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Monday, October 18, 2021

Inside the battle for Chevening – the luxury estate that ministers just can’t stop fighting over

Boris promptly put his feet under the table at Chevening – literally. A Country Life article in 2017 by Julius Bryant described Chevening’s treasures: 13 ancient Roman tombstones in the garden; and, in the hall, a set of rare, 16th-century armour built for the Duke of Medina-Sidonia, commander of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Beneath the armour sat Boris’s contribution to the house: “The Foreign Secretary’s pink running trainers.”

Boris’s trainers apart, it’s easy to see why Cabinet ministers would kill to get their mitts on Chevening. Occupants have to pay for their own private living expenses there but government departments pay for official business.

And, in return, you get one of the loveliest country houses in Britain all to yourself – that is, as long as you’re not forced to share it with Nick Clegg or David Davis. 

The stately home is thought to have been built in 1630 by one of the finest British architects, Inigo Jones, who introduced the classical style to the country in its perfected form. Its design is certainly in the style of Inigo Jones: with three central bays, Ionic pilasters topped by a pediment, and a hipped roof. It was this style that, 85 years later, inspired Palladianism, the movement that dominated British architecture in the early 18th-century.

In 1717, the 1st Earl of Stanhope, a general under the Duke of Marlborough and George I’s chief minister, took over the house, employing Thomas Fort to add the handsome pavilions on either side.

For 250 years, the Earls of Stanhope lived at Chevening. The Stanhopes were scientists, inventors and politicians. The 7th Earl, who bequeathed the house to the nation, was a Cabinet minister under Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain.  

The 5th Earl helped to found the National Portrait Gallery. At Chevening, he collected and arranged family portraits by, among others, Kneller, Ramsay, Gainsborough, Romney and Lawrence. There is still a library containing the rare books owned by the 1st Earl and his father, Britain’s Ambassador to Spain.

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