Appreciation of style and design can come in many forms, and today we’d like to share a profile of a British architectural and artistic treasure. Chiswick House and Gardens, an oasis of beauty inside London, is an English Heritage site worthy of being visited by any gentleman in town. Conceived as a neo-Palladian temple of the arts meant for entertaining rather than comfortable living, the villa and its surroundings probably absorbed about twenty years of the life of its creator, the third Earl of Burlington, together with a good deal of his money.
Between 1726-1729, the years when it was erected, and again the middle of the 19th century, the villa went through modifications introduced by new owners and slight changes of use. While Burlington favored select artistic gatherings, during the late 18th century Georgiana, wife of the fifth Duke of Devonshire, preferred lavish parties and political events. At the beginning of the next century, the sixth Duke of Devonshire gave parties more in the style of semi-official receptions. In 1844, Prince Albert (the future King of Saxony) attended a party at the house with other 700 members of the British nobility to celebrate Tzar Nicolas I. For the occasion giraffes were on display with their Egyptian handlers. Elephants, elks, emus, kangaroos, an Indian bull and a Neapolitan pig were also among the exotic animals introduced by the Duke.
The decline of Chiswick started in the last decade of the 19th century, when Chiswick became a mental institution. By the 1950’s a plan of restoration was already attempting to reestablish the original design of the house and the garden. Newly restored gardens were unveiled in 2010.
Chiswick House and Gardens are at a 25 minute train journey from Waterloo Station. Detailed information about opening hours and traveling options is available online . The entrance to the gardens and the conservatory is free. An adult ticket to visit the House costs £5.70. An excellent guide of 50 pages is available at the ticket office (costs £2.90), while a basic audio guide is included in the ticket and is worth of trying – it will explain the destination of use of the different rooms and make easier your walk. I was told that the visit to the two floors of the villa takes about 45 minutes, but couldn’t force myself to leave the rooms before two full hours of endlessly exciting exploration. The gardens could keep you busy for many more hours and even persuade you to bring back an English basket for a perfect picnic. A play area for children is also available but looks almost pointless to me, given the many wonders that can be found just wandering randomly through the garden.
One of the earliest and most important neo-Palladian villas in England, Chiswick House was designed by Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington, with advice from William Kent, painter, architect and garden designer. The capitals of the portico are copied form the ancient temple of Jupiter the Thunderer in the Roman Forum, which had been illustrated by Palladio.
The entrance piers topped by sphinxes mark the limit of the road than in old times used to run closer to the villa.
At the beginning and for few years the villa, which wasn’t meant to be used as an independent house and was lacking bedrooms and kitchens, stood alongside the old Jacobean house purchased by Burlington’s grandfather in 1682. The separation soon proved impractical, and in about 1732 a two-storey link was added. In 1788 the new owner, the fifth Duke of Devonshire, decided to demolish the Old Chiswick House.
The normal entrance to the villa is the door on the rustic story (ground floor). Steps leading to the entrance located at the first floor level would have been used only on grand occasions.
Ground floor. The Exhibition Room and the Circular Library.
Ground floor. A later bust of Napoleon Bonaparte in the library.
Ground floor. The Link Building, with John Cheere’s lead sphinx.
Cellar. Barrels located in the room underneath the Lower Tribune.
First floor. The Tribunal was the first room that visitors entered on arriving via the portico on formal occasions. The plan of the villa is formed by rooms of different geometrical shapes – square, circle, rectangle, octagon – arranged around this central octagonal hall. This feature, completely new to England, was probably derived by Burlington’s study of Palladio’s plan for Villa Rotunda and Palladio’s drawings of the vast bath complexes of ancient Rome (also owned by Burlington).
First floor. The Gallery, a suite of three rooms separated by small arches.
First floor. According to a recent and alternative interpretation, the Red Velvet Room could have been designed by Burlington and Kent – both freemasons – as a masonic meeting place. Most of the architectural solutions employed in this room are derived from Inigo Jones’ designs.
First floor. The Blue Velvet Room, Burlington’s study, is the most richly decorated in the house. Again, the room might have been conceived as the setting for secret meetings of a Craft lodge (Craft masons were known as ‘Blue Masons’).
Gardens. In the exedra (a semicircular recess typically crowned with a half-dome) designed by William Kent around the 1730’s, Burlington’s collection of ancient and eighteenth-century sculpture find place on a background formed by the dark yew edge. In the first design of the exedra, the background was constituted by a more expensive stone screen.
Gardens. The north facade of the villa as seen from the exedra.
Gardens. The Ionic Temple and obelisk in the Orange Tree Garden.
Gardens. The ‘patte d’oie‘ can be traced back to the oldest part of the history of the garden surrounding Old Chiswick House. This arrangement of radiating avenues was probably laid out around 1716 and originally each vista ended with an an ornamental building.
Gardens. According to the Trust that runs the House, “the gardens at Chiswick are the birthplace of the English Landscape Movement and have inspired countless gardens including New York’s Central Park”. Indeed Chiswick was probably the first place where the world famous English ‘natural style’, idea of William Kent, was put into practice. Photo: Trees on the west side of the house. View of the woods at the north of the villa. One of the many unusual varieties of plants that can bee observed in the gardens. Grey heron on a willow tree.
Gardens. A ‘river’ was created by Burlington starting from the stream called the Bollo Brook that originally run on the side of Old Chiswick House. It was widened first into a formal canal and then into a naturalistic lake. The stone bridge, built for the fifth Duke of Devonshire in 1774, replaces a wooden predecessor.
Gardens. Brooms along the path leading to an obelisk which incorporates a copy of an ancient carved relief clearly show how the gardens were conceived as a collection of many different views.
Gardens. The Italian Garden, laid out for the sixth Duke of Devonshire in 1812, hosts the conservatory completed in 1813. The Middlemist’s Red can be found in the old collection of camellias in the conservatory. Imported in 1804 by John Middlemist, in a time when rare plants were imported as valuable goods voraciously purchased by the aristocracy of London, this camellia is thought to be only one of the two known exemplars in the world (the second one being in New Zealand). More photos of this camellia are available here and in the gallery below.
This great house tour was written by our fellow reader Federico Truffi. If you want to contribute to the Gentleman’s Gazette as well, please contact us.