300 years of Chiswick House Gardens – Part 1

Image above: Chiswick House; photograph by Anna Kunst

Part I: Vision of Richard Boyle, 3rd earl of Burlington

Chiswick was for the most part a sleepy fishing village until Richard Boyle, 3rd earl of Burlington, put it on the map in 1720s. The gardens, which he dotted with neoclassical architecture when he returned from his Grand Tours of the continent in 1714 – 1719, and the villa, built 1727 – 1729, which he filled with his collection of paintings, became great tourist attractions.

In the first 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 how the Gardens’ creator realised his vision to recreate the gardens of classical antiquity.

Image above: Vignette of the arcade at Chiswick House from map maker John Rocque’s map of Chiswick, c.1735. This shows a greenhouse, but one of a different design was actually built; the arcade was planted in 1727

Putting Chiswick on the map

By David Jacques

In the 1710s Lord Burlington struck up a friendship with poet and satirist Alexander Pope who then moved to Chiswick ‘under his wing’. Pope regarded Burlington as both a patron and a friend but also to some extent a protector against the harsh anti-Catholic laws of the time.

The fate of so many of Pope’s former friends was to be excoriated by his pen, but his mutual admiration with Burlington was long-lasting and quite genuine. In 1731 one of Pope’s most famous and influential Epistles, on ‘Taste’, was dedicated to Burlington and praised his recently built villa:

Who then shall grace, or who improve the soil?
Who plants like Bathurst, or who builds like Boyle?

Images above: The poet Alexander Pope, studio of Michael Dahl; Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, by Jonathan Richardson, c 1717-1719, portraits courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Burlington’s taste for the antique

By that time the villa at Chiswick was celebrated as the foremost example of ‘antique’ taste in architecture. This was no mere passing fashion, as Burlington’s ‘Palladianism’ dominated British country house design for the rest of the century.

Burlington’s villa embodied a message. It was that returning to the virile, pure and simple tradition of the Romans such as Vitruvius, and his Renaissance heir, Palladio, was in far better taste than the flamboyant but meretricious and debased Baroque which had swept across Italy and France, and had recently invaded England.

His architecture was the equivalent in building terms of Pope’s revival of the style of the Roman literature of Horace and Vergil, and both stemmed from the conviction that the Roman period had been the high point and that England was to lead Europe in emulating, perhaps even surpassing, it.

His quest, therefore, was to re-invoke the first principles of Classical design. He was an antiquarian and well aware of the Roman occupation of Britain over a thousand years previously. To Burlington, his mission would be a ‘restoration’ of those former times.

Image above: Bust of Horace at Chatsworth House (Lord Burlington’s daughter Lady Charlotte Boyle married the owner of Chatsworth, 4th Duke of Devonshire in 1748) ; Doric column at Chiswick House

Burlington was also anxious to demonstrate what this meant through the building of his villa (which was really only an annexe to the old house). He encouraged visitors to see his house, his paintings and his sculpture, indoors and outdoors, and they were one of the premier destinations for British and foreign tourists during his life. His successors carried on that tradition into the 1780s.

He had experimented with and refined his ideas for a decade before building the villa. By tracking him over that time we can see how his ideas, at first somewhat derivative, matured both in relation to his architecture and his gardens.

Images above: Design for the Villa; Plan and design for the Ionic temple from Designs by Inigo Jones,1727; portrait of Lord Burlington by George Knapton, 1743

The Pantheon and the Casina – which no longer exist

His very first changes were with the architect James Gibbs who his mother was employing at Burlington House, on Piccadilly. It is thought that Gibbs designed the now long-lost ‘Pantheon’, or domed temple.

It stood at the far end of the central alley in the wilderness, behind the existing eye-catcher (actually a window from the 1780s villa extension). At the same time the ‘grove’ was planted (this has been partially re-planted in the area next to the ha-ha), and the patte d’oie (goosefoot) of alleys was established for the first time.

However, he became aware that Gibbs’s work verged on being Baroque, and for his next changes he employed an architectural advisor, Colen Campbell, who had just published a volume of architectural designs called Vitruvius Britannicus.

Image above: Burlington’s design for the casina, built in 1717 and demolished in the 1780s

The Casina (Little House), otherwise Bagnio, was placed at the end of the left-hand alley from the patte d’oie. It no longer exists, having been demolished in 1780s, but had a bath house in the basement, and Burlington used the upstairs as a drawing office for his ever-more ambitious schemes. He had by this time become a worshipper of Inigo Jones, the architect of the Whitehall Banquetting House and the church in Covent Garden. Details employed by Jones can be seen at the Casina, and shortly after at the Deer House and Summer Parlour.

Going on a Grand Tour in 1718, Burlington started his collection of architectural drawings by Palladio, Jones and others, and he fell in with a more experienced connoisseur from Norfolk, Sir Andrew Fountaine, to whom he was obviously rather deferential. Details from Fountaine’s buildings found their way into Burlington’s, including the Rustic Arch, still standing at the end of the right-hand alley.

Image above: The Rustick arch, which visitors can still see today

Acquiring Sutton Court and digging a canal

The villa’s gardens, only 16 acres in extent, were by now adorned with five or six garden buildings, including the column. They had allowed Burlington to advance architecturally, but they didn’t amount to a unified conception of a Classical garden. For that reason Burlington looked around for ideas on what would. Some echo of this can be heard in Richard Bradley’s A Survey of the Ancient Husbandry and Gardening (1725).

Bradley helped gentlemen build their collections of exotic plants and Burlington was one of his patrons. His Survey mostly concerned references to plants in ancient authors such as Cato and Columella, but one chapter addresses ‘The Gardens of the Ancients’, in which he suggested that:

the Fashion, or Taste of the Greeks and Romans, in such Grand Gardens, was to make them free, and open, to consist of as much Variety as possible; to afford Shade, and give a refreshing Coolness by variety of Jet d’eaux and Water-falls‘.

He declared that those at Chiswick ‘sufficiently declare the grand Taste of the Master’.

Image above: Portrait of Richard Boyle, 3rd earl of Burlington and his wife Lady Dorothy Savile, Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Caroline, by William Aikman, 1723

There were, in fact, few sources on Roman garden design, though the best was Pliny the Younger’s descriptions of his villas. An architectural theorist, Robert Castell, translated Pliny and devised imaginative reconstructions of their layouts in his Villas of the Ancients (1727), dedicating his book to Burlington. His theory was that there was nature unadorned, gardens made by art, and gardens made by art but looking as if made by nature. Each of his villas had all three components.

Burlington had the opportunity to try out some further thoughts in 1727 when he was able to lease a field to the west and purchase the estate of Sutton Court beyond that. He wanted water, and so he widened a drain in that direction into a canal. He adhered to the view that a canal should not necessarily be absolutely straight, but should ‘follow Nature’. The spoil was placed along the Burlington Lane boundary and is today’s Terrace, which follows the route from the Cascade to the Burlington Lane gate.

Image above: Rocque vignette from the 1736 map; Facade du cote du jardin, signed

Building a villa with a striking resemblance to one in Verona …

Meanwhile the building of the villa was underway. It bears a striking resemblance to one between Verona and Vicenza designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi. As Scamozzi was a follower of Palladio, that was close enough for Burlington to consider that it had been designed on the correctest principles. Construction took a couple of years 1727-9, and the decoration and the forecourt followed.

Although his villa was primarily an architectural statement, it did have a function – the display of the paintings that he had been amassing since he was a lad. The octagonal Saloon contained a Van Dyck of Charles I and his family, portraits of Louis XIII and his queen, huge mythological scenes by Daniel Seiter, and busts, and soaring overhead was the coffered dome.

The side rooms plus smaller closets were sumptuously decorated and known as the Red Velvet Room and Blue Velvet Room to the west, and the Green Velvet Room and a bedchamber to the east. The pick of Burlington’s 167 paintings at Chiswick were densely hung in these rooms.

Image above: design by Vincenzo Scamozzi for the Villa Rocca Pisani

He was anxious that there should be vistas three ways from the villa. One was the forecourt, to the south, the northern one required the removal of some trees from the Grove, and the western one sloped down to the water. This vista was flanked on its south side by a labyrinth, its layout clearly borrowed from one Roman garden that he knew.

At the same time he built the Ionic Temple and excavated the adjacent amphitheatre (actually an orangery garden). Rather than more garden buildings, he was now intent on decorating his gardens with obelisks, urns and statues. He planted long lengths of yew hedging along the canal, at the arcade and elsewhere, placing terms (the busts on shafts, originally used for denoting Roman property boundaries) at intersections. This too derived from his recollections of Roman gardens.

Hence, whatever Burlington took from the two books by Bradley and Castell, his primary source for the gardens was the gardens of Rome itself. Although mostly set out in the sixteenth-century, they already had the patina of age when Burlington saw them, enough for him to believe that they belonged to a tradition stretching back to Classical times.

His house and garden in the antique taste were now complete.
Next – William Kent gets involved.

Image above: John Rocque’s plan of Chiswick House Gardens in 1734 with the various features mentioned in this article marked

A – the casina; B – the domed building; C – the rustick arch; D – Ionic temple; E – amphitheatre; F – patte d’oie (‘goosefoot’ paths); G – column; H – deer house; I – grove; J – arcade; K – villa; L – summer parlour; M – old house; N – forecourt; O – labyrinth

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 Friends 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, the 18th century poet who lived on Mawson Row

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