If I could have an imaginary dinner party, I would invite Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington. Only ten when his father died, he inherited estates in London, Chiswick, Yorkshire and Ireland. Burlington House (now the Royal Academy) became the centre of the Burlington set. Musicians, writers, artists and sculptors gathered to discuss the ‘right models’ of antiquity to formulate taste. Taste was of enormous importance in the eighteenth century and Burlington was its greatest patron.
The entrance to Chiswick House and its sixty-five acre garden is off the westbound carriageway of the A4, near the Hogarth Roundabout. The postcode is W4 2RP
Described by John Gay as ‘Beloved of every Muse’, Burlington wanted to raise the importance of the arts and introduce an academy of arts to compete with the Royal Society. Burlington found his perfect emissary in Alexander Pope. He brought back presents for Pope from his first Grand Tour of 1715 and found lodgings for Pope and his parents near his house at Chiswick. Pope wrote enthusiastically to his friend Martha Blount: ‘I am to pass three or four days in high luxury, with some company at my Lord Burlington’s; We are to walk, ride, ramble, dine, drink and lye together. His gardens are delightfull, his musick ravishing’.
In 1719, Burlington set off on his second Grand Tour in order to study the designs of the sixteenth century Italian architect, Andrea Palladio. Palladio was inspired by the buildings of ancient Rome and in 1715, his works had been translated into English by Giacomo Leoni [Lyme Park]. Burlington met William Kent in Rome and they struck up a close – if improbable – friendship.
At Chiswick, Burlington started to transform the formal gardens to provide theatrical settings for his garden buildings. Unlike architecture, there were no plans of Roman gardens so Burlington relied upon descriptions from the Classics. Pliny the Younger described the clipping of ‘tonsile evergreens’ to create various animal forms [the Latin word for gardener is topiarius] although Pope in his article in The Guardian was against such ‘monstrous Attempts beyond the reach of Art itself’. There’s a wonderful painting of Chiswick by Pieter Andreas Rysbrack which illustrates three axial paths flanked by high green clipped hedges punctuated by Burlington’s garden buildings at each end.
In 1726, Burlington began building a Villa next to his grandfather’s house, based on the designs of Palladio’s Villa Rotunda near Vicenza. On either side of the entrance, Burlington placed statues of his mentors, Palladio and Inigo Jones. Unsigned, they were probably executed by Giovanni Guelphi who had met Kent in Italy and also lived at Burlington House.
Kent was primarily an artist but with Burlington as his patron, he became involved in various branches of the arts including interior design, furniture, silverware and garden buildings. He also designed the royal barge for Frederick, Prince of Wales. But perhaps it was his illustration of poetry that led Kent to start practising as a landscape gardener in the early 1730s. Greatly influenced by the writings of Pope, Kent agreed that the ‘Taste of the Ancients’ was not to clip hedges into different shapes but to strive for the ‘amiable Simplicity of unadorned Nature’. But Burlington limited Kent’s involvement at Chiswick to the west of the Villa where he allowed him to create a lawn down to the naturalised lake and the cascade.
Kent proposed designing an exedra at Chiswick but this idea was rejected by Burlington. Kent later used the design at Stowe for Lord Viscount Cobham.
Kent became one of the most influential garden designers of the first half of the eighteenth century. Horace Walpole wrote in 1782: ‘At that moment appeared Kent, painter enough to taste the charms of landscape, bold and opinionative enough to dare and to dictate, and born with a genuis to strike out a great system from the twilight of imperfect essays. He leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden’.
In 1738, Hans Sloane was about to demolish Beaufort House in Chelsea, along with the gateway designed by Inigo Jones. Burlington saved the building and brought it to Chiswick. William Kent added the following postscript to his letter to Selina, Duchess of Huntingdon:
Ho! Gate, how came ye here?
I came from Chelsea the last year
Inigo Jones there put me together’
When I was dropping by wind and weather.
Sir Hannes Sloane
Let Me Alone
But Burlington brough me hether
Burlington also introduced Cedars of Lebanon to Chiswick – some of the first to be planted in England.
As Burlington had no sons, on his death the estate was inherited by his daughter Charlotte, wife of the 4th Duke of Devonshire. The 5th Duke demolished the Jacobean house, added wings to the Villa and commissioned James Wyatt to design the stone bridge over the lake.
The 6th Bachelor Duke grew up at Chatsworth along with his sisters and the menage a trois of his parents and Lady Elizabeth Foster. A keen bibliophile and horticulturist, the Duke appointed Joseph Paxton as Head Gardener at Chatsworth. The Duke kept a large collection of exotic animals at Chiswick including Sadi the elephant, emus, kangaroos, monkeys, giraffes, an Indian bull and cow and a Neapolitan pig. He also commissioned Samuel Ware to design the Conservatory to house his extensive collection of camellias.
But in 1860s, the Devonshires moved out of Chiswick moving the majority of the contents to Chatsworth. They let the house for thirty-five years to the Tuke brothers. Drs Thomas and Charles ran the estate as a private asylum for rich individuals with mental health problems. With the Tuke’s enlightened views on mental health, patients were given few drugs – their days were filled by walking around the gardens, talking and playing cricket.
In 1929, Chiswick House was bought by Chiswick and Brentford Council. The same year, Prince George opened the site to the public. In 1948 the Ministry of Works took over and amazingly for the 1940s, they began to restore the house and gardens to Burlington’s design.
Today Chiswick House and Gardens is run by an independent trust who work with the London Borough of Hounslow and English Heritage Trust.
There’s an excellent coffee shop and there is parking on site although you have to be patient to get a space. The other option is to park in one of the surrounding residential streets.