300 years of Chiswick House Gardens – Part 2

Image above: Chiswick House; photograph by Anna Kunst

Part 2: William Kent becomes involved

In the early part of the 18th century, inspired by the architecture he saw on his Grand Tours of Italy, Richard Boyle, 3rd earl of Burlington set about realising his vision and creating a villa with associated garden all in the antique manner. It was a triumph. Chiswick House, his villa in the style of Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio was completed in 1729 and tourists came from Britain and abroad to visit the gardens and view his collection of fine paintings.

READ MORE: Part 1: Vision of Richard Boyle, 3rd earl of Burlington

In the second of a series of features examining how the gardens were created and re-created over 300 years, author and garden historian Dr David Jacques looks at how the Gardens’ creator perfected his great project in collaboration with with artist, designer, architect and garden designer William Kent.

Image above: The villa from the garden by William Watts in 1783

‘He saw that all nature was a garden’

By David Jacques

Lord Burlington’s gardens were a huge success, but he continued to experiment. In the restless pursuit of his aims he was constantly trying to achieve a greater perfection. He permitted his versatile and imaginative protegée, William Kent, to suggest refinements, one of which, his changes to the garden, were to have enormous significance across Europe.

Kent has been studied by art historians, architectural historians, furniture historians and garden historians. He is the subject of many publications, the most recent being the catalogue of an exhibition in 2014 – it is a tome in the true sense, with 688 pages contributed by 16 learned authors. If you want to weigh it, use the bathroom scales, not the kitchen ones.

Images above: William Kent portrait by William Aikman, 1723 – 25; Richard Boyle, 3rd earl of Burlington portrait by Jonathan Richardson, c 1717 – 1719, courtesy of the Nationanl Portrait Gallery

How did Kent achieve such lasting fame? He was a painter, but most agree that his work was no better than acceptable. Instead, it was his gradual evolution as an interior designer, architect and garden designer that was to have such an impact on Georgian design.

He spent ten years in Rome eking out an existence as a ceiling painter until meeting up with Burlington on his 1719 Grand Tour. Burlington was finishing off Burlington House in Piccadilly at the time and offered Kent employment on his ceilings and a room there.

After a couple of years Burlington asked the ‘signor’ to turn some of his drawings by Inigo Jones into prints in preparation for publication, and in 1725 he was employed to paint, decorate and furnish Kensington Palace for George I. These skills were fully employed from 1727 in Burlington’s new villa at Chiswick, where he undertook the complete interior decoration of mantlepieces, door frames, ceiling paintings, and the furniture throughout.

Image above: The Hermitage designed by Kent for Richmond Gardens in 1730

Rural chic – a fashion for wild and rugged scenery

Burlington and Kent were becoming good friends, and Kent joined the Earl and Countess at Chiswick for Sundays. He developed the habit of making sketches of more intimate scenes, such as Lady Burlington’s aviary garden, as well as of the wider garden, including ideas for alterations.

Perhaps through Lady Burlington, who was Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Caroline, Kent started in 1730 designing garden buildings at Richmond Gardens (now part of Kew Gardens). His first was a ‘hermitage’, and it could not have been more different from the calculated Classicism of the Chiswick villa. It had the appearance of a partly-ruined relic from antiquity, set into a wild hillside with pines. Perhaps this was a half-remembered scene from the mountains behind Rome; in the English context it was extraordinary and without precedent.

The interest in this Hermitage is not just its architecture, but its setting, for it was accompanied by a lawn at its front and the wild hillside behind. There were some parallel instances of wild and rugged scenery invoked as stage sets and there was even one example of a grotto that had wild planting over the structure, and which is usually assigned a date of 1724. Richard Bradley wrote that grottoes could be

‘planted on the Top with Flowering Shrubs, disposed in the wildest Manner they possibly can be, for the out-side Appearance ought to look Rural. The finest of the Kind that I have observ’d in Europe, is that belonging to Thomas Scawen, Esq; at Carshalton in Surrey’.

Image above: The view of the cascade by John Donowell in 1753

It was one thing to design a garden building with a rugged setting, but quite another to imagine an entire garden in this ‘rustic’ style. Kent’s fertile invention imagined it, though. The water at Chiswick was at first referred to as a canal, but by 1733 it was being seen as a river. At one end there would be a grotto/cascade which would suggest the source of a mighty watercourse. It would be an illusion of course, because the ‘river’ actually flowed the other way!

Burlington’s own idea appears to have been for a Classical structure, but Kent converted him to a rustic one with wild planting behind. The fall of water was to be provided by a steam engine situated on the other side of Burlington Lane.

Image above: The cascade; photograph by Anna Kunst

One of the best gardens in the country for statuary

Kent wanted to convert the whole lower end of the water to a rustic style, and in preparation certain hedges were removed in order to allow sweeping views down from the villa to the cascade, and also the Ionic Temple by the amphitheatre. To achieve this in full the labyrinth close to the villa would also need to be removed. Having had this planted less than five years previously, Burlington appears to have been reluctant, but then relented. Kent had had his way, no doubt by convincing his patron that having such a feature was another way to reinvoke the antique garden.

The area thus converted was only a small part of the Chiswick gardens – really only a snatch of a contrasting feel in an otherwise formal garden. Kent wanted to go further in informalizing the rest of the hedges and surrounds of the river, but Burlington’s interest had by then turned to the question of garden statuary. He even ordered more terms to be set in front of his yew hedges.

Image above: The three ‘Roman senators’ in the hemicycle at the end of the north vista

The lines of urns seen stretching away from the first-floor gallery in the villa, that is northwards towards the hemicycle with the ‘Roman senators’, were Burlington’s intention from 1735. He had designed a number of urn shapes already, and had them carved in Bath. The sequence started with a boar and a wolf under the north front, then urns alternating with cypress trees, then sphinxes flanked by cedars, then more urns down to the lion and lioness.

Together with statuary that he already had, and an accumulating number of terms, the number of pieces in the garden exceeded a hundred. It was amongst the foremost statuary gardens in the country.

Images above: Urns at Chiswick House Gardens; photographs Anna Kunst

This was the state in which the villa and grounds remained until the 5th Duke’s changes in the 1780s. They were much visited, and entry was by ticket only. The sequence was: the forecourt – the steps up to the piano nobile – the paintings in the domed saloon and the rooms to either side – down the north front steps to the garden – the collection of garden statuary. Although Burlington saw these features as a lesson in antique taste, most visitors emphasised the attraction of the white villa and statuary framed or set against the dark foliage of cedars and yews – a delightful and tasteful scene.

Images above: Statuary; Chiswick House Gardens’ lion; photographs Anna Kunst

Meanwhile Kent’s experiment with a more natural style in the garden blossomed into what is called the ‘English landscape garden’. Following Kent, its chief exponent was Capability Brown. It spread to most countries in Europe and even to the colonies in North America and Australia.

Next – the 5th Duke and his troublesome duchess

Image above: The sphinx and the villa; photograph by Mando Mendolicchio

David Jacques

Dr David Jacques is a garden historian and the author of Chiswick House Gardens: 300 years of creation and recreation.

To pre-order a copy of the book, which has not yet been printed, go to David’s GoFundMe page. He has set up a crowd-funding page as the book will be published by a non-profit academic press (Liverpool University Press) which likes to ensure that its costs are covered, and so seeks pre-publication commitments. 

His other publications are: Georgian GardensThe Gardens of William and MaryThe Career of Christopher Tunnard and Gardens of Court and CountryDavid was for many years a trustee of Chiswick House and Gardens and his latest book is the culmination of 35 years commitment and research as consultant, inspector and trustee.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Garden historian David Jacques raises funds to publish definitive book on the history of Chiswick House Gardens

See also: Alexander Pope, 18th century poet who lived on Mason Row

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