A Brief History of Chiswick House and Gardens

Chiswick House (or more precisely ‘Villa’) is one of the most iconic and important Georgian buildings in British architectural history. Built by Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork (1694-1753) between 1727 and 1729, Chiswick House was designed to emulate the architecture of ancient Rome. Inspired by his two ‘Grand Tours’ of Europe in 1714 and 1719, Lord Burlington was influenced by a number of prominent Renaissance architects, most notably the sixteenth century Italian master architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) whose seminal treatise I Quattro Libri Dell’ Architettura (1570) was so influential it later helped coin the term ‘Palladian’ style in Britain. Following in the footsteps of the Stuart Surveyor Inigo Jones (1573-1652) almost a century before, Lord Burlington regarded it as his personal mission to return English architecture to its aesthetic purity (and by default replace any Baroque influences) by closely following the ‘rules’ of architecture as established in the early Renaissance by architects such as Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), Vignola (1507-1573) and Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554). Returning to London from Rome in 1719, Lord Burlington was also accompanied by the Yorkshire painter William Kent (1685-1748) who would quickly become the most sought after talent of his age in Georgian Britain, being accomplished in interior design, architecture and garden landscape. At Chiswick House William Kent was responsible for many of the painted ceilings and much of the furniture which was designed to create a unified iconographical scheme within both villa and garden.

Many historians believe that Chiswick House was never intended to be lived in and did not function as a conventional residence. Rather it was conceived, in part, as a large garden, pavillion or ‘folly’ where Lord Burlington could display his 167 paintings and architectural plans purchased on his two visits to France and Italy. These included architectural drawings from his beloved architects Andrea Palladio and Inigo Jones (in addition Lord Burlington also collected as many of the theatre and masque-set designs by Inigo Jones for the Stuart court which William Kent utilized for the more theatrical aspects of his garden design).

The gardens, which surrounded the villa, were as important as the villa itself and both were conceived as an integrated entity (for Burlington the gardens were another room to the villa, or the villa another area of the garden). The gardens at Chiswick have been viewed by historians as the first example of the ‘English Landscape Garden’ and the landscape garden as Britain’s only originally contribution to the European ‘Enlightenment’. At Chiswick, Burlington, Kent and Alexander Pope transformed the existing garden into an environment where natural or ‘irregular’ features could exist harmoniously alongside the remaining formal gardens of previous generations. Here ‘variety’ was a key concept derived from the writings of Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftsbury (1671-1713). Lord Burlington charged the general public for entry to the gardens and they remained the most visited gardens of any villa situated along the River Thames.

Lord Burlington’s gardens were also amongst the first landscapes to contain a number of different gardens structures in the form

of classically inspired buildings (‘fabriques’) including temples,

pavilions, orangeries, bridges, bagnios and grottos. These structures, some of the earliest in Britain, William Kent and Burlington effortlessly combined with Egyptian inspired objects such as sphinxes, obelisks and stone lions; objects which would have been viewed when in Rome, and although Egyptian were ascribed Roman characteristics and forever linked with the reign of the Emperor Augustus. Burlington also owned a large collection of sculpture (including one of the famous Arundel Marbles), some of which were genuine ancient Roman statues either purchased or taken from the Emperor Hadrian’s ‘Villa Adriana’ whilst on his Grand Tours.

The gardens at Chiswick were a destination for young men from mainland Europe on their Grand Tour and visitors included Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, Rousseau, Prince Leopold III, Duke of Anhalt-Dessau, Hermann, Fürst von Pückler-Muskau, Tsars Nicholas I, Alexander I and Giuseppe Garibaldi. Other recorded visitors include Queen Victoria, Sir Walter Scott, William Berges, John Ruskin and even the The Beatles who shot a music video in the conservatory and at the end of William Kent’s exedra!

Above- the grand Octagonal Domed Hall at Chiswick House with a mixture of mythological and Royal paintings of the House of Stuart.

Above- a nineteenth century plan of Chiswick House with putti brandishing architectural implements

Above- View of the rear elevation of the Ionic Temple showing a broken horizontal pediment derived from the architecture of Andrea Palladio. This entrance could have been reached by boat as it fronted the serpentine lake.

 It is believed that this temple once contained the three Roman statues that are today located at the end of the William Kent exedra.