Annual events – Chiswick House Camellias
A lovely – and free – thing to do in Chiswick in early spring
Around the end of February / beginning of March each year the Camellias in the Conservatory at Chiswick House bring a burst of colour to the 65 acre park. There are 32 heritage varieties housed in the 300 ft Grade I listed glass house, including the Middlemist’s Red, one of the rarest Camellias in the world, and many of the plants have been growing in the Conservatory for 200 years.
Chiswick House used to throw open the doors for people to walk the length of the building to see this magnificent display of red, white and pink Camellia blooms. Sadly the Conservatory needs substantial renovation and the Chiswick House & Gardens Trust is only allowing access to the rotunda in the middle.
They no longer advertise it as a ‘Camellia Show’ but it is still possible to see some of the flowers.
Video: Interview with Head Gardener Geraldine King in 2015
Oldest collection under glass in the Western world
The Chiswick Calendar interviewed Geraldine King, then the Estate Garden Manager at Chiswick House, at the start of the Camellia Show in 2015. Geraldine, who was head gardener at Chiswick House for eight years until 2021, told us the history of the collection and explained why looking after it was such an awesome responsibility.
Looking after the collection of Heritage camellias in the conservatory at Chiswick House gave her and her team the opportunity to attend international camellia conferences in France and China in pursuit of historic camellias and she now has a wealth of knowledge about them, based on Chiswick’s unique collection.
Image above: Camellias in the Conservatory of Chiswick House; Photograph by Margaret Easter
Imported by the Duke of Devonshire in 1828 so the ladies at his parties could have exotic blooms to wear
The collection is thought to be the oldest under glass in the Western world and includes several rare and historically important examples, many believed to be descended from the original planting in 1828. Imported from Japan, they were introduced by the Duke of Devonshire so he could offer the rare and expensive flowers to the ladies who came to his extravagant parties.
The future of these ‘heritage’ Camellias has been secured by an on-site propagation programme run by the gardeners in the recently restored Melon House and visitors have the opportunity to buy a choice of heritage varieties from Chiswick’s original collection.
With the Conservatory in disrepair, the team at Chiswick House has also decided to plant out new plants taken from the heritage varieties. Camellias do better outside than they do under glass, so they think this is the best way to ensure their survival.
Images above: Photographs by Anna Kunst and Marianne Mahaffey
One of the earliest glass houses
The Conservatory itself has an interesting history. Designed by the architect Samuel Ware (who later designed the Burlington Arcade, Piccadilly) and completed in 1813, it was one of the earliest large glass houses to be built; a forerunner of Decimus Burton’s glass house at Kew and Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace.
It gained a new notoriety when 50 years ago the Beatles recorded the first music video there, for their single Paperback Writer.
The Conservatory is in the middle of the gardens, near both Chiswick House and the cafe. Visitors are invited to make a day of it, enjoy the whole Grade 1 listed estate, stop off for refreshments at Chiswick House Café and visit the 18th century Villa and shop, open Thursday – Sunday from the end of May until October.
Images above: Photographs by Jon Perry, Margaret Easter and Fiona Hanson
The ‘Hidden Horticulturalists’
The Gardens of Chiswick House were famed for their beauty and their variety of exotic plants when Chiswick House belonged to the Dukes of Devonshire, but they were not the only gardens of note in Chiswick.
In the 19th century the Horticultural Society (before it became the Royal Horticultural Society) chose Chiswick to be their nursery, to which they brought exotic plants from all over the Empire and worked out how they could thrive in our climate.
In Fiona Davison’s book The Hidden Horticulturalists she explains how working class men trained as gardeners in the Horticultural Society’s garden and took their expertise with exotic plants to the great gardens of the landed gentry and the suburban villas of the middle class all over the country. Among them was Joseph Paxton, who worked for the Duke of Devonshire and went on to design Crystal Palace.
Read more about the Hidden Horticulturalists here:
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See also: Chiswick House & Gardens
See also: Chiswick Flower Market
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