The Brimstone Butterfly finally made her way to Osterley Park a few weeks ago. I had toyed with the idea of paying a visit there all last year but I had been put off by the thought of the sheer scale of the place. I harboured the erroneous impression that it had ceased to be lived in as a family home from the early 19th century onwards. Thus, I envisaged a vast empty edifice, denuded of all furnishings. In reality although it had ceased to be a principal residence it remained very much in family hands up until the end of the second world war. Towards the latter part of the 19th century, Osterley become something of a pleasure palace as the setting for extravagant weekend end house parties.
According to Daniel Lysons in his Environs of London published in 1810 Osterley Manor had been owned for a short while by the abbess and convent at Syon in the 1530s. The suppression of the monasteries under Henry VIII meant that the property fell to the crown and from thence into a sequence of private hands until bought by Sir Thomas Gresham, the Elizabethan courtier and financier. Gresham had managed that rare feat of successfully serving under King Edward VI and his two half sisters, the Catholic Mary and the Protestant Elizabeth. Such was Gresham’s skill as a financial whiz kid he built up an impressive personal fortune which made him one of the richest men in the country. It also enabled him to found the Royal Exchange in the heart of the City of London and replace the existing farmhouse at Osterley with a splendid new residence fit for a queen. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth came a-calling twice, the first time in 1578, a year after building work at Osterley had been completed. Legend has it that Queen Elizabeth I suggested in passing that a courtyard in front of the house would be significantly improved by the addition of a wall, Gresham secretly made arrangements for the work to be carried out overnight, a feat which greatly impressed the queen and her court when they came across the completed wall in the morning.
Of Sir Thomas’s mansion only the exterior of the stable blocks remain little altered from his time. Their turreted staircases reminded me of those at Eastbury Manor House. By the close of the 16th century both Gresham and his wife had died and the parklands had fallen into decay according to the Elizabethan topographer and historian John Norden, who wrote of Osterley in 1596:
“a faire and stately building of bricke. It standeth in a parke well-wooded and garnished with manie faire ponds, which afforded not only fish and fowle, as swanes and other water foule, but also great use for milles, as paper milles, oyle milles, and corne milles, all of which are now decayed. (a corne mill excepted.) In the same parke was a very faire heronrie, for the increase and preservation whereof sundrie allurements were devised and set up, fallen all to ruin.”
Swams were very much in evidence on my visit to Osterley. I was enthralled by the way one swan in particular was determined to give no quarter to a Canadian goose, who had the temerity to try and swim on what was clearly Swan Lake.
Osterley Park and House subsequently passed through various hands until it ended up in the Child family and through the female line to the last owners, the Earls of Jersey, who bequeathed Osterley Park and its contents to the National Trust in 1949.
Like Sir Thomas Gresham the Child family had had made their money through banking and trade and like him they were keen to flaunt their fabulous wealth. Thus, in the 1760s the Child family began the process of remodelling Osterley, calling upon the talents of one of the foremost architects of the period, Robert Adams. Incidentally, Sarah Jodrell the widow of Robert Child, who had done so much along with his elder brother Francis to transform Osterley, had married the Right Honourable Francis, Lord Ducie upon Robert’s death. This Lord Ducie must surely be related to the same Sir William Ducie, who had lived at Charlton House in the 17th century.
The neo-classcial Osterley closely followed the footprint of Gresham’s earlier mansion, in that it retained a red brick exterior, enclosed courtyard and four turrets. Nevertheless, there was one sunning difference between the Georgian and Elizabethan façade in the guise of the so-called “transparent portico. “ Adams had wanted to pull down the East façade. The Childs did not. The transparent portico was an inspired compromise, affording as it did a view through the portico to the enclosed courtyard beyond, whilst at the same time bringing to mind the buildings of Imperial Rome and Greece. Like Richard Boyle at Chiswick House a few decades earlier, Adams has been on the Grand Tour of Europe. His subsequent work was heavily influenced by the architecture of the classical world he had witnessed, albeit most of which had been in ruins. Unlike Boyle who relied upon William Kent to perform such a role, Robert Adams was as keen to design the interior as well as the exterior at Osterley. His eye for detail extended to the very bell pulls themselves. Horace Walpole, who chose to design the antithesis of a neo-classical villa at Strawberry Hill, gave the completed mansion a mixed review. ( I have just discovered that Daniel Lysons, who wrote the history of Osterley which I referred to earlier, was encouraged in his endeavours by Horace Walpole, who appointed Lysons as his family chaplain). In 1778 Horace Walpole gave his own critique of thework at Osterley writing:
“ The first chamber, a drawing-room, not a large one, is the most superb and beautiful that can be conceived, and hung with Gobelin tapestry, and enriched by Adam in his best taste, except that he has stuck diminutive heads in bronze, no bigger than a half-crown, into the chimney-piece's hair. The next is a light plain green velvet bedchamber. The bed is of green satin richly embroidered with colours, and with eight columns ; too theatric, and too like a modern head-dress, for round the outside of the dome are festoons of artificial flowers. What would Vitruvius think of a dome decorated by a milliner? The last chamber, after these two proud rooms, chills you : it is called the Etniscan, and is painted all over like Wedgwood's ware, with black and yellow small grotesques. Even the chairs are of painted wood. It would be a pretty waiting-room in a garden. I never saw such a profound tumble into the Bathos. It is going out of a palace into a potter's field. Tapestry, carpets, glass, velvet, satin, are all attributes of winter. There could be no excuse for such a cold termination, but its containing a cold bath next to the bedchamber: — and it is called taste to join these incongruities ! I hope I have put you into a passion.”
As to whether I share Walpole’s opinions regarding the interior that shall become apparent when I resume my tour of Osterley Park anon.