Chester Decorative & Fine Arts Society

A Member Society of NADFAS

Knowsley Hall, Prescot, Merseyside

On October 10th 2011 a group of Chester DFAS members visited Knowsley Hall, home to the Earls of Derby, where we were given a comprehensive tour of many of the ground floor rooms and a history of the family.

The hall was originally a hunting lodge and two towers from the Tudor period remain. Most of the architecture is Georgian, as some Victorian additions were taken down in the 20th century. The interior decoration is mostly twentieth century. W.H. Romaine Walker was responsible for major alterations between 1908 and 1914. There was another substantial restoration when the present earl inherited the estate in 1994 and developed it as a venue for private and corporate functions.

The Derby in the title is West Derby, an important place until swallowed by Liverpool. The family has a long and illustrious role in the history of Britain. The first earl is said to have found the crown at the battle of Bosworth and placed it on Henry Tudor's head. The family remained close to the monarchy, living in some splendour and owning vast areas of land. This was not always to their advantage. The 5th earl was rumoured to have been poisoned by Elizabeth 1st and the 7th was executed by the parliamentarians. There is a local and family tradition that the 6th earl wrote Shakespeare's plays. Following The Restoration the family gradually regained their high position. Most of the earls continued to hold important positions in public life, both locally and nationally. The 12th earl founded “The Derby” and “The Oaks”. His second wife was the Georgian actress Elizabeth Farren. The 13th earl was a keen natural historian, who had a large menagerie and extensive natural history library and it was his bequest in 1851 of some 20,000 specimens which formed the foundation of the important zoological collections of the National Museums Liverpool. The 17th earl continued the interest in racing and owned the celebrated stallion Hyperion.

Artwork of interest includes watercolours of birds by Edward Lear, who was employed by the 13th earl to paint and draw species in his collections. The house also contains letters and poems by Lear. There are three large paintings by Francesco Simonini, brought from Venice by the 12th earl. These are unusual, as they were painted on leather, gilded with silver foil before the paint was applied. There are copies of interesting works by Van Dyck, Lawrence, Romney and Daniël Mijtens . The Regency (Victorian embellished) state dining room displays portraits of all but the current earl, with their wives, providing a pictorial record of aristocratic fashion over hundreds of years.          

The grounds were landscaped by Capability Brown but unfortunately persistent drizzle discouraged their exploration!

Although the hall is open to groups like us, and attendees at functions, it is not open to the general public.