London Museum Challenge #16: Chiswick House

July 28, 2013 § 3 Comments

Chiswick House

Chiswick House

‘Too small to live in, and too big to hang to a watch.’  – John, Lord Hervey, on Chiswick House

As with Syon House, Chiswick House and I go back a long way, even though I hadn’t set foot there before last week. In the case of Chiswick House, it wasn’t John Julius Norwich’s Treasure Houses of England that clued me in, but a massive doorstop of a book: Sir Banister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture. I wish I remembered more of the circumstances surrounding my discovery of it (I’m fairly certain I found it in my high school library, but am not sure why – I have no memory of any school projects relating to architecture), but I do remember being completely enthralled by it, turning the onion-skin-thin pages reverently and poring over the photographs and the plans. (How ironic, then, that architecture has always been far and away the weakest area of my art historical knowledge.)

Not surprisingly, in view of my overwhelming Anglophilia, I spent the most time over the British buildings, and Chiswick House became a favourite. I knew nothing of Palladian architecture (and still have yet to visit any of his villas in the Veneto) but there was something enchanting about how perfectly proportioned and symmetrical the house appeared. I read envious Lord Hervey’s criticism of it but I found it hard to believe – in the photos, it looked imposing and splendid.

Fast-forward two decades and I’m walking along the M4 on a blazingly hot Sunday afternoon, heart sinking at the thought that this noisy, traffic-choked road runs right past the house. Once I turned into the gates and had walked only about ten yards up an avenue of lime trees, I could hardly hear the roar of the cars. Five minutes later I finally found myself in front of, and then inside, the object of my long-ago dreams.

I had to admit that Lord Hervey’s jibe wasn’t entirely sour grapes. There is something weirdly miniature about Chiswick House, even if it’s larger than any house most of us can ever hope to afford. In fairness to its architect and owner, Lord Burlington, it wasn’t actually intended for living in, at least, not in the strictest sense of the word – as Horace Walpole had done with Strawberry Hill, he designed it as a sort of showcase for his art collection and his library, ideal for entertaining or escaping the noise of London, not really suitable for much else (no kitchens, only one bedroom… for prosaic things like cooking, eating and sleeping there was the larger family home, now long gone, in the grounds nearby). Most of the art collection now lives at Chatsworth, but enough remains to give a reasonable idea of what a jewel box the house was when Lord Burlington, and later the Dukes of Devonshire, lived in it.

Chiswick-House-and-Garden-006

The gardens are, if anything, even more impressive than the house. Designed by William Kent, they’re one of the first attempts to break the rigidity of Jacobean gardens and to recreate the gardens of ancient Rome… at least, as imagined in the 18th century. Despite being dotted with follies and various pieces of statuary that Burlington picked up on the Grand Tour, they feel surprisingly informal, ideal for wandering and getting lost in. (Indeed, one of the nicest surprises about the gardens is that they’re currently looked after by the London Borough of Hounslow as a public park, so although you have to pay admission to visit the house, anyone can visit the gardens for free.) There’s a conservatory, too, rather pedestrian in comparison to the fairy architecture of the Syon conservatory but with an unusual claim to fame: it’s the birthplace of the music video. The Beatles filmed promotional clips for Paperback Writer and Rain there in 1966.

They’re not brilliant as music videos (though it’s probably unfair to judge them by 21st-century standards) but they do have the advantage of showing the gardens at their greenest: the day I went, a week ago, the gardens were baked brown and raked by glaring sunlight (very un-English!). I’m not sure I’d visit the house itself again, now that my high-school imaginings have been realised, but I’d happily go back to the gardens on a cooler, greener day with softer light, armed with a camera…

Tally: 16 down, 7 to go

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