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.