300 Years of Chiswick House Gardens – Part 4

Image above: Chiswick House; photograph Anna Kunst

Part 4: The Men from the Ministry

The Chiswick House estate was owned by the Dukes of Devonshire until 1929, when it was sold to the local authority, then Middlesex County Council.

For nearly three decades prior to that it had been home to a private asylum, where well to do patients were treated for a variety of conditions, including epilepsy and depression. Once it was no longer occupied, the house soon sank into a state of decay and the untended grounds became overgrown.

Chiswick House and Gardens, which realised the Classical vision of the 3rd earl of Burlington, attracted tourists to see his paintings and sculptures and the latest fashions in English landscape gardening, and delighted royalty and nobility from across Europe as a venue for extravagant entertainment, were abandoned.

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

READ MORE: Part 2: William Kent becomes involved

READ MORE: Part 3: Chiswick House as a venue for Georgiana’s lavish parties

In the fourth and last of his series examining how the gardens were created and re-created over 300 years, author and garden historian Dr David Jacques recounts how the Gardens were rescued and refurbished to the beautiful condition which we are able to enjoy today.

Image above: Spring in Chiswick House Gardens; photograph Jennifer Griffiths

The Ministry of Works and English Heritage get involved

From the mid-twentieth century the main story at Chiswick House and Grounds has been the long-running battle to overcome decay and give them a new purpose. Acutely aware of the architectural importance of the house, officials at the Ministry of Works and afterwards English Heritage at first concentrated on this aspect but to their surprise, as work proceeded, uncovered the forgotten history of the grounds.

First, though, it must be said that Chiswick House had sunk to a deep low in terms of its condition. After 150 years of being in the spotlight, Chiswick House faded from view from the 1880s. It was no longer a rural retreat as new streets were being laid out all around.

The Dukes were protective of their villa, but sold outlying parts of the grounds for the development of Park Road, Staveley Road, Sutton Court Road and Chesterfield Road.

Although various advisers suggested they might develop the remaining 66 acres, the Dukes instead put off the decision by leasing house and grounds to a private lunatic asylum. The owners were fond of cricket, and the cricket pitch, which they allowed others to play upon, essentially remains from that time. Their term came to an end in the 1920s.

Images above: The Ionic temple, surrounded by bamboo and the Deer House in 1948; photographs courtesy of Historic England

Realisation of the scale of the restoration job

There had been calls to turn the property into a public park, and the Dukes agreed to sell to Middlesex County Council for a concessionary sum. It was then turned over to the local council.

It soon became clear what a perilous state the buildings were in, and the grounds had become pretty wild. This was before any legislation to protect historic buildings, and the council simply bulldozed all the outbuildings, leaving just the main house. Fortunately, the garden buildings were left alone.

Images above: The Ionic temple and the Deer House as they are today; photographs Jennifer Griffiths

The Ministry of Works became seriously concerned about the house, noting dry rot in the dome and other defects. Wartime did not help, as bombs were dropped in the grounds, blowing in all the windows on the north front. The architects at the Ministry kept the palaces and other historic buildings belonging to the Crown in good repair, but there was no mechanism for them to devote time to buildings belonging to others, and no mechanism for giving grants to historic buildings.

The solution was for the Ministry to get special permission from the Treasury to intervene at Chiswick, but that could only be done if the house was transferred to the Ministry. That is why the house belongs to English Heritage whilst the public park belongs to the London Borough of Hounslow – an unfortunate situation that was rectified only in 2018 when the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust obtained long-term leases on both.

Image above: Sketch of the The Ionic Temple and Obelisk, 1958

The 1940s was a time when Georgian architecture was being re-habilitated (the Georgian Group dates from 1937), and Lord Burlington’s Palladianism was at its very peak. Some argued that it was the villa that mattered, and that the wings were an unfortunate addition in that they destroyed its purity. Besides, the wings were in such poor condition that it would have been prohibitive to have saved them as well as the villa. Demolition of the wings began in 1950, though the Link Building was saved by peeling away the 1780s work surrounding it.

Image above: Courtyard at Chiswick House; photograph Jennifer Griffiths

The ground under the east wing was excavated for a heating plant – and this remains under the small courtyard. Within a few years the blank eastern wall was erected. The result is that the courtyard should be seen as a 1950s creation. When the wing was demolished there were doors and windows that needed to be replaced, and the Ministry architects did a good job in re-inventing them, but the courtyard is their interpretation, rather than Burlington’s original.

Image above: The garden plan, 1958

Meanwhile attention was being given to the garden buildings and the gardens. The sixth Duke had shifted the eastern line of urns and a sphynx to the southern cedar avenue and brought out dozens of termini (shafts topped with busts). The 1950s restorers shifted them back again and re-used the terms in the re-created front courtyard.

The ‘grand allée’ running through the link block was re-made. Where the allée entered the Wilderness there had been a splay of paths (called a patte d’oie or goosefoot), two of which were now cut through the woodland. Some years later the Ministry brought along a Venetian window that had been in the western wing to the far end of the central allée to serve as an eycatcher.

Image above: The ‘eyecatcher’

Restoring the Gardens

One could level criticisms at the approach that the Ministry took, both with respect to the house and the garden, but one must remember that this was cutting-edge at the time, both in terms of the powers used to arrange and fund the restoration, and in the restoration philosophy.

One might say that the garden restoration was the very first serious attempt (by which is meant restoration according to historical principles) in the United Kingdom. The scores of garden restorations by the National Trust, English Heritage, and the Historic Royal Palaces, so familiar today, have rested on the shoulders of Chiswick.

By the 1980s it was being recognised both by English Heritage and the Council that the garden restoration of the 1950s had just tackled the area around the house, and had left the great majority of the park untouched. Decline was still rampant. There was no thought that the entire grounds would be restored to Lord Burlington’s time. That would be both impractical and undesirable.

Image above: Scheme for the Cascade, 1987

Instead a carefully balanced approach that restored some important historic features, managed parts of the grounds for wildlife and provided for active recreation would be required, in full recognition that this was a public park.

English Heritage and the Council worked together and the first step was to commission a survey which I undertook in 1982. This included a deeper look at the history of the grounds, and it became clear that the Burlington era had dazzled everyone into ignoring other points in their history.

The full story, of the several stages in Burlington’s own evolution as a designer, of the 5th Duke and his troublesome Duchess, of the 6th Duke and his spectacular fêtes, and the gardens’ partial resurrection in the 1950s, began to emerge in rich and deep detail. Discoveries are still being made – I have much enjoyed uncovering Burlington as a designer of urns and creator of a sculpture garden, the story of his steam engine designed to make his cascade work and Duchess Georgiana’s garden tastes including her rosary.

Image above: Dredging the lake using a deflocculator in 1988

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 & 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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