The Gardens of Chiswick House

By Edward Fawcett

Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 2 (1981)

Lord Burlington’s gardens at Chiswick House are still remarkably complete in spite of some later additions and alterations. They mark the point at which the English garden was changing from formal, often geometric designs to a naturalistic and picturesque style.

From Tudor times to the end of the century gardens in England were laid out in regular patterns which originated in the small, square gardens of the medieval house. Square or oblong beds, divided by gravelled or turfed alleys, housed both decorative and edible plants. By the time of Elizabeth I Renaissance ideas had made fountains, urns and statues fashionable as garden ornaments. The early 1600s saw a new style of bed – the ‘knot’, arranged in interlacing designs and edged in box or lavender hedges; this in turn was later replaced by parterres, flat terraces planted with fantastic scrolling patterns.

After their long period of exile on the Continent, Charles II and his new court brought in French gardening ideas. The gardens of Versailles, the work of Le Notre, are the greatest expression of the style they favoured. Le Notre’s gardens were usually centred on a main axis, an avenue of trees marching towards the horizon from which other avenues radiated. Such gardens had lots of clipped hedges and topiary, formal symmetrical pools and were extremely costly to maintain, particularly in terms of labour.

Charles II chose French designs for Hampton Court, laid out by pupils of Le Notre; these were the closest that English gardens came to the French approach and took up three-quarters of the royal gardening budget in maintenance costs. William and Mary continued to develop Hampton Court and reinforced continental influence with Dutch ideas, particularly the extensive use of evergreens in clipped hedges and flat parterres interspersed with artificial ponds and canals.

By the end of the 17th century literary and artistic men were becoming critical of the predictability of the contrived, formal gardens which only came to life when crowded with people. Pope, whose garden at Strawberry Hill was one of the first to express these ideas, was particularly influenced by Milton’s sensitivity to the beauty of the natural English landscape. The entrance to Pope’s garden, through a grotto under the road from the house, was far from natural and, though he preferred natural plant forms to topiary and included dells, groves and winding paths in his garden, he also had straight walks and kept urns and statues with other antiquities amongst the trees.

Chiswick House before Lord Burlington's work, 1707

The Kip print shows Chiswick House before Lord Burlington’s time with the old, formal gardens around it. The house, built in a Jacobean style with Dutch gables, stood slightly to the east of the present Chiswick House. The road outside ran closer to the front of the house than it does today. From it, a tree-lined avenue ran northwards, passing right beside the west wall of the house and forming a central axis to the gardens. Behind the house were elaborate parterres with the L-shaped stable block on the east side and orchards beyond. On the west side of the central avenue lay two rectangular lawns bordered by trees, each divided into four by paths converging on a central statue.

The 3rd Earl of Burlington began remodelling the gardens in 1717 after his return from Italy. There he had met the Yorkshireman, William Kent, who became the presiding genius of Chiswick House. Work began on the present Chiswick House in the 1720s, with Burlington drawing the inspiration for his design from his study of Palladio at Vicenza. Burlington House in Piccadilly remained his main residence until 1733 when, failing to receive the promotion he sought, he retreated to concentrate on the transformation of his Chiswick gardens.

The charming little temple, beside a sunken amphitheatre ringed with orange trees in tubs, was the first of the new projects at Chiswick. Based on the Temple of Romulus in Rome it was unlike anything that had gone before in English gardening; its rather theatrical character was reinforced by the presence of highly-coloured decorative fowl which appear in contemporary paintings.

Burlington and Kent retained the central avenue, the axis of the old garden, but now two new avenues, lined with clipped yew hedges, fanned out from it to make a goose foot pattern. While later ‘picturesque’ gardens were laid out irregularly, here at Chiswick the winding paths amongst the shrubberies were confined to the areas between the straight avenues.

The ‘link building’ which joined the old Jacobean house to the Palladian villa probably dates from the period when Chiswick became Lord Burlington’s main home. Although he almost certainly wanted the villa to remain freestanding as a home for his collection of art and antiquities, practical requirements forced him to build the link directly across the central avenue which formed the axis of the garden design.

Another axial avenue, running from east to west behind the house, survived the re-planning of the garden. Beyond it, directly behind the villa, a short broad avenue, lined with sculpture, ends in a semi-circular exedra with more statuary brought from Hadrian’s villa. To the east the cross-avenue led to an orangery designed by Lord Burlington with a stage and an aviary. A gateway designed by Inigo Jones in 1621 was given by Sir Hans Sloane to Lord Burlington in 1738 and moved from Chelsea to Chiswick where it was re-erected over this cross-avenue. To the west this same avenue led down to the canal or lake, beside which formal pools had also been excavated. Lord Burlington’s own cascade at the southern end of the canal was replaced by a rustic cascade designed by Kent.

Extract from Rocque's plan of Chiswick 1736

Other garden buildings, erected for their theatrical effect, include the little deer house (which really housed decorative deer) and the temple which was used for masques and other entertainments. Kent drew a sketch for Lord Burlington showing rabbits playing in the moonlight near the Burlington Lane entrance. At this spot is an obelisk, at the base of which is displayed an ancient piece of funerary statuary given to Burlington as a wedding present.

The garden Lord Burlington and Kent laid out was a curious mixture of the formal and the picturesque. It marks a crucial point in the transition from the one to the other and had many features never before seen in an English garden. Later additions made by the Dukes of Devonshire can be seen there today: Georgiana, wife of the 5th Duke, replaced the wooden bridge over the lake with a classical one by Wyatt (who also designed the wings of the Palladian villa which were demolished during the 20th century restoration) and the 6th Duke’s 300ft long conservatory, with its formal Italianate gardens before it, provides a curiously Victorian patch in the 18th century design. It was the 6th Duke who let nearly all the kitchen garden to the Royal Horticultural Society and introduced exotic animals to the grounds, including elephants and a giraffe.

The house and surviving grounds were saved by their purchase for public use in 1928 when the then Duke intended the estate to be developed for housing! Little has changed since then except that the condition of the garden has declined. Great trees have died and have not been replaced, tarmac surfaces paths that were once made of regularly-brushed sand and gravel, and unsightly chain-link surrounds the lake. Where planting has taken place the plants which have been used are more suited to a municipal park than to the gardens which pioneered the naturalistic style in which England led the world. Rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias were not known in this country in Lord Burlington’s time and Kent is known to have been particularly sensitive in his planting to the contrasts between the darkest greens of conifers and the paler shades of beech and lime.

The 18th century men who planned this beautiful estate never saw it in its full maturity as we can today. We have a duty to preserve the spirit of their design. Virtually no other garden of this type survives so completely and the pioneering work of Burlington and Kent at Chiswick is of international significance. Tarmac needs to be replaced with gravel, imported plants must give way to native ones and modern fencing ought to be removed. The restoration of garden buildings, like the cascade or grotto, and the regular trimming of all hedges would be costly and might mean that the park could no longer serve as a municipal pleasure ground. The gardens sub-committee of the Historic Buildings Council is currently preparing a list of the most important gardens in England – Chiswick is at the top.

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