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Blog: The Green World of the 17th Century

Written by: Sarah Barrett

In the first section of this talk Lisa Hopkins, of Sheffield Hallam University, spoke about
Shakespeare’s works in relation to the green world, and in particular bears and flowers. Then Crosby Stevens, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield, looked at the use of landscape in decoration at the Cavendish family residences Hardwick Hall and Bolsover Castle.

Some common themes of green spaces were discussed, including the idea of economic exclusivity (that these green spaces were only for the well-off), hard vs soft pastoral and links to magic, mythology and escapism. I went to this talk as it loosely tied into some of the lectures during the last year of my archaeology course;  I’d previously studied the green world in Ancient Roman wall paintings, and the architecture at the Cavendish country houses, as well as recently visiting them.

One of the clearest examples of magic and escapism being linked to green world in Shakespeare’s works is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where some of the lead characters run away to the woodland and through the machinations (and mistakes) of the fairies their problems are eventually solved. However, the forest wall decorations on the Cavendish estates contain more mythical than purely magical references, from the appearances of certain deities such as Diana and Venus, to subtler references to particular stories, like Actaeon the hunter, that link into the family’s heraldry.

Each member of the Cavendish family had a slightly different coats of arms but there were shared elements that appear across the residences; stags, roses and crescent moons. These elements appear throughout both the High Great Chamber at Hardwick Hall, built by Bess of Hardwick, and in the Elysium Closet off the main bedchamber in Bolsover Castle, commissioned by her grandson, around twenty-five years later.

The High Great Chamber frieze had another interesting element; there are three different forests that are woven through each other. The first is fairly open, containing familiar sights such as farmers and hares and is inspired by local woodland in the Peak District. The second is possibly inspired by Europe and the Near East, containing two hunting scenes and animals such as gazelles and bears.

The last is more exotic still, containing palm trees, lions and even unicorns with other mythical and historically inspired occupants. As you travel towards the far end of the hall where Bess of Hardwick would sit under both a canopy and the central figure of Diana, you would travel though these to reach the older and exotic sections of the forest, symbolically blending the real and picture space.

The Elysium Closet also shares this idea, in this case that the deities around the ceiling would visit the people in the room below, and under certain circumstances real people could appear to take on mythical roles.

It’s going to be interesting to revisit these houses with all this in mind and see what imagery I can spot in these two rooms.