This week’s local history topic for Hayes FM radio station was Chiswick House. Located between the Hogarth Roundabout and Chiswick Bridge, it was for almost 200 years in the possession of the Dukes of Devonshire until surplus to requirements, they offloaded it early last century, leaving local authorities scratching their heads as to what to do with it. Demolition was a very real option. In the 1950s, the Georgian Group and others pressed for restoration to its original specification. More recently, the gardens have benefitted from a National Lottery-supported £10 million overhaul by the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust, founded in 2005 for the purpose. The project was completed last October.
So now this architecturally highly-significant early-Georgian villa, run by English Heritage, is as close as can be to its condition when built in 1729. The house was designed by its owner the 3rd Earl of Burlington. His protégé William Kent – who later became a prodigious architect in his own right – did the interiors and also developed the entire garden. This was towards the end of a period when for over fifty years the English Baroque of Wren, Hawkmoor, Vanbrugh, Gibbs and the like held sway. Burlington, who had taken no fewer than three Grand Tours to Italy, was determined to change all this, starting with Chiswick. Imbued with the ideas of Palladio (and many others, it must be emphasised), he determined that Chiswick would be as near as a classical Roman villa as it was possible to be. The structure of the building, its dome, its rooms, its decoration, fittings and furniture are highly symmetrical, ordered, proportioned. It was to represent the Augustan Age, to Burlington and his circle the high water-mark of Western civilisation and its purpose to influence a new Augustan age in England. More than a building, it was also a showcase of English intellectualism.
The interior of Chiswick House deeply interesting and lavish. The ground floor is low ceilinged and functional. The action is mostly on the first floor. The central space – the Tribunal – is a domed octagon. Each of its eight faces displays large paintings – portraits of Charles I and II and other Stuart dynasty worthies. More on that shortly. Extending outwards from the tribunal are the other rooms, all of which are shaped strictly on classical forms. The decor and furnishings are likewise based on classical themes, most notably nautical: shells, fish scales, Venus and other sea gods. Statues, stone vases, portrain busts, pedestals and guilded chairs and tables abound.
The whole building is dripping with classical symbolism. But what’s this? Thistle motifs. Burlington was ostensibly a good Whig who supported the nascent Hanoverian dynasty. But many of his friends were Catholic intellectuals and writers (e.g. Alexander Pope). It is known that Burlington impoverished himself with his building schemes and it has been a long-standing mystery as to how he kept going. Recent scholarship – ongoing – suggests that he was being supported financially by the Young Pretender and that their relationship much closer than hitherto suspected. So Burlington was playing a dangerous game. So his villa was both an homage to Augustus and to the Stuarts, whom he secretly considered the rightful monarchs of Britain. (UPDATE: 6/7/11: I haven’t got this part right at all. Please see Ricky Pound’s clarification in the comments).
The “Architect Earl” had two daughters. The elder pre-deceased him and the younger married the 4th Duke of Devonshire who consequently inherited the estate. The Duke’s daughter-in-law, the famous Georgiana Spencer, was one of the big personalities of her age. She was beautiful, vivacious, the leading hostess of her day. She loved parties, having affairs, heavy gambling and politics. Chiswick House was very dear to her and there was nothing she liked more than throwing garden parties for leading Whig politicians of the day. When she died with the equivalent in today’s money of £3 million of gambling debts, her husband – the 5th Duke – was said to have muttered: “Is that all?”
Through most of the 19th Century the Devonshires rented Chiswick House out. For some decades around the turn of the 20th Century, it was adapted as a hospital for the mentally ill before the family eventually sold it off.
You may be interested in architecture, history, interiors, painting, sculpture or gardening. Or perhaps you just appreciate the finer things in life. Whatever the case, Chiswick House will do it for you.
QI Fact: William Hogarth was a close neighbour of Burlington’s in Chiswick. Although he was obliged to get on with the Earl (they were both closely involved in the Foundling Hospital, for example), he despised neo-classicism as being un-English and therefore unpatriotic. He hated Kent. When invited to paint the figures in a picture of Chiswick House, he impishly depicted them looking away from the building.
QI Fact ii: Joseph Paxton, creator of the Crystal Palace was talent spotted by the 6th Duke of Devonshire while working in the gardens at Chiswick.
Chiswick House Gardens are open year round and entrance is free. The house is open from March until October on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday. Entrance is £5.50, very reasonable in comparison with many similar attractions.
Special thanks to Ricky Pound of English Heritage for generously sharing his massive knowledge on the house and its contents and on Burlington and Kent.
Chiswick House and Gardens
Chiswick House and Gardens Trust
English Heritage Prints
Wikipedia is sound on Chiswick House, Lord Burlington, William Kent and Georgiana Cavendish (Spencer)