The Elvaston Estate manifests many centuries of activity and improvement. There is written evidence that indicates that by the reign of Richard II (1377-99) there was a well-established substantial manor, estate and gardens. This is supported by St Bartholomew’s church, which is adjacent to Elvaston Castle, being, in part, early 13th century.
In the early 16th century the Elvaston Estate was acquired by Sir Michael Stanhope and the Stanhope family resided at Elvaston for over four centuries. William Stanhope, the great, great, great grandson of Sir Michael was created the first Baron Harrington in 1730, rising to the first Earl of Harrington in 1742.
The 3rd Earl, Charles Stanhope, commissioned James Wyatt to undertake extensive remodelling of the house. James Wyatt died in 1813, by which date the designs for what was to become ‘Elvaston Castle’ were more-or-less complete. After Wyatt’s death the commission was undertaken by Robert Walker, who realised much of Wyatt’s vision by 1819.
It is rumoured that the 3rd Earl invited ‘Capability’ Brown to Elvaston. If this is true it must have been at the outset of the 3rd Earl’s tenure as Brown died in 1783. It was reported that Brown declared the “place so flat that there was such a lack of capability in it that he would not meddle with it”¹
In 1829 the Estate was inherited by the 4th Earl, also a Charles. He must have been keen to continue the work initiated on the house by his father, as he appointed architect Lewis N Cottingham to work on extensions and interiors at Elvaston. The 4th Earl also introduced William Barron to Elvaston as Head Gardener in 1830. It was Barron who, more than anyone else, established the character of the Park and Gardens as we see them today.
The 4th Earl, was a nineteenth century eccentric ‘dandy’ who, towards the end of the 1820s, met and fell in love with Maria Foote, an actress, who, by the order of the day, had something of a chequered past. The couple married in 1831, and were not received well in London society. In part, as a result of this, the Earl and the Countess retreated to Elvaston. The 4th Earl appointed William Barron to create romantic pleasure grounds for the married couple.
Barron did this by utilising his passion for conifers, developing the practice of transplanting mature trees and by creating fantastic elements of rockwork structures. Barron worked for the 4th Earl until his death in 1851 and then, with a much reduced garden staff, for the 5th and 6th Earls until Barron left Elvaston in 1865 to set up a nursery in nearby Borrowash.
¹ William Barron, The British Winter Garden, 1852, p.2