Seeing as the chance of occupying grand houses in London are now only restricted to Candy brothers, Russian gangsters and Cambridge Dukes and Duchesses, one has to resort to sightseeing and dreaming apropos Mrs T and I took ourselves off to Chiswick House for a jaunt earlier this week. Chiswick is a Neo-Palladian house of exquisite proportions built by Richard ‘the Rich’ Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington in 1729.
The Earl had met William Kent during one of his Grand Tours of Italy and commissioned the great man to construct a jewel box of a pavilion around a domed central saloon inspired by the works of Andrea Palladio and Inigo Jones. The grounds were landscaped in an Italianate fashion and framed the Duke’s collection of antiquities. The 3rd Earl’s daughter Lady Charlotte married the heir to the Cavendish estates hence Chiswick House passing into the hands of the Dukes of Devonshire.
In its glory years, Chiswick House was the Greater London pleasure palace for the 5th Duke and his enchanting wife Duchess Georgiana. It was during their tenure that Chiswick played host to glorious fetes attended by the future King George IV when the statues in the gardens (said to be the birthplace of the English naturalistic landscape movement) were festooned with garlands of roses.
The 6th Bachelor Duke of Devonshire was the host when Tsar Nicholas I of Russia – whom the Duke idolised – was entertained at a garden party in 1844 when seven-hundred of the haute ton were entertained by his menagerie including giraffes, elephants, elks, emus, kangaroos and an Indian bull. The 6th Duke installed the conservatories (a precursor to Paxton’s Great Conservatory at Chatsworth) in which some of the earliest cuttings of camelias were cultivated.
In the 8th Duke of Devonshire’s era, Chiswick House was loaned to the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) who would entertain with his Princess Alexandra at sybaritic garden parties attended by the Duke and his mistress (and future wife) Louise, Duchess of Manchester. Mrs T being no slouch when it comes to royal and aristocratic history, we spent a pleasant hour imagining the ghosts of Burlingtons and Devonshires past who walked the halls of Chiswick House.
This also being a Mrs T and Mr Sherwood outing, we set about redecorating Chiswick House with a vengeance. What soon became apparent was that two additional wings for family bedrooms, dining rooms and drawing rooms had been demolished in the 1950s. What remained was the doll’s house structure used predominantly by the 3rd Earl of Burlington do display his art treasures and marbles.
We were both perplexed as to why the honeycomb of small reception rooms on the ground floor were decorated but essentially empty until we realised the grander guests would have swept up to the piano nobile from the exterior double staircases straight into the salons. Neither of us were enamoured of the heavy Italian Neo-Renaissance ceilings or the velvet-lined salons that made what should have been airy, celestial rooms rather gloomy.
The prettiest room was a white salon with four salon chairs bought back from the Chatsworth sale of 2010 that had been commissioned from French makers by Duchess Georgiana. It was heaven to see an oil painting of Lady Charlotte who died in her twenties pregnant with her fifth child leaving the Devonshires Burlington House, Lismore Castle and Chiswick House. Mrs T earmarked the white salon for her drawing room and decided I’d be perfectly happy in the blue velvet study as I would.
The half moon gilded apses copied from the Temple of Venus were our favourite details as were false doors installed only to enhance the symmetry of the rooms. As Mrs T rightly said, these ancient houses need occupying. Without a chatelaine, they atrophy and die. In later years, Chiswick House was occupied as a lunatic asylum; a sad twilight for a pleasure palace. It is now in the hands of English Heritage who have restored the gardens and are in the process of redecorating the house as it would have been in the 5th Duke of Devonshire’s time.
Some bright spark in the communist 1970s evidently allowed a dual carriageway to be built that cut through the grounds of Chiswick House and left it rather stranded: accessible only through a grotty underpass from Chiswick High Street confirming my suspicion that we have regressed since the 18th century not progressed.
I agree with Mrs T. Houses like Chiswick would benefit so much more with tenants preferably descended from the original family. Where once giraffes roamed and Duchess Georgiana bewitched Charles James Fox, the Prince Regent and the Earl of Derby, now yummy mummies with prams and labradors pass the time of day.