300 years of Chiswick House Gardens – Part 3

Image above: Chiswick House, photograph by Anna Kunst

Part 3: Party time – Chiswick House as the venue for Georgiana’s lavish parties

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, wife of William, 5th Duke of Devonshire, was famous in the mid eighteenth century as a socialite, style icon, political organizer and activist (a Whig), and as an author. She made Chiswick House the location of her spectacular parties. She was known for her charisma, beauty, love affairs and gambling as much as for her political influence. Born a Spencer, she was the great-great-great-great aunt of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Georgiana and her husband inherited Chiswick House through William’s mother Charlotte. She was the daughter of Richard Boyle, 3rd earl of Burlington, who created the gardens at Chiswick House and built the Palladian villa, on a mission to reintroduce Classical architecture to Britain, having been inspired by his Grand Tours of Italy. The villa was completed in 1729; the gardens were then developed further by the great garden designer William Kent, alongside the 3rd earl of Burlington in the 1730s.

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

READ MORE: Part 2: William Kent becomes involved

In the third 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 Georgiana made her impact on the gardens with the introduction of what was quite possibly the first ornamental rose garden in England.

Images above: Georgiana by Thomas Gainsborough, 1783; With her siblings, Henrietta and George, by Angelica Kauffman, c. 1774. The painting was painted just before Georgiana’s marriage to the Duke of Devonshire

Chiswick is Frenchified and hosts garden parties for Europe’s royalty

By David Jacques

‘God bless my soul! Have you seen anything abroad to compare with Chiswick?’
– Charles Greville, 1843

In the middle of the eighteenth century landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown held sway as the the most fashionable transformer of the gardens of the wealthy. He designed some 170 parks, including Syon Gardens, Ancaster House in Richmond and Paddenswick Manor, now Ravenscourt Park. The 4th Duke of Devonshire employed him to landscape the garden and park at Chatsworth House, the Devonshires’ main residence.

But reverence for Lord Burlington’s Chiswick was such that its sculpture garden and formal wildernesses and escaped the attentions of Capability Brown and continued as a tourist destination into the 1780s. Matters were then to change under Burlington’s grandson, the 5th Duke of Devonshire, and his duchess, the notorious Georgiana.

Image above: Drawing of Chiswick House, 1795

The famous ménage à trois

This couple had married in 1774, she being only 17 at the time. They were contrasting in character – he private and slightly withdrawn, and she exuberant, witty and daring. The Duke’s family were prominent as Whigs, and Georgiana supplied a vibrant social life with balls at Devonshire House in town, summer house parties at Chatsworth, and a series of ‘breakfasts’ (taken in the afternoon) at Chiswick in support of the Whig party.

Images above: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, by Thomas Gainsborough; Elizabeth “Bess” Hervey Foster by Sir Joshua Reynolds; William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire

In the 1780s the couple started a family, at first two girls. Of course there needed to be a boy to inherit the title, but matters did not run smoothly. She had miscarriages, and the Duke was becoming involved with Georgiana’s great friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster, having two children by her. With a wife, mistress and four children, the Duke needed to reconsider his domestic arrangements.

He chose Chiswick as his solution. He had already given attention to the grounds, informalizing the wildernesses and pulling down a couple of garden buildings in poor condition. Capability Brown himself was dead, so he employed his former chief assistant, Samuel Lapidge, to work the changes.

Image above: Walkway behind Chiswick House; photograph by Rosie Leyden

Creating the ornamental rose garden

The Duke kept the sculpture garden, with its multiple rows of urns and cypresses, unaltered, and visitors regarded this as a specimen of ‘Italian’ taste (in contradistinction the naturalistic ‘English’ taste). He also retained the villa, making it the centrepiece of a substantial modern mansion by giving it sizeable wings, but pulled down the original rather inconvenient house.

At last Georgiana produced a healthy boy, and settled at Chiswick most of the time. She took an interest in the garden, at first the Ladies Garden which had been Lady Burlington’s aviary garden by the Summer Parlour, and then the orangery garden where she entertained friends and poets. Her connections with France were strong and she was an admirer of Napoleon in his earlier years as ruler of that country.

Images above: Roses in Chiswick House Gardens, photograph by Jon Perry; the rose garden at the column in 1845

She would have known of the Empress Josephine’s rose garden at Malmaison, and was probably the first person to have created an ornamental rose garden in England. It was set around the column, and although quite small sported 120 varieties of rose. It was first mentioned in the accounts in 1804.

Georgiana died aged only 48, in 1806, but would have been pleased that her son, William, carried on her interests both in the garden and in giving extravagant garden parties. Succeeding his father in 1811, he purchased Sir Stephen Fox’s house next door, by then known as Moreton Hall, and added its seven acres to the Chiswick gardens. The walled gardens at Chiswick mostly remain from the Moreton Hall ones.

Image above: Conservatory, photograph by Jon Perry

William, 6th Duke of Devonshire, ‘the batchelor duke’, takes over

The new Duke pulled down the house and where the main garden had been, built the Conservatory that exists today. On its south side he wanted a parterre – again, a surprise, as there had been none in England for over 80 years.

The designer he chose was Lewis Kennedy who had supplied Josephine with plants and advised on Malmaison, even though Britain and France were at war. This new garden was to be known as the ‘Italian Garden’ – an addition to the surviving Italian garden next door – but the design of the parterre was taken from a French treatise on gardening.

Image above: The parterre in front of the Conservatory, dating from 1814

The 6th Duke’s interest in horticulture is well known. He provided the (Royal) Horticultural Society with its first premises at Chiswick, he ‘found’ Joseph Paxton (the designer of the Crystal Palace) in them, and he was President of the Society for 20 years.

Image above: Bust of Napoleon in the Rustick Arch

Chiswick gardens were recast in a whimsical style that reminded Sir Walter Scott of a picture by Watteau. They were one of the premier gardens of Regency and early Victorian England, famous as the venue for spectacular social events.

In 1814, after the Treaty of Paris following Napoleon’s exile to Elba, the Prince Regent invited the Allies to England, and the Duke entertained the Tsar Alexander I of Russia, the King of Prussia, Marshal Blucher, Count Platoff, and many illustrious persons in attendance on those monarchs at Chiswick.

Sir Walter Scott attended one breakfast in 1828 and described:

‘A numerous and gay party, assembled to walk, and enjoy the beauties of that Palladian demesne, make the place and highly ornamented gardens belonging to it resemble a picture of Watteau… the scene was dignified by the presence of an immense elephant, who, under charge of a groom, wandered up and down, giving an air of Asiatic pageantry to the entertainment…’

This elephant was Sadie, who gave rides, could use a broom, and could uncork champagne bottles.

Image above: A Fete at Chiswick House in the 1840s

A Tsar, Kings and Princes and the Shah of Persia come to Chiswick House

Tsar Nicholas I attended a fête at Chiswick in June 1844. The lawns were brown from a lack of rain. Then rain threatened and the wind got up, blowing everything over. As it turned out, there was blue sky on the day. The fête was magnificent and was honoured by the presence of the King of Saxony, Prince Albert, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the Duchess of Gloucester, and about seven hundred members of the nobility, besides Tsar Nicholas.

The royal cavalcade entered the gates of Chiswick House preceded by outriders in state liveries. On their arrival, the Imperial Standard was raised over the Summer Parlour and the Royal Standard over the Arcade and a 21-gun salute fired from a battery erected within the grounds. The bands of the Coldstream Guards and the Horse Guards simultaneously played the Russian national anthem. The general company were received by the Duke beneath the grand portico. The Tsar and the Duke most cordially embraced each other in the Russian fashion.

Image above: A Fete at Chiswick House in the 1870s

The Prince of Wales used Chiswick House in the 1870s both as a summer nursery for the children, and for entertainment. The Times reported on his garden parties, normally at least one a year. They were variously called dejeuners, breakfasts or garden parties; they started in the late afternoon and finished mid-evening. The Queen sometimes attended. However, a letter to her eldest daughter in 1875 suggests she was beginning to find them tiresome:

You say that Bertie’s breakfast must have been charming. I myself think them dreadful and very fatiguing bores, walking and standing about and seeing fresh faces in every direction – but it doesn’t last long and pleases people and so there it is and easily done‘.

Nevertheless, the Chiswick breakfasts were the forerunner of the Buckingham Palace garden parties. The Prince’s most famous party was one given in honour of the Shah of Persia who visited England in 1873. It was recorded in The Times thus:

On Saturday afternoon the Shah went to the Prince of Wales’s Garden Party at Chiswick. From Buckingham Palace to the gates of the Duke of Devonshire’s beautiful villa the route was crowded. Her Majesty honoured the party with her presence, the gardens were in their fullest beauty and the long list which we publish will show that “everybody” was there‘.

Next – The Men from the Ministry

Images above: Inside the Conservatory in early Victorian times; The orangery garden, or amphitheatre, in the 19th century

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: Chiswick Garden ‘most important in UK’

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