Marble Hill lies on the banks of the River Thames, not far from Richmond Bridge. It was built for a remarkable woman Henrietta Howard, Duchess of Suffolk. Although she is best known as the mistress of the future King George II, Henrietta was a lively intellectual – she loved Shakespeare – and an advocate of women’s rights, long before feminism was born. Pope wrote of her: ‘She has as much Good nature as if she had never seen any Ill nature, and had been bred among Lambs and Turtledoves, instead of Princes and Court-ladies’.
Henrietta was born in 1689 daughter of Sir Henry and Lady Hobart of Blickling Hall in Norfolk. An orphan by the age of twelve, she became the ward of Henry Howard, 5th Earl of Suffolk. In 1706, Henrietta married Henry’s youngest son, Charles Howard, an ‘ill-tempered, obstinate, drunken, extravagant [and] brutal’ man. They had one son, Henry, but the marriage was not happy and by 1717 the couple were estranged. Soon after this, Henrietta became the mistress of the Prince of Wales. Ironically, Henrietta was also woman of the bedchamber to the Prince’s wife, Caroline. It seems the two women tolerated each other – Caroline probably preferred Henrietta to some of the other scheming women at Court. Henrietta had a wide circle of acquaintances including John Gay, Jonathan Swift and Horace Walpole but her closest friend was Alexander Pope.
In 1723, a present from the Prince of Wales allowed Henrietta Howard to buy land on the north-west bank of the Thames, close to Pope’s Villa. Henrietta sort the advice of Henry Herbert, 9th Earl of Pembroke and he agreed to ask his protege Colen Campbell to draw up plans for the house. Although Henrietta was separated from her husband, she was still terrified of him. She confided to John Gay in 1723: ‘I beg you will never mention the Plan which you found in my Room. There’s a necessity, yet, to keep that whole affair secret, tho (I think I may tell) it’s almost intirely finish’d to my satisfaction’.
Henrietta commissioned Roger Morris to build ‘the naked carcass of a house’ and work began on this Arcadian retreat in 1724. At the same time, Henrietta began creating the garden. Lord Bathurst was keen to help – he later sent Henrietta some lime trees – while Pope wrote to a friend in June of that year, ‘but don’t let any Lady from hence imagine that my head is so full of any Gardens as to forget hers. The greatest proof I could give her to the contrary is, that I have spent many hours here in studying for her, & in drawing new plans for her’. Henrietta also invited Charles Bridgeman, landscape gardener to the King, to visit Marble Hill. After the visit, Bridgeman wrote to Pope: ‘Sir, Since I waited on Mrs Howard & you at Twickenham…I begun on the Plann…nor shall [I] leave it till ’tis finish’d which I hope will be about tomorrow noon’. Sadly, this plan has not yet been found.
Henrietta’s duties at Court meant she could only occasionally visit Marble Hill and she relied upon her friends to send her updates. Pope wrote: ‘We cannot omit taking this occasion to congratulate you upon the increase of your family, for your Cow is this morning very happily delivered of the better sort, I mean a female calf; she is like her mother as she can stare’. Pope and Gay celebrated the birth with a ‘cold dinner’ which included ‘the letttice of a greak Island, called Cos.’ But it was not until 1734 that Henrietta was finally able to call Marble Hill her home: her husband had died, George II had ended their relationship and she had resigned as mistress of the bedchamber.
A recent discovery of a letter written by Mary Lisles to an unknown woman confirms that Henrietta started making plans for a grotto in 1730s. Miss Lisles asks ‘If Lady Suffolk has a design to put any icicles in her grotto’ and continues ‘I think Madam, I have answar’d all the quarrys you gave me & if I can be of any service to Lady Suffolk, next Spring when I shall be in town, I shall with Pleasure obey her commands’. The letter also contains instructions for washing shells as well as recipes for making cement and artificial coral. In 1739, Henrietta wrote to Lord Pembroke ‘I am at this time head and ears in shells’ while Henrietta’s great niece wrote to her parents in 1762 ‘ [I] worked so hard in the Grotto and Rock that it is feer’d I shall damage my fingers’. And this gives us another clue that has recently been solved – there were two grottoes at Marble Hill. A poem by Anne Chambers written in 1764, supports this theory:
They myrtle and the laurel green With roles beautify the scene; The jasmin and the lilac too Deserve and justly claim, their due; In delicacy never beat, They make the charming scene compleat. Flowers of each hue in knots around Diversify th’ enamel’s ground: The rustic grot, tho’ nam’d the last, Adds beauty by the fine contrast Huge trees, and rocks conjunctive rise, To hide thus spot from vulgar eyes.
In 1735 Henrietta married the politician George Berkeley and together they established Marble Hill as the centre of ‘The Twickenham Set’. Pope commented: ‘There is a greater court at Marble Hill than at Kensington, and God knows when it will end’. Henrietta died at Marble Hill in 1767. Horace Walpole was one of the last people to visit Henrietta – he wrote: ‘I never knew a woman more respectable for her honour and principles, and have lost few persons in my life whom I shall miss so much’.
If you visit Marble Hill today, little is left of the original garden apart from the remains of the shell grotto and the ice house – neither of which are open to the public. But two recent discoveries has led to an exciting development. An unsigned plan has been found at Norfolk Record Office – probably the one sketched by Pope – as well as a map thought to have been made in 1749 by James Dorret, land surveyor for the Duke of Argyll. As a result of this, English Heritage has secured a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund which allows them to restore much of what has been lost. For copyright reasons, I can’t reproduce either plan, but if you are interested here is the link: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/marble-hill-house/history-and-stories/henrietta-howards-garden
As you can see from Dorret’s drawing and the ‘Explanation’, features in the garden included meandering paths, a Greenhouse, Flower garden, Ninepin Alley, a Cow House, Poultry Yard, Kitchen Garden, two Grottoes (a Rustic arch can be seen below the Shell Grotto), Ice House, a Mount and a horse-shoe shaped Meadow surrounded by trees leading down to the River.
English Heritage has already started on the project. Evidence of the Ninepin Alley has been found. This was probably a raised gravel area with orange trees in pots and benches to the north and south. The Alley was removed in the nineteenth century and replaced by an Italian Garden. The area around the Ice House has also been investigated but there is no evidence of the Ice House Seat mentioned on the plan – this suggests the seat was probably made of wood.
English Heritage’s aim is to reunite the house and the garden. I cannot wait.
The house is occasionally open to the public while the area around the house is a public park. The cafe is in the Stable Block.