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The bold-as-brass initials of Countess Elizabeth, Bess of Hardwick, stamped in black against the sky over Hardwick Hall, make one of the most memorable sights in British architecture. Few clients have so successfully laid claim to their commission, and with such panache, literally covering it with their own signature. Even now Hardwick Hall's attribution to the architect Robert Smythson is not 100 per cent certain. Bess has been the unchallenged leader in client chutzpah for the past ...

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