Elvaston Castle as we see it today, dates from the early 19th century and the time of the Gothic revival. It was Charles, 3rd Earl of Harrington, who ordered the re-building to replace the old brick-built, gabled manor house which had been the home to the Stanhope family for some 200 years. A small part of that building remains at the right hand end of the south front, where a red brick section with mullioned windows bears the date 1633. The 3rd Earl was 60 years of age when he turned his attention to rebuilding Elvaston, by which time he was established and influential enough to commission the leading architects of the day. He chose James Wyatt who began his designs for Elvaston in 1812.
James Wyatt was a Staffordshire man, who quickly acquired great skills as an architectural draughtsman during his time spent in Venice, Italy. He worked in Rome and returned to England and designed the Pantheon in Oxford Street, receiving many private commissions during his career, working on over 100 country houses in England, Ireland and Wales. Wyatt’s greatest love was Gothic architecture and it was this style which bought his fame. His greatest masterpiece is probably Belvoir Castle, remodelled for the Duke of Rutland in the early years of the 19th century. Wyatt’s skills as a Gothicist were sought also for restoration work in colleges, churches and cathedrals, including Lichfield and Salisbury.
Elvaston Castle was one of Wyatt’s last commissions and he did not live to see his designs finished. He was killed in a coaching accident in September 1813 and another 2 years passed before Lord Harrington appointed Robert Walker to continue the work. Walker never achieved fame, but from 1815 to 1819 he supervised the re-building of Elvaston Castle, following James Wyatt’s original design.
The new castle with its battlements and turrets was linked to a large courtyard, complete with a water tower of the same Gothic design. On the south side of this new courtyard was the hound enclosure and 2 gatehouses, one either side of a Gothic archway. On the west side, another archway under a clock tower led through to the pump yard, with its deep coach wash, coach house and harness rooms, beyond which lay a fine new stable block. Nearby on the south-west, Elvaston Church with its much earlier embattled tower, completed the scene.
The 3rd Earl would have liked a new landscaped garden to complete his plans and with this in mind, he approached Capability Brown. He turned down the commission explaining that ‘the place is so flat and there is such a want of capability in it’. However, he did present a disappointed Lord Harrington with 6 seedling Cedars of Lebanon which were planted to the east of the castle and grew into magnificent trees.
After Lord Harrington’s death in 1829, it was left to his son Charles to finish the work at Elvaston. The 4th Earl like his father, favoured the Gothic style but in his case, it was an obsession and for the next 20 years he watched over the creation of a garden that became the talk of England. The death of the 4th Earl of Harrington in 1851 was indeed the end of an era for Elvaston and with it came an opportunity long awaited. The 5th Earl, Leicester Stanhope, opened Elvaston to the public at an entrance fee of 3 shillings a head. It was a high charge for those days but such was the reputation the gardens had acquired, it made no difference, people flocked to Elvaston in their thousands.
With the passing of time the gardens and in particular the topiary, began to show signs of neglect. In 1969 immediately after they bought Elvaston, Derby Parks and County Council put into action a plan to restore the grounds which were to be opened to the public again just 12 months later. An extensive programme of tree surgery began and a new parterre garden was designed on the same site to the south of the castle. William Barron was undoubtedly a major influence on planning style during the mid 1800’s and Elvaston Castle Country Park stands as the most complete example of his work remaining to this day. In October 1990 English Heritage listed the gardens and grounds of Elvaston as ‘outstanding’ an indication of its unique historical importance.
In 1969, following the alteration of authority boundaries, Derbyshire County Council took on the management of the estate and continue to do so to this day.