By Ricky Pound, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal, 16, 2007
‘Then in our songs be justice done,
To those who have enrich’d the Art,
From Jabal down to Burlington
And let each Brother bear a part
Let noble Masons’ Healths go round
Their praise in lofty Lodge resound’.
James Anderson, Constitutions of the Free-Masons, 1723
Following the exhibition on the 3rd Earl of Burlington and his architecture at the Royal Academy in 1995, the renowned interior design historian, John Cornforth, wrote an article for Country Life magazine entitled Chiswick House, London. In this paper Cornforth expressed his frustration when evaluating the decoration of Chiswick House in terms of conventional ‘rules’ which governed interior design in the early eighteenth century. He wrote: ‘the villa gives me the uncomfortable feeling that it contains elements which uninitiated people are not supposed to understand . . . do the colours of the velvets have a non-decorative significance, because the jumps of colour do not make sense in terms of contemporary decoration?’ Cornforth went on to ask whether Chiswick House started out ‘as an idea of pure architecture, a cross between a garden temple and French pavilion but cast in Classical, Palladian and even Masonic dress?’
This statement brilliantly summarises the problems of interpretation faced by many art and architectural historians in assessing the purpose and meaning of Chiswick Villa. Richard Boyle’s building has always inspired debate, even among his contemporaries. For example, the socialite Lord Hervey claimed the villa ‘too little to live in, and too large to hang to one’s watch’. The real problem derives from Lord Burlington himself who employs an almost deliberately orchestrated silence concerning the role and meaning of his villa. For example, the traditional interpretation of Chiswick as a ‘party house’ falls down at the first hurdle for it was designed with neither kitchens nor bedrooms, although it does have one single cellar. The idea of Chiswick House being used for extravagant social gatherings, or masquerades, has been perpetuated by modern historians (largely based on Palladio’s own recommendations on the use of architecture and later inventories). However, their claims are not backed by tangible evidence as no letters or correspondence from anybody entertained at Chiswick Villa in the Burlington period survive. Indeed, when the Scotsman Sir John Clerk visited Chiswick in 1727 he found the villa ‘rather curious than convenient’ whilst the future victor of the Battle of Culloden, Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland (the ‘butcher’) described it as ‘a small cupboard stuck with pictures’.
Therefore the problem of interpreting Chiswick Villa has not been resolved, yet if the villa was not conceived as a residence or for lavish entertaining, what was Lord Burlington’s intention for building Chiswick? The answer may be found in the evidence encrypted in the ceiling paintings and the very fabric of the building and its gardens. Lord Burlington conceived Chiswick ultimately as a mnemonic Temple to be read in much the same way as a book, but in terms of symbols rather than words.
From ‘Villa’ to Temple’
Inside the villa the painted ceilings were executed by William Kent (1685-1748) around 1730 and the symbolism within these paintings contains the most convincing evidence that Burlington’s Villa was conceived in part as a Masonic Temple.
Starting with the Blue Velvet Room the ceiling is playfully entitled An Allegory of Architecture and is one of Kent’s least impressive efforts as an artist. The central character is Architecture and she is dressed in a blue gown and sits on a ‘fallen’ hollow metal pillar. On her head is placed a crudely painted and awkward looking Corinthian capital; she holds a temple plan and a pair of compasses/dividers.
Beside her are three small putti who also carry architectural implements to help Architecture complete her temple design. One putto suspends a plumb-line, another clutches a set-square and a third putto a T-square. Such tools are familiar to Freemasons who accord moralistic meaning to the implements of architecture. For example, a plumb-line taught the Freemason ‘upright codes of conduct’, the set-square symbolised ‘moral probity’ and the compasses taught ‘virtue’; a continuing reminder to all ‘good Freemasons to keep passion within bounds’.
Freemasonry has always been viewed at its very core as ‘a beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols’. The three putti may additionally represent the three degrees of ‘Craft’ Freemasonry (Apprentice, Fellow-Craft and Master) and the three Greek architectural orders (Doric, Ionic and Corinthian) which Freemasons identified with the attributes of Wisdom, Strength and Beauty. One of the putti in the painting has a finger raised to his lips. From his classical education Lord Burlington would have been aware that such a gesture was associated with the Egyptian child-god Harpocrates, the younger Horus who was ‘often depicted as a putto, with his fingers to his lips, and hence associated with silence and secrecy’. The motto of the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) today is Audi, Vide, Tace (‘Hear, See, Be Silent’).
All the figures in this painting sit on a hollow metal pillar the purpose of which was to recall memories of the hollow bronze pillars Jachin (‘He (God) establishes’) and Boaz (‘by his (God’s) strength’) which biblically stood on the porch of Solomon’s Temple. The reading of this particular symbol is reinforced by the temple plan which Architecture holds in her left hand which appears to be a classicised interpretation of the Sancta Sanctorum of Solomon’s Temple, after the influential 16th century Jesuit architect Juan Bautista Villalpando. Behind the four characters Kent has painted a canopy of stars. This is significant as the Masonic Temple had previously existed primarily in the mind of the individual and therefore had no physical boundaries or dimensions. Many modern Masonic Lodges have ceilings painted as blue skies with stars and planets to replicate ‘a cloudy canopy or starry-decked heaven’. It is the ceiling of the vault that covers the earth.
The colour blue is itself significant in Freemasonry as it represents the three ‘Craft’ degrees which had been fully formed by 1730. Many Craft Freemasons in the 18th century were additionally known as ‘Blue’ Freemasons; therefore the colour of the room’s wall-hangings can be read in a Masonic capacity.
From Blue to Red (Air to Fire)
A visitor today will pass from the Blue Velvet Room through to the Red Velvet Room. Jane Clark in her groundbreaking chapter Lord Burlington is Here makes the convincing case that this room represents one of the first examples of ‘Royal Arch’ (Red) Freemasonry which is borne out by the Masonic symbolism in the ceiling paintings and the dimensions of the room. The origins of Royal Arch Freemasonry are shrouded in mystery but some historians have suggested it to be Jacobite in origin. Again painted by William Kent around 1730 (also confirmed by the dated picture frames of 1729) the central theme of this painting is Mercury Presiding over the Arts. Traditionally, this has been interpreted as an allegory with Richard Boyle taking the part of Mercury Psychopompos and as ‘patron’ god (here the cornucopia represents Lord Burlington’s wealth and has strong alchemical implications). Behind the presiding god Mercury is an almost colourless rainbow / section of the Northern Zodiac wheel which contains the figures of Gemini and Virgo, the Zodiac signs for the planet Mercury. Hermes / Mercury presides over a ‘Royal / Triumphal Arch’ which contains an eight-pointed blazing star / badge of the Most Honourable Order of the Garter positioned at its apex representing the Summer Solstice – a day celebrated by the Freemasons annually on 24 June because of its association with St John the Baptist (like Mercury the ‘messenger’).
Another important Masonic symbol, the Keystone (Strength) is also present. In early Masonic ritual the question was asked ‘Whence comes the pattern of an arch? The answer: ‘From the rainbow’. The rainbow has strong Masonic implications through the Great Flood and Noah, whilst Hermes himself often appears in the ‘operative’ (ie not ‘speculative’) masons ‘Old Charges’ – as their great patron, who they believed preserved the secrets of the sciences and arts on two indestructible tablets and then re-taught these secrets to the Egyptians once the tides had receded.
The two pillars that support the entablature of the arch therefore are depictions of the Jachin and Boaz pillars which biblically stood on the porch of Solomon’s Temple. The pillars here are portrayed as different colours indicating a Cabalistic and Hermetic (or alchemical) influence on Lord Burlington’s Freemasonry. Indeed, to reach the ‘Master in the East’ (Richard Boyle) the Freemason had first to walk beneath and through the pillars to reach the Blue Velvet Room over which the ‘Grand Architect of the Universe’ kept a watchful eye from the ceiling above. Beneath the two pillars that support the arch are several depictions of the Arts including a self-portrait of William Kent representing ‘painting’.
The prone bust to William Kent’s right stares blindly up into the face of Hermes. It is highly possible that this character is the most important of all the figures in this ceiling as it represents the newly formed Hiramic legend where the Master architect of Solomon’s Temple was murdered by three Fellow-Craft masons in an attempt to gain the mysterious ‘Mason Word’. Hiram was finally killed by a blow from a setting maul, the implement that can be seen next to the bust in the ceiling painting. Hiram Abiff was murdered at ‘High 12 at Noon’ (as was Jesus Christ) also echoing the sun’s position at midday centred at the most elevated point of the arch and his body hidden under some rubbish until ‘High 12 at Night’. (The first written reference to this Masonic legend appeared in Samuel Pritchard’s Masonic ‘disclosure’ Masonry Dissected in 1730 – the year the Red Velvet Room ceiling was completed). The murder of Hiram Abiff was also equated by the supporters of the Stuart cause with the execution of Charles I (the Keystone) and this is how it was portrayed in Jacobite Masonic propaganda.
For historians who believe in Lord Burlington’s Jacobite credentials the symbols carved into the two fireplaces in this room provide a wealth of supporting evidence as all can be interpreted as Jacobite badges. Only those leaning close to the fireplaces would spot the numerous Scottish thistles, bunches of grapes, fleur-de-lys, and pomegranates showing their seeds and very discreetly placed roses. Lord Burlington would have been well aware of the importance of the rose to the Rosicrucians of the previous century and the tradition of hanging red roses in a room where all talk of a secretive or clandestine nature was discussed ‘sub rosa’ (‘under the rose’). For those Jacobites who still believed in the Divine Right of Kings these symbols could also have been used to illustrate parallels with the Passion of the Lord, in this case the ‘martyred’ figure of King Charles I who, it had been promoted by Royal propagandists, had died for the sins of his people and had been reborn through his son Charles II who returned in 1660. In this respect the figures in the centre of the Red Velvet Room ceiling can additionally be read as reflecting characters from the Passion with the great Mercurian Monarch Charles I taking centre stage in his role as ‘Christ the Redeemer’
From Red Velvet to Gallery Rooms (Fire to Earth)
From the Red Velvet Room the Freemason may now progress to the central Gallery Room. To reach this room the initiate would first pass a spiral staircase of 15 steps, a significant symbol which would have been intelligible to a Freemason. Once in the central Gallery Room a crusader theme becomes quickly evident. The central painting here is Sebastiano Ricci’s The Defence of Scutari of 1474 and it is surrounded by eight more panels, four of which contain paintings by William Kent showing prisoners in Turkish attire who are positioned in various states of bondage and captivity (a possible reference to Masonic initiation ritual) with crusader tents in the form of stylised double cornucopia. Members of these ‘Chivalric and Historic’ degrees of Freemasonry met in ‘encampments’ rather than lodges and ‘brothers’ had to be both Royal Arch Freemasons and belong to the Christian faith. If the theme here is indeed Masonic it would reflect the widely held belief in the 18th century that Freemasonry and the Crusader military and religious orders of Outremer were in some manner interconnected.
Beyond the Palladian window in this room is a view of the gardens and the visitor cannot help but notice the impressive three hundred year-old Cedar of Lebanon. Their use here at Chiswick is among the earliest in England and as an educated Christian Lord Burlington would have been fully aware of their biblical presence at Solomon’s Temple. To reinforce their connection to the Temple in Jerusalem, Lord Burlington had three stone sphinxes placed also at the rear to symbolically protect the Temple from ‘cowans’ (the ‘profane’) and housed two sphinxes on piers at the entrance to the villa. In the Renaissance sphinxes were associated with ‘riddles’, wisdom, arcane mysteries and the occult. Many Masonic Lodges in the 19th century had sphinxes placed at their front and rear to symbolically protect the lodge and ward off the ‘uninitiated’.
Gallery Rooms to the Green Velvet Room (Earth to Water)
Once the symbolism in the art and architecture of Chiswick House and gardens is deciphered it becomes apparent that Lord Burlington had envisaged his ‘Temple’ and grounds to be interpreted as a ‘speaking piece’ of architecture to be ‘read’ on a number of levels depending on how informed or ‘initiated’ a person was. The presence of the ‘Green Men’ carved into the fireplaces in the Green Velvet Room (the colour green is sometimes connected with the high degrees of Freemasonry) confirms John Cornforth’s suspicions that the colours of the velvets do have a non-decorative significance, in this case, to the colours linked with the different degrees of Freemasonry and to the four elements.
As always I am indebted to the various writings on Chiswick House by Jane Clark, Richard Hewlings, and Barry Martin. My thanks also to Mark Bowen and Sarah Plant
Lord Burlington: Art, Architecture and Life, ed Toby Barnard and Jane Clark (1995); Lord Burlington – Questions of Loyalty, ed Edward Corp (1999); Country Life magazine, John Cornforth, February 16 (1995); Masonry Dissected, Samuel Pritchard (1730); Egyptomania, James Stevens Curl (1994); Jacobitism and the English People, 1688-1788, Paul Kleber Monod (1989); Symbolism in Craft Freemasonry, Colin Dyer (1976); Freemasonry: Symbols, Secrets, Significance, W Kirk MacNulty (2006).
Ricky Pound (BA Hons) is the Visitor Operations Site Supervisor at Chiswick House, London (English Heritage). He has studied the Masonic symbolism at Chiswick House for nine years and regularly conducts tours of the villa on this subject. He has been interviewed for television, radio and press.