Inspired by the recent lectures on the Thames Luminaries and unable to visit any gardens because of lockdown, I thought I would also delve into some of the gardens along the River Thames.
In the eighteenth century, this area around Twickenham and Richmond became a fashionable retreat from the ‘great and monstrous Thing called London’. Arcadian Villas, Ionic Temples and a Gothic gingerbread castle all popped up along the Thames. And a new garden philosophy emerged, challenging the formal style of seventeenth century gardens.
I shall start my virtual tour of this part of London at Chiswick House.
There were three main protagonists at Chiswick: Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, Alexander Pope and William Kent. And before discussing the garden, here is a short bio of the three men.
Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (1694 – 1753)
Burlington was only 10 when he inherited the title and vast estates in Yorkshire and Ireland as well as Chiswick and Burlington House in central London (now the Royal Academy). Described by Horace Walpole as the ‘Apollo of the Arts’, Burlington loved painting, sculpture, architecture and music. His mission was to raise the level of the arts to that of science and establish an institute equivalent to that of the Royal Society.
Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744)
A lover of the Classics, Pope read extensively and enjoyed walking in the woods or along the river near his family home in Windsor Forest. Pope found instant fame after his collection of poetry Pastorals was published in 1709. This was followed two years later by Essay on Criticism in which Pope laid out the rules for a ‘national taste’. He also wrote a letter to The Guardian in 1713, praising the virtues of ‘unadorned Nature’ and the ‘taste of the ancients in their gardens’. Pope’s love of nature and his ability to ridicule false taste as well as promote good taste, made him the perfect publicist for Burlington.
William Kent (1685 – 1748)
William Kent was born in Bridlington in Yorkshire and began work as an apprentice coach-painter. His employer encouraged him to study art and architecture and in 1709, ‘Mr Kent the Painter’ was asked by his patrons to accompany them to Italy. After returning to England in 1719, Kent began work at Chiswick, his first sortie into the world of garden design. Kent adapted the landscape into the pastoral bliss advocated by Pope – as Horace Walpole wrote ‘[Kent] leapt the fence and saw that all nature was a garden’.
In 1714, whilst the 3rd Earl was away on his first Grand Tour, the Dowager Countess commissioned the architect James Gibbs to carry out work on the house and gardens at Chiswick. The house had been built c1610 while the surrounding formal gardens had been created by Burlington’s grandfather, 1st Earl of Burlington. However Gibbs only designed one garden building, the Domed Building (demolished 1784), as Burlington soon replaced Gibbs with his own mentor, Colen Campbell.
With Campbell’s encouragement, Burlington designed his first building at Chiswick, the Bagnio, in 1717. Later called the Drawing House, this building was sadly demolished c1778.
In 1719, Burlington set off on his second Grand Tour, specifically to study the works of the sixteenth century architect, Andrea Palladio. Here Burlington met William Kent and, with the promise of work at Burlington House and at Chiswick, Kent agreed to return with him to England.
Kent’s first garden building at Chiswick was the Rustic House – suddenly, ‘rural’ and ‘rustic’ were terms of approval -–
while Burlington designed the Deer House
and the Doric Column with a copy of the Venus de Medici statue at the top.
This area was later densely planted with six straight ‘allees’ radiating out from the centre, each terminated by a garden building.
In 1721, Burlington married Lady Dorothy Saville and four years later, work began on the Villa. Based on Palladio’s Villa Capra near Venice, Burlington designed the building
while Kent focused on landscaping the garden. The seventeenth century formal gardens were swept away and were replaced by this new ‘English style’. Richard Bradley, a specialist in exotic plants, wrote in 1725: ‘the Fashion, or Taste of the Greeks and Romans in such Grand Gardens, was to make them free, and open, to consist of as much Variety as possible; to afford Shade, and give a refreshing Coolness by vanity of Jet d’eaux and Water-Falls.’
In 1726, Burlington extended the garden by buying more land and in 1727, designed the Ionic Temple. Situated at the base of the Amphitheatre, this area was originally surrounded by Orange Trees – the Obelisk was added in 1732.
Under Kent’s direction, work started on digging out the canal in 1727. The edges were made irregular to make it look more natural with the grass leading informally down to the water’s edge – a revolutionary concept at the time.
The earth from the canal was made into a mound to the south-west with a winding path from the terrace to the top. Daniel Defoe described in 1738 how it was planted ‘with all manner of sweet Shrubs, Roses, Honeysuckles, &c. that yield in the Season a delightful Fragrance’.
In May 1733, the Earl moved his family out of Burlington House and made Chiswick their main home. A link building was built to join the new Villa with the Jacobean house while the grove behind the Villa was cut down. Kent designed an exedra centred on the Villa’s north front: a hemicycle of clipped yews, it contained statues of Caesar, Pompey and Cicero along with busts of philosophers, twelve stone seats and urns.
In 1738, Burlington accepted a gift from his friend Sir Hans Sloane of a gate that Inigo Jones – another of Burlington’s heroes – had designed for Beaufort House.
The same year, Kent was working on the cascade. Kent wrote to Lady Burlington in October: ‘Tell my Lord he shall have an answer to his letter as soon as ye cascade is finish’d’. In this classical landscape, the canal was now seen as a river with the cascade as its source. Documentation from the 1733 shows that the water was driven to the cascade by a steam engine.
Numerous trees were planted at Chiswick including Cedars of Lebanon (some of the first to be grown in England),
a Flower Garden for Lady Burlington. Chiswick was according to Pope ‘the finest thing this glorious sun has shined on’.
The Earl died in 1753 and Chiswick was inherited by his daughter Charlotte, wife of the Marquess of Hartington, later the 4th Duke of Devonshire. Their son, the 5th Duke, made major changes to the property. He built the stone bridge over the lake,
planted the Rose Garden below the Doric Column and in 1788 demolished the old Jacobean house. The Duke also added two wings to either side of the Villa. The 6th Duke inherited Chiswick in 1811. He introduced a menagerie of exotic animals including an elephant, elks and several kangaroos as well as making changes to the garden. The Duke commissioned Samuel Ware to build the Conservatory for his large collection of camellias
while the Italian Garden leading up to the Conservatory was designed by Lewis Kennedy.
[While visiting the Horticultural Society’s gardens at Chiswick in 1826, the Duke met Joseph Paxton. This encounter resulted in Paxton becoming Head Gardener at Chatsworth. Paxton designed the Great Conservatory for the Duke – sadly demolished in 1920 – and later the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851.]
In 1860s, the Devonshires let out the house, moving all the contents including Burlington’s extensive library to Chatsworth. The Tuke brothers took over the lease in 1892. They turned Chiswick into a private asylum for individuals suffering from mental illness. Middlesex County Council took over the property in 1929 and in 1948, Chiswick was passed to the Ministry of Works. They removed the two wings of the Villa and began work on restoring the gardens.
Since 1984, English Heritage along with the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust – set up in 2005 – have completed the major restoration programme of the garden.
The gardens are currently open every day from 7.00am until dusk. There is no charge for visiting. The photos are from my visit to Chiswick in June of last year.