Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Chiswick House: Part Two

As I sauntered through the Burlington Lane Gate into the park of Chiswick House I found myself humming the Edwardian music hall number:” I'm Burlington Bertie I rise at ten thirty and saunter along like a toff, I walk down the Strand with my gloves on my hand, then I walk down again with them off.” Poor Burlington Bertie was, unlike his illustrious namesake Robert, 3rd Earl of Burlington, a poverty stricken would-be dandy, who still appreciated the good life and fine dining, even if he couldn’t afford to actually indulge in it. Nowadays, my lifestyle is increasingly more Bertie than Earl of B. Nonetheless, like Bertie I like to go to the grand mansions of the toffs even if, as in the case of the Earl of Burlington, they have long since decamped.

The first object that came into sight was a stone obelisk into the base of which an ancient Grecian carving in marble of two figures had been inserted. The original, which once belonged to the Earl of Arundel, is now kept within the house itself and the version by the gate is a modern replica. Though I did not know it at the time the Burlington Lane Gate marks the start of the so-called Patte d'oie or 'foot of the goose'. In other words a series of walks radiate outwards from this point. I chose the pathway that led to the ‘river’, although in reality the latter is simply an artificial lake formed from the former Bollo Brook stream.     

My first view of the house was partially obscured by a magnificent golden leafed tree. Not being an arborist I have no idea what species the tree was. 

As I got closer, I could spy the dome and portico arising from behind rather nondescript hedging. In a drawing of the house dating from 1733 I noticed that the hedging had originally been a small avenue of trees and that statues stood on the three now empty plinths on the roof of the portico.

Having walked around the hedge I could now view the house in all its splendour: a truly magnificent sight. Before entering the house I walked around the exterior.

The staircases are flanked by statues of the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, the inspiration behind Chiswick House and the early 17th century English architect Inigo Jones, whose own work at the Banqueting House in Whitehall and the Queen’s House at Greenwich had been heavily influenced in turn by the Venetian.
 Chiswick House sports some unusual looking chimneys modelled on those at Palladio’s Villa Rotonda at Vicenza. They proved to be completely impractical and had to be replaced with more conventional chimneys. When the house was being restored it was decided that Burlington’s designs should be reinstated as they would henceforth be merely decorative.

Around the side of the villa I came across the two-storey building in honey coloured stone that once linked Burlington’s villa with the Jacobean mansion. This building would make an elegant home in its own right. 

Glancing through the iron gate which barred the entrance to the porch, I saw behind the screen of protective glass a lead Sphinx, supposedly inspired by the avenue of sphinxes that once guarded ancient Thebes. This Sphinx would never have been allowed to mingle with those of Ancient Egyptian provenance, possessing as it did the face and breasts of a woman as opposed to the bearded aspect of a man.  

Returning to the front of villa I walked a small way up the staircase leading to the grand portico. Burlington’s guests would have continued up the stairs and entered the house by the first floor. Nowadays that way is barred to visitors. Instead I entered through the small doorway on the ground floor at the foot of the two staircases.

The small vestibule gave no hint of the splendours of the upper floor. Having shown my membership card I walked through the narrow passageway to a large octagonal room referred to as the Lower Tribune, which had served as a waiting room for visitors for Lord Burlington, whose own library was also on this floor. The Lower Tribune houses a small collection of paintings of Chiswick House and gardens executed by the British artist Joseph William Topham Vinall in the 1930s, when the house had passed into public ownership. There was something rather touching seeing images of people wandering around the house on a day trip in much the same manner as I was doing over 70 years later.

Although the ground floors rooms that were open to the public were somewhat austere, I noticed that the panelling and edges of shutters were gilded. Some of these rooms had served as bedrooms in the 1770s but, again, historians are uncertain as to whether they would have been put to such a purpose in Burlington’s time.

Perambulating the ground floor I came across a bust of Napoleon in a small octagonal room. It had once been placed in the grounds by 18th century admirers of the French Emperor but now a modern replica had taken its place. Steep steps from the octagonal room led to a wine cellar which though grand, was not on a scale of the wine cellars at Hampton Court.

Returning up the steps I made my way to the Link Building, whose interior I had observed from outside. Through a series of Tuscan columns I could see the Sphinx made of lead. Close to it became apparent that it’s back had been damaged at some stage. Nearby placed against a wall was the ancient Greek marble carving of a man and a woman that for some obscure reason had been buried in the grounds of the former Arundel House in the Strand a number of decades before. Beyond the Sphinx stood three ancient Roman statues in marble, said to have come from the Emperor Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli. Also on a display was a nude statue of a young woman dating from the 19th century and brought to Chiswick by the Devonshires after they inherited the villa.

The Summer Parlour was closed to visitors and so I made my back to a small spiral stone staircase and ascended to the upper floor, of which I shall speak of anon.

Chiswick House Part One

“In Chiswick Park did Richard Boyle
A stately pleasure-dome decree”

If Samuel Taylor Coleridge is spinning in his grave at the misappropriation of his great poem “Kubla Khan” the Brimstone Butterfly certainly did not hear him do so on Christmas Day, when she sat mere inches from his granite gravestone as she attended church. Perhaps the “playing of the merry organ” and the”sweet singing of the choir” drowned out the muffled whirring sound emanating from below the central nave.
Richard Boyle, the third Earl of Burlington

Chiswick House itself is an elegant 18th century villa in London which I have often heard mention of but failed to visit until this October, just before it closed for the winter when it was perhaps seen at its best advantage on a crisp autumnal day, its classical façade thrown into stark relief by the brilliant sunshine. It was designed by Richard Boyle, the third Earl of Burlington, with more than a little help from his protégé and painter turned architect William Kent. Boyle had the talent and disposition to be a first rate architect in his own right but his aristocratic rank precluded him from embarking on architecture as a full time career. Fortunately, that did not stop him from designing buildings for himself and family and friends such as at Chiswick.

Like most young men of wealth and fashion in the early 18th century Burlington embarked upon a grand tour of Italy returning with 878 trunks and, for good measure, a celebrated violinist and a sculptor in his baggage train. Indeed, Burlington’s reputation for supporting a host of musicians, (pre-eminent amongst the latter being George Frederick Handel) artists, writers, poets and architects it led to him being acclaimed as the  "Apollo of the  Arts" by Horace Walpole, whose own stately pleasure castle at Strawberry Hill I recently had the pleasure to visit.    
Burlington House, Piccadilly
 At the ripe old age of 10, Burlington came into his family fortune and titles. His substantial inheritance included a Jacobean House and land at Chiswick. Consequently, by the time he had turned 18 he was in a position to wholly indulge his passions for the arts.  He had hired the Scottish architect, Colen Campbell to transform Burlington House in Piccadilly, his London mansion. Given his wide ranging patronage of the arts it is only fitting that Burlington’s London townhouse is now better known as the home of the Royal Academy for the Arts.
Palladio’s Villa Rotonda at Vicenza
 When it came to designing a new home for himself at Chiswick at first he relied on Colen Campbell to draw up plans in 1720, based on the great Renaissance architect Palladio’s Villa Rotonda at Vicenza.  Burlington like Inigo Jones before him had been deeply influenced by what he had seen in Italy and what he had read in the authoritative tomes he assembled on classical architecture. Just as Inigo Jones had revolutionised English architecture through his work at the Banqueting Hall Whitehall and the Queen’s House at Greenwich, so Burlington wanted to sweep away the last vestiges of the ornate Baroque to a style that conformed to strict classical principles.  Burlington decided he had both the confidence and the skill to undertake the project himself with the assistance of his protégé, William Kent, to help with the design of the classical interiors and the formal gardens. Burlington had come across Kent on his second sojourn to the Continent and despite their very different social status had forged both a strong personal friendship and a successful partnership based on their mutual interest in classical architecture.
Marble Hill House
 Marble Hill House at neighbouring Twickenham was built for a woman, Henrietta Howard, who took into account the practical as well as the aesthetically pleasing. Burlington, by contrast, gave scant heed to such matters. Thus he built a villa for entertaining which neither contained a kitchen nor uncovered access to the adjacent Jacobean house.

Similarly, he seemed to have completely disregarded the fashions of the era, bizarrely expecting high ranking ladies to be able to deftly negotiate the narrow stone spiral staircases of Chiswick House in their cumbersome hooped skirts. 

We have a clear idea of exactly how Henrietta Howard had furnished and arranged the interior Marble Hill house from the detailed inventory taken upon her death. In Burlington’s case an inventory was not taken until almost two decades after he had died and well over a decade after the death of his widow. As a result it is hard to say with any accuracy how all the rooms were arranged in Burlington’s lifetime. Some historians believe Chiswick House was designed to serve as a secret Masonic Lodge. Others speculate that Burlington was at heart a Jacobite and hinted at his true allegiances by way of the coded symbolism of the interior. Whether or not he was a Jacobite, Burlington certainly fell out with Henrietta Howard’s former lover, the Hanoverian King George II and retired from court in 1733. As well as his political fortunes being at low ebb, so too was his bank balance bringing to a close any further ambitions he might have had at Chiswick with regard to the gardens and the house.

After the successive deaths of Burlington in 1753 and his widow in 1758 his lands at Chiswick became the inheritance of the Dukes of Devonshire through the marriage of his late daughter Charlotte to the 4th Duke. The Devonshires made a number of key alterations to the house including demolishing the Jacobean mansion and building two new wings to provide Burlington’s villa with all the necessary attributes of a grand house such as the kitchens which Burlington had deliberately left out. They also made radical changes to the formal gardens. The Devonshires stopped using Chiswick House as a family seat and began renting it out in the last four decades of the 19th century before flogging it off to Middlesex County Council in 1929. The Council in turn passed it to the Ministry of Works in 1948 and it is currently under the auspices of English Heritage.
In the 1950s the decision was taken to begin the process of restoring Chiswick House and its grounds to how they would have looked in Lord Burlington’s time, thereby undoing the changes imposed on the house and grounds by the Devonshires. It is likely that both the Earl of Burlington and William Kent would have been very happy to have their unique vision at Chiswick Park realised anew.