Yesterday I had the pleasure to visit Chiswick House and Gardens, a little west of central London on the District line. The house belongs to English Heritage, while the gardens are considered a public park under the care of the London Borough of Hounslow.
The stunning white villa was the brainchild of Richard Boyle (1694-1753), who became 3rd Earl of Burlington in 1704. Like most young gentleman of the 18th century, he finished off his classical education with a Grand Tour in 1714, accompanied by a host of servants, guides, tutors and footmen to help transport his 878 trunks of artistic acquisitions back to Burlington House in London (now appropriately home of the Royal Academy of Arts). Though Burlington spent more time on this trip buying works of art than studying architecture, he did have the good fortune to meet William Kent in Rome when the latter advised him on the purchase of two paintings. Thus began a lifelong and fruitful friendship between the two men.
In 1715, two works on architecture were published that seemingly inspired Burlington’s interest and future designs in that area: Andrea Palladio’s I Quattro libri dell’architetutura and Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus. In 1716, Burlington began his studies in this field with Campbell, and returned to Italy in 1719 with with sole purpose of examining Palladio’s villas and houses in Vicenza. Chiswick House would eventually be a reinterpretation of original Roman designs modeled on Palladio’s principles, with inspiration from Inigo Jones and artistic vision and guidance from William Kent.
A Jacobean House stood on the site of Chiswick until 1725, when it was largely destroyed by fire, giving Burlington the opportunity to fulfill his grand vision for an Italianate villa in London. The house was built between 1726 and 1729 and was deemed “rather curious than convenient” by one critical observer, Sir John Clerk, who noted that it was “all in the ancient manner” (x). Inigo Jones had imported Palladianism into England with the Banqueting and Queen’s Houses, but Burlington was the first non-royal to adopt the style, and for all its impracticality — Chiswick had no kitchens, intentional bedrooms, interior staircases suitable for ladies in hoop skirts, etc. — it was soon being copied by aristocrats all over London and elsewhere. Chiswick was the aesthetic embodiment of the Enlightenment, a retreat for conversation, a gallery for the display of an extensive classical art collection, and a suitable HQ for the early-eighteenth century’s most generous and talented patron of the arts, who befriended and supported Handel, Isaac Ware, Alexander Pope, and John Gay, among others. The main functions of residence were provided by the leftover Jacobean house next-door, to which covered link was added in 1732.
William Kent served as Burlington’s advisor, interior decorator, and landscaper for Chiswick, designing much of the furniture (often on a smaller scale to compliment the size of Chiswick) and painting ceilings. Kent believed in a ‘pictorial’ approach to gardening, a natural look and feel that moved away from the formal lines of the baroque period and emulated the paintings of Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin, foreshadowing the ‘picturesque’ movement of Lancelot Brown and others. According to Horace Walpole of Houghton Hall — one of Kent’s projects — he ‘was a painter, an architect, and the father of modern gardening. In the first character he was below mediocrity; in the second, he was a restorer of the science; in the last, an original, and the inventor of an art that realizes painting and improves nature. Mahomet imagined an elysium, Kent created many” (x).
After Burlington’s death in 1753, the house passed to his son-in-law, William Cavendish, who had married Burlington’s daughter Charlotte and was to become the 4th Duke of Devonshire. The 5th Duke and Georgiana updated the place, adding symmetrical wings to make the house more practical and hospitable, introducing floral gardens, a classic bridge, and — along with Charles James Fox (who died here in 1806!) — placing a bust of Napoleon in the Rustic House of the Garden, the avenue to which was named “Napoleon’s Walk.” The 6th Duke entertained Tsar Alexander I and the Prussian King here in 1814, and in 1827 George Canning also died here, in the same room as Fox!
The 6th Duke was the final long-term occupant of the house and by the 1950s it had fallen into disrepair and passed into the care of the Ministry of Works in 1948. After much deliberation, and quite contrary to their policy of preserving historic buildings from all ages, the 5th Duke’s wings were destroyed in 1951 due to lack of funds; though they would have been a fantastic example of early-Victorian decoration, it was felt that under the circumstances it would be best to return the house to its original size and design.
The small house is well worth a visit and includes many impressive works of art — including three second-century statues from Emperor’s Hadrian’s villa — and stunning interiors. Anyone with an interest in Georgian architecture will benefit from seeing one of the original inspirations!