles in the hand-built window frames in the West Sub Corridor. We originally purchased these in 2014 for Alice’s Christmas in Wonderland. We love the way the colours catch the light.
What is the hardest place to put up a decoration?
It can be really hard finding new ways to display things in a historic house. We can't drill into walls and don't always have power sources in convenient places. This means we have to get creative, for example installing zip wires in the North Sub Corridor to suspend the foliage hoops.
Which room was your favourite to do?
I love the Sketch Galleries this year. It is lovely to be able to include an interactive element such as the wish trees on the South Sketch and many of our visitors enjoy contributing to the exhibition. I feel the snowflakes hanging from the ceiling on the West Sketch are a simple yet incredibly effective way of creating an immersive experience and can easily be recreated at home.
How do you stop the trees from looking bare and sad by the end of the Christmas period?
We place our trees in buckets and make sure they have plenty of water. Sometimes we have to replace the trees that are looking a bit sad towards the end of the season. We do this overnight so nobody notices.
Where do you look to for inspiration for new themes?
We're looking all the time and take inspiration from all kinds of sources. For example, this year, many of the ideas came to me whilst walking through woodlands and experiencing the magical dappled sunlight on the forest floor. Christmas can be a little chaotic for some and it falls at the end of a busy and, for many, uncertain year. We’ve recreated sensory experiences, such as the sights, sounds and smells of woodland and walking beneath clouds that are heavy with snow in the sky, to provide our visitors with the opportunity to take a moment to breathe, slow down and appreciate the beauty in the detail.
Chatsworth at Christmas runs until 8 January 2023.