Saturday, 28 April 2018

Chiswick House & Gardens

Burlington Lane, Chiswick
London W4 2 RD
Thursday April 26 2018

Both of us had visited this property before in weather fine enough to be able to picnic but that was not to be the case today. It was a pleasant walk from Chiswick Station and when we had wavered on the platform as to which exit to take a woman had helpfully indicated the main exit – adding we were not to miss the Conservatory.

Passing some well-heeled SW London properties and also some delightful WW1 Almshouses (restored), we arrived at the Burlington Gate, which gives you a clue as to whom the property originally belonged. Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington , who inherited  at a the age of 10 years, lived when in London  at Burlington House which is now the Royal Academy of Art.  Like many of his age he embarked on the Grand Tour which in his case seemed mainly to be a ‘gap year’ spent shopping: he returned with no fewer than 878 trunks of purchases, and then needed somewhere to put them. On his second tour he did focus more on the sights and sites and fell in love with the classical Palladian villas he visited round Vicenza, Italy. He also wanted ‘somewhere in the country, near the Thames’ to entertain friends and continue supporting the Arts, by now home- grown ones, hence Chiswick. By the time the house was rebuilt to this design (the previous wooden structure having burnt) he had acquired a wife, and eventually there were three girls.  Chiswick was used for fun and pleasure and summer entertaining. Since it is seemingly without a kitchen, presumably the food was brought in ‘Deliveroo’ style?? Other artistic folk were nearby – such luminaries as Pope and  John Gay, author of the Beggars’ Opera.

During our visit marquees were being erected in the garden, presumably for some corporate or private function, and we thought it must have been little different in Burlington’s day. His stroke of genius was to get , William Kent, whom the Earl met in Italy, to design the house, the garden and some of the contents.  Kent had started  as a painter but then became the architect and interior designer who came to define early Georgian England , a style that many still feel is the most quintessentially English – it isn’t of course but it has lasted well and with its classical symmetry is very soothing. So in Chiswick he gave Burlington, and ultimately the Nation a classical gem.

The actual house entrance was not very well marked and we must have walked round what felt like 1½ times before finding the right door as of course one is not permitted to enter via the grand staircase.
The downstairs of the villa housed both a salon and the Duke’s library, though none of that remains, and some of his larger ‘souvenirs’. On the whole he did better with the statuary than the paintings, we thought, and quite enjoyed the randomness of a Sphinx here and a Napoleon there, but with little light and no furniture the general impression is of a rather grandiose cellar; cold in both the physical and the emotional sense. 
Lack of signs, again, meant we did a few circuits looking for the stairs – one of the drawbacks of symmetrical buildings, we discovered, was that all four corners look alike internally and the stone (presumably servants’) stairs are well tucked away.

However, the climb is rewarded with a some very ornate rooms, and at this level with generous windows overlooking the landscaped gardens complete with modern marquees. Five /six rooms surround the central domed salon, which as can be seen from the exterior views has a grand and glorious domed roof/ceiling decorated with both paintings and plasterwork. The gallery especially, where the colour palette is restricted to white and gold really shows up the workmanship of the apse niches and ceiling. The introductory film had alerted us to the two side/console tables, which had been restored and photos of which I seem to have found from a previous visit. (Photography is not now allowed on this level.)

 The surrounding rooms are respectively the Red, Green and Blue Velvet rooms – the latter has a  pile/flock wallpaper  in a deep intense blue.

In the Domed Saloon (if careless with my double vowels I could call it the doomed salon) we dutifully namechecked the various paintings and confirmed that most were indeed ‘after Van Dyck’ or ‘after Reni’ with some bona fide Knellers.  We felt perhaps the Italians saw all these money rich/time poor Brits coming and sold on some hack works... On the other hand much of the original contents of this house were relocated to Chatsworth.

Through marriage this property became part of the Devonshire Estates and while successive Dukes did live here it was never a main residence. In some ways this was probably a good thing as the main interior rooms were spared too many ‘makeovers’ and were left as we find them today. The 5th Duke added a side building and made several changes in the garden going for a more informal look – winding paths rather than too many straight vistas. His is the pretty bridge.  His wife, Georgiana, portrayed in the film 'The Duchess' did some of her partying here. English Heritage had added some placards to celebrate the ‘Women of Chiswick’ which of course included Georgiana, Anne Venables, a Chiswick housekeeper and Eleanor Coade, who devised a secret formula stone suitable for statuary and building. While she was not local to Chiswick there are several samples of Coade Stone work within the garden, so perhaps a suitable place to remember her.

Various less illustrious, though no less moneyed, tenants followed and by the twentieth century the house was in some disrepair and shortly before the Second World War it and the park were passed over to what is now English Heritage and Hounslow Local Authority. Much restorative work was needed with many of the later additions removed and the garden restored to a more Burlington /William Kent era lay out.  The park is a joy with mature trees, water (originally the Bollo brook) and points of interest – bridge/ columns, lions etc – dotted throughout. It is also very well used by the whole range of park people: runners, dog walkers, families.

We had left the Conservatory to last, excited by the thought of a collection of historic camellias only to find there was a private function with no admission for Jo Public . At this point  April did its thing and dumped a very cold shower on us when we were furthest from shelter  so we cut our losses and headed briskly back to the station and the restorative warmth of a SW train (I never thought I would say that)  and central London after a somewhat muted morning out.  

PS The photo shows some ‘home-grown’ camellias…

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