If the Brimstone Butterfly had been a guest of Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington in the 18th century, I would have stepped out of my carriage and swept up one of the two flights of stairs leading to the portico, passing by either the statue of Andrea Palladio or Inigo Jones. Many years ago I almost bought a replica of an 18th century ballgown, when a famous costumier company were selling off some of their stock. I was very taken with a cream coloured court dress but realised it needed the hooped skirts and panniers to give the correct effect. Alas, my rented bed-sit was far too cramped to house both myself and a gown which required its own spacious wardrobe. Instead, I consoled myself with an early 19th grey silk gown, a plain brown silk Elizabethan skirt and bodice and a Victorian peach coloured gown
Had I worn such a hooped gown in October, I would not have been allowed to use the front steps to gain entrance to the first floor. If I had been forced to resort to the narrow internal stone spiral staircase, I am certain my hooped gown would have become firmly wedged in the stairwell. There are in fact two internal spiral staircases, but only one is open to the general public and it leads from the library on the ground floor to the three-roomed Gallery on the first, each room connected by way of small arches. Of the three rooms forming the Gallery, the central room is the largest. It is dominated by Venetian windows and a door from which a flight of external steps lead out into the garden. Although there are fireplaces at either end of the Gallery, the central room does not contain a hearth, indicating that Burlington saw his villa as a place for entertaining in the more clement weather than in the depths of winter. Likewise, I noticed that the floors were of an unforgiving stone in line with their classical antecedents. Richard Boyle missed a trick. If he was so keen to emulate classical design of the ancient world, he might have been wise to emulate their hypocaust heating as well.
The gilded diamond pattern of the coffering in the apses was inspired by the decorative scheme found in the ancient Roman temple of Venus and Roma, which had been described by Palladio in one of his books, documenting architecture of the classical world. The highly decorated ceiling with its separate compartments was inspired by that other great architectural favourite of the Earl’s, Inigo Jones, and the latter’s designs for the ceiling at the Banqueting House, Whitehall. It gives an idea of what the now plain ceilings in the Great Hall of the Queen’s House at Greenwich, would have looked like when Queen Henrietta Maria first lived there. There are two massive purple urns of porphyry on display. Quite frankly they did not appeal to me in the slightest but I dare say that Burlington was very proud of them when he had them installed in the house after coming across them in Italy. He also brought back a pair of inlaid marble tops. They ended up having a very chequered history. It seems a 19th century Marquis of Bute was not above snaffling them for his own stately home when he was but a tenant of the house. Fortunately they were returned to Chiswick in the late 20th century.
One consequence of Chiswick House passing into the hands of the Devonshires is that they removed most of the choicest pieces of furniture and placed them in their other ducal residences. Unlike the light fingered Marquis of Bute, at least they were only taking what legally belonged to them. But that decision proved problematic when efforts were made to restore the house to how it might have looked in the third Earl's time, for the latter had commissioned furniture to suit the specific scale of Chiswick House, which conformed to 16th century classical ideals of interior dimensions rather than contemporary 18th century domestic interiors.
I had been stuck by how comparatively small Lady Burlington's bedroom was, even with its high ceiling. No longer furnished as a bedroom, in my mind's eye it would be quite cramped if filled with the same amount of fittings gracing those contained within Henrietta Howard's bedroom at Marble Hill House. Lady Burlington, like her husband, was not only a patron of the arts but also a talented amateur artist in her own right. Her private closet, now unfurnished, contains studies she had drawn of her daughter Charlotte. It was the latter's marriage to the Duke of Devonshire that ultimately saw Chiswick House pass to the Devonshires, when it was inherited by Charlotte’s son from that match. Sadly, Lady Burlington outlived both her children and her husband outlived their eldest daughter.
Lady Burlington's bedroom in its current state is relatively modest compared to her husband's study known as the Blue Velvet Room. This is not so much because of the vivid blue velvet wall coverings or the large desk that dominates the room but the ornate coffered ceiling with its depiction of the figure of Architecture in the guise of a woman. Recent scholarship has suggested that the figure of Architecture, along with other motifs found in this room and elsewhere, have more to do with the Earl’s interest in freemasonry than classical illusions. In short there is a theory that Chiswick House was actually designed to act as a secret lodge for the masons.
Even more intriguing is the Red Velvet Room which is not only thought to display Masonic symbols but the even more subversive Jacobite motifs in the shape of tiny carved thistles and roses. Like the central room of the Gallery, the Red Velvet Room is dominated by Venetian windows. It is also heavily influenced by Inigo Jones in the designs for the beamed ceiling, the chimneypieces and the over-mantles. Unlike at the Queen’s House, Greenwich, these replicas have been fashioned from the finest marble.
Whilst the Green Velvet Room has also been inspired by Inigo Jones, it lacks the ceiling paintings of the Red Velvet Room. What it does contain are gilded armchairs upholstered in green velvet although they were originally placed in Lady Burlington’s Summer Parlour on the ground floor, which was closed on the day I went to the house.
The upper storey of the link building contains three paintings in monochrome by the English court painter, Sir Godfrey Kneller of Apollo, Venus and Hercules. Kneller is nowadays better known for his sequence of paintings of various beauties at the Court of William and Mary and which can be found in King William’s state apartments at Hampton Court. It has to be said that these ladies are far more demure than the sequence of paintings of women from the Court of King Charles II that inspired them. But then Queen Mary had commissioned Sir Godfrey to produce the work and her husband was not known for having an eye for the ladies, having only had one acknowledged mistress, Elizabeth Villiers, and even that seemed half-hearted given that he quickly dumped her when his wife died and failed to install a new mistress in her stead. Intriguingly Elizabeth Villiers failed to make it into the set of beauties commissioned by Queen Mary even though a portrait of her cousin, Barbara Villiers, the notorious mistress of King Charles II, is found amongst the set of Restoration Windsor beauties. Beyond the Corinthian columns in the Link Building is a door which once connected the villa to the long demolished adjacent Jacobean mansion, but now only leads to a dead end. The ceiling is of particular interest as it is based on one found in an ancient Roman ruin in Italy.
Had I entered the house by the external stairs, the portico would have led into the double storied Saloon or Tribune. Lit by glazed windows in the dome, the double height octagonal space served as an art gallery and a ballroom in Burlington's time. The lower walls of the Tribune contain gilded brackets bearing copies of marble busts of various Roman emperors. From the upper wall hang vast canvasses of the 17th century French king and queen, Louis XIII and his wife, Anne of Austria and a separate portrait of Charles I and his family. There are also equally large scale canvasses inspired by tales from the classical world. However it is the painting of Mohammed bin Hadou, the Moroccan ambassador at the court of Charles II, that caught my eye. [Thanks to a question posed by a reader below I have now establised that the painting was by Sir Godfrey Kneller, whose monochromatic paintings of Ancient deities are also on display on the upper floor of the Link Building] Bin Hadou was much vaunted in Restoration society for his prowess as a horseman and he was given to showing off his talents as an equestrian in Hyde Park. Coincidentally, the Partridge has an 18th century engraving of this portrait in her dining room, so it was something of a personal pleasure to view the original painting on which it was based.
In 1681 John Evelyn described his own impressions of the Ambassador. He wrote in January of that year:
“I saw the audience of the Morocco Ambassador, his retinue not numerous. He was received in the Banqueting-house, [at Whitehall] and designed by Inigo Jones] both their Majesties being present. He came up to the throne without making any sort of reverence, not bowing his head, or body. [His retinue] were all clad in the Moorish habit, cassocks of coloured cloth, or silk, with buttons and loops, over this a white woollen mantle, so large as to wrap both head and body, a sash, or small turban, naked-legged and armed, but with leather socks like the Turks, rich scymitar, and large calico sleeved shirts. The Ambassador had a string of pearls oddly woven in his turban. I fancy the old Roman habit was little different as to the mantle and naked limbs. He was a handsome person, well-featured, of a wise look, subtle, and extremely civil. Their presents were lions and ostriches;
[The Ambassador] “made his public entry through London the fifth of this month. On the thirtieth of May following he was entertained at Oxford; and about the same dined with Elias Ashmole, who made him a
present of a magnifying glass. July 14, the Ambassador took his leave of the King, and on the 23rd of the same month embarked for his own country. There is a large print of him by Robert White. That Ambassador's present to the King was two lions and thirty ostriches, which his Majesty laughed at, saying he knew nothing fitter to return than a flock of geese."
Unlike the Earl of Burlington’s guests in the 18th century I could not walk from the Gallery to the external flight of stairs leading down to the gardens. Thus, I returned to the internal stone spiral staircase and made my way out of the house to the grounds outside, which I shall return to anon.