"He leapt the fence and saw that all nature was a garden. He felt the delicious contrast of hill and valley changing imperceptibly into each other, tasted the beauty of the gentle swell, or concave scoop, and remarked how loose groves crowded an easy eminence with happy ornament." [Horace Walpole on William Kent, designer of Chiswick House Gardens]
Chiswick House Gardens, designed by William Kent and Lord Burlington in the 1720s and 30s are – as the birthplace of the English Landscape Movement – of immense importance in the history of Western art and culture. For the first time, a garden moved away from the straight lines and formality of Renaissance gardens in favour of natural curves and clusters. This Arcadian image of the English Garden would take Europe and North America by storm, its influence can be seen in landscapes from Villa Reale in Italy to Central Park, New York.
Over the past 300 years, the Gardens have been transformed from a great nobleman’s estate to a public park. The different areas within the estate (described below) each embody a distinct historical period and combine to deliver a beautifully illustrated history of English garden design.
The end of the 20th century witnessed a slow decline in the fortunes of the Gardens as its vistas became overgrown and its paths struggled under the strain of over a million pairs of feet a year. The Gardens suffered because of the split management of the site, with Chiswick House being managed by English Heritage and the Gardens by the London Borough of Hounslow. Like most parks and gardens across the country, dwindling non-statutory local authority budgets meant that fewer resources were available.
Grass and hedges were cut but very little was done to the trees and woodland. The vigorous regeneration of self sown trees, following the great storm in 1987, prevented sufficient light penetrating to the woodland floors, choking-out the ground flora and leaving bare ground and muddy patches.
In 2005, English Heritage and the London Borough of Hounslow (although still closely involved) collaborated to form the independent Chiswick House and Gardens Trust to oversee the regeneration of the Gardens. The aim of the restoration was to reveal the cultural and natural heritage of the site as well as improve the facilities for visitors. Historic restoration was given precedence in the core area around Chiswick House and in the Italian Garden (see below) at the eastern end of the site. To the west of the artificial river, the woodlands are managed with the aim of increasing biodiversity, a meadow is being established and areas have been set aside for wild fowl. Important changes by Burlington’s successors were respected and conserved. Extensive consultation with present and potential visitors to the site has been important in guiding the project, to ensure the improvements meet the needs of today’s visitors.
The overriding ambition was to restore the special character of the Gardens, making them a source of beauty, inspiration and recreation for visitors from the local Chiswick community, London and across the world.
The forecourt with entrance piers, cedars and stone pedestals was designed by Lord Burlington in 1727 to create a formal reception area from where the perfect proportions and exquisite carved detail of the House’s façade could be admired.
In keeping with the original entrance, two sphinxes – symbolic guardians of the House – have been reinstated on the gate piers (with support from the Wolfson Foundation). The six terms (or stone pedestals ending in carved human heads) that flank the forecourt have been restored and repositioned.
Visitors to Chiswick House in the 18th and 19th centuries frequently commented on the size and splendour of the Cedars of Lebanon. There were originally eight in the forecourt: “the beautiful dark teint of the solemn evergreens affording a pleasant contrast to the whiteness of the building…”. As part of the project, Cedars of Lebanon propagated from the historic Chiswick Cedars are once more alongside the terms.
The classically inspired symmetry of the forecourt has been restored, revealing the unified design of House and Gardens.
The birthplace of the English Landscape Movement, an informal lawn slopes down from Chiswick House to the ornamental river. Originally divided by hedges and lawns, the area was opened up and extended by Lord Burlington and William Kent in the 1730s to create uninterrupted views of the House and visually linking the surrounding landscape with the neo-Palladian villa.
As part of the restoration, the lawn was cleared of a number of self-seeded trees and haphazard planting, bins and seats which were obstructing the views and disrupting the historic design. The railings by the edge of the river were also removed and a 2 metre wide stone shelf installed to act as an initial shallow area.
The nearby cascade terminates the river and is the last major work undertaken at Chiswick during Burlington’s lifetime. An entrancing waterfall descending a series of rock steps through three archways, it was inspired by designs Burlington and Kent had seen in Italian Renaissance gardens. The cascade restoration was supported by the Rothermere Foundation.
The Avenue, a flat lawn, extends from the rear of Chiswick House and terminates in the Exedra, a semi-circle of yew hedging with niches containing statuary and sphinxes. A grand allée inspired by the Roman Appian Way separates the Avenue from the Grove and is lined on either side with cedars and cypresses, sculpture and urns.
The trees, urns and sphinxes form a symbolic processional avenue unique in England. The Roman origins of the statuary, the classical use of Egyptian imagery and the shape, motifs and decoration of the urns all express and exemplify the unique Italian quality of the Burlington design.
The urns and statuary have all been restored (with support from The Duke of Devonshire’s Charitable Trust), and new Cupressus sempervirens Mediterranean cypress trees have been planted on either side of the allée and in the process restoring the necessary form and proportion. The planting of a formal grid of lime trees in the Grove reinstates the uniformity in Burlington’s concept for this area.
Lying beyond the Exedra, this garden in the shape of an amphitheatre surrounds a circular pool with an obelisk in the centre, overlooked by an Ionic Temple. It was created in around 1726 and at the time, orange trees in tubs were planted on the garden terraces.
The temple is currently still under repair, delayed slightly because of vandalism (loss of lead due to theft). A new circulating water supply has been provided to improve the quality of water. The temple’s stonework and the obelisk have been cleaned and repaired. The viewing area is substantially improved. Supported by Soho House Group, through the House Festival fundraising events.
Located north of the House, the patte d’oie (French for ‘goose-foot’) is one of the key features of the Gardens and denotes three radiating avenues, like the webbed foot of a goose, each originally terminating in a small building. Probably laid out by Burlington in about 1716, it was meant to reproduce the type of layout found in an ancient Roman garden.
The left hand avenue led to the ‘Bagnio’ (bath-house) or ‘Cassina’ (little house), ‘the first design of his lordship’s happy invention’. It was demolished in 1778 and in the 1950s the avenue was incorrectly reinstated on the Classic Bridge. The central avenue led to a domed building similar to a temple or Pantheon. Dating from 1716 and attributed to James Gibbs, it was demolished in 1784 and now contains a Venetian window saved from the demolition of the House’s late 18th century wings. The right hand avenue leads to the Rustic House, the only building to survive.
The original alignments of the goose foot have been re-created and the Rustic Temple repaired and its setting enhanced. The arched entrance to the park, behind the Rustic House has been opened up providing those visitors parking in the refurbished car park with a direct and dramatic route to the core of the park (with support from The Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation). The hedges have been halved in height restoring their desired proportions. The muddy track that led up the central toe of the goosefoot has been re-laid in hoggin to provide a more suitable dry surface. Supported by The Fidelity UK Foundation and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.
The Wilderness Lawn lies to the north of the Ionic Temple, between the river and the goose foot’s left hand avenue. Previously the site of a formal pool and temple, the lawn was for a long time fenced off and inaccessible to the public, a poor use of the area. It has been transformed into a dog-free picnic area with fencing at the water edge, ideally suited for parents with small children. Supported by The Goldsmiths’ Company Charity.
At the bottom of the Wilderness Lawn and spanning the lake, lies an elegant – and now conserved – stone bridge attributed to James Wyatt and built for the fifth Duke of Devonshire in 1774. Restoration of the western toe of the goosefoot and the carriage drive contemporary with the bridge now provide a more appropriate setting.
Thought to have been designed by Lord Burlington in about 1729, the Doric Column was originally surmounted with a copy of the statue of the Venus de Medici from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. In 1736, it was the focus of a small triangular area of dense planting, with six allées radiating out from it. This was replaced by a rose garden, laid out by the fifth Duke of Devonshire and first recorded in 1811. Over the years, the rose garden was suppressed, replanted and fell into decline.
The column has now been restored and a new copy of the Venus statue installed on top. The rosary has been restored to its mid-19th century appearance and the Victorian radial layout of paths, beds and planting re-installed. Supported by Chiswick House Friends and David Austin Roses.
The Grade I listed hothouse, located north east of Chiswick House, is a spectacular landmark within the Gardens. Initially designed by Samuel Ware for the sixth Duke of Devonshire in 1813, the conservatory is also famous for its large collection of camellias, a significant number dating from the original 1828 planting. Thought to be the oldest camellia collection in England (and perhaps outside China and Japan), it includes some extremely rare specimens, not least the 'Middlemist Red' – one of only two specimens in the world.
The 19th century superstructure was rebuilt in the 1930s by Messenger and Co. at 392ft (96m) and was their last and largest commission – significant in its own right. The back sheds behind the conservatory rear wall retain many elements of the original structure, including the historic hot air heating system.
The conservatory was deemed unsafe for the general public and required major conservation, restoration and repair. Throughout the works, the camellia collection was carefully protected. The public now enjoys full access and the conservatory is available to hire for private parties and other functions. Supported by The Wolfson Foundation, The Garfield Weston Foundation and the Monument Trust.
Located in front of the conservatory, this semi-circular parterre, designed by Lewis Kennedy, dates from 1814 and represents an early example of the reintroduction of formal gardens to England. The garden is characterised by its symmetrical formality and intricate pattern of flowerbeds. Stone urns on plinths are set against an enclosing semi-circular path, the central path is flanked by copies of two magnificent Coadestone vases (the originals are in the conservatory).
The shapes of the flower beds had eroded and these have now been restored to their 1880’s design. The urns, plinths and vases have been repaired and a new framework for the wisteria installed. An enclosing yew hedge planted in the 1950s has been replaced with an unusual planting of mop headed Robinias, rambling roses trained to swags ropes, hollyhocks, lilies and shrub roses, based on a detailed garden survey undertaken in the 1850s. Supported by a legacy from the late Miss Phyllis Bishop.
The Camellia Shrubbery
In 1812, the 6th Duke of Devonshire acquired the neighbouring estate of Morton Hall, demolished the house and established the Camellia Shrubbery. Prior to the restoration, the density of mature trees coupled with very limited management had resulted in increasing shade that had caused the historic flowering shrub to decline. Visitors made limited use of the area, partly due to its overgrown and deeply shaded character.
The restoration has completely transformed this section of the Gardens, making it far more inviting to the public. Trees were thinned out and new ones planted, improving the level of light and allowing for greater variety in planting. The original path layout has been conserved as well as the remaining boundary walls to Morton Hall, the oldest fabric within the site.
Benches and seating have been installed, creating an attractive destination close to the new children's play area and cafe. Supported by The Wolfson Foundation. For more information visit www.chgt.org.uk