Chiswick House

Too small to live in, too big to hang on a watch.

Such was the characterization of Chiswick House offered by one Georgian wag, the famous, or infamous, Lord Hervey, soon after it was completed, in 1729. Though Chiswick House had been built nearly a century before the Regency began, it was still an important country house during our favorite decade. Even before the turn of the nineteenth century, it had become the property of the Duke of Devonshire. Soon thereafter, it became a popular retreat for many of the prominent members of the Whig party, and remained so for several years. Regency authors who include Whig politics in their stories may wish to set a meeting or two at Chiswick House.

Today, Chiswick is yet another western suburb of greater London. But during the Regency, this quiet and charming rural village was nestled in a large meander of the Thames River, situated about six mules upstream, and to the west, of what was then central London. From at least the medieval period, if not before, Chiswick supported an agricultural ecomony which was heavily supplemented by fishing. Though it was thinly settled and very rural, the River Thames gave easy access to the metropolis downstream. Among other important figures, Alexander Pope and William Hogarth both lived there in the eighteenth century. It had also become a popular summer/country residence for a number of aristocrats during that same time. One of the most significant of those was Richard Boyle, the third Earl of Burlington, who built the Chiswick House under discussion here.

An older Chiswick House had been built in the early seventeenth century by Sir Edward Wardour, or his father, who then owned the property. The property was later purchased, in 1682, by Charles Boyle, the third Viscount Dungarvan, who was the grandfather of the third Earl of Burlington. For many years, the Boyle family used the old Jacobean house in Chiswick as their summer retreat from the heat and smog of London. Of course, their London home was the great Burlington House, located in Piccadilly. It was on the grounds of Burlington House, in London, that the Elgin Marbles were displayed, before they were purchased by the British government, in 1816.

Richard, Lord Burlington was an intelligent and well-educated young man who was fascinated by the study of the history of architecture, in which he thoroughly indulged himself while he enjoyed three Grand Tours of Europe, between 1714 and 1719. He had acquired a copy of the English translation of Andrea Palladio’s The Four Books of Architecture, which he carried with him during his travels abroad. Because Lord Burlington was an extremely wealthy young man, when he returned from his European travels, he began to practice architectural design on his own homes. At Burlington House, in London, in collaboration with the Scottish architect, Colen Campbell, and William Kent, a former history painter and designer, Burlington designed and built a grand courtyard on the Piccadilly side of the house. This elegant courtyard is generally considered to be the first major expression of Neo-Palladian architecture executed anywhere in London.

Lord Burlington was quite fond of the old house and estate in Chiswick, which he had inherited from his father, along with several other properties. Part of the main manor house was destroyed by fire in the early 1720s, and Burlington designed a new facade to cover the damage. At about that same time, after his success with the courtyard at Burlington House, he decided that he would design a true Palladian villa, from scratch, following the principles laid down in Palladio’s book. This villa would be built near the old Jacobean manor house, on his Chiswick estate. Burlington did not intend to pull down the old house, which was large and spacious and could accommodate the many members of his large extended family on their summer visits. Rather, he planned to construct his Palladian villa a little distant from the old manor house. It is not clear exactly why Lord Burlington built Chiswick House, which he often called his "toy." It may have been simply because he had the money and talent to do so and wanted to see if he could create a villa as fine as those he had seen on his travels though Italy. It is known that he used the villa to house and display many of the best pieces from his large collection of art. As did the majority of other wealthy gentlemen who enjoyed a Grand Tour, Lord Burlington had acquired a substantial number of paintings, sculptures, and fine furniture, as well as many other works of art, during his travels abroad. He may well have felt that they would be seen at their best in an elegant space, designed in the classical style interpreted by Andrea Palladio. This elegant, Italian-inspired Neo-Palladian villa was built between 1727 and 1729.

The new Chiswick House was primarily based on the design of the grand Renaissance-era Villa Rotunda, located in the Veneto region, north of Venice, Italy. Lord Burlington introduced two revolutionary design practices for domestic buildings in his new villa, a central plan and geometric rooms. Like the Villa Rotunda, Chiswick House was designed with a central room from which access was provided to all of the other rooms. This room, known as the Tribunal Saloon, or the Upper Tribune, was octagonal in design and was topped by an octagonal dome. The most important rooms in the house were located on the piano nobile, the main, or upper floor. The Tribunal Saloon, on that floor, was entered by way of the grand exterior double staircase. That large room was routinely used for private musical recitals, poetry readings and even theatrical performances which were staged for the Burlington family. Access to the remaining rooms on the upper floor was then gained from the Tribunal Saloon. Overlooking the gardens was a series of three rooms, one round, one rectangular and one octagonal. These three rooms were known collectively as the "Gallery Rooms," and it was here that Lord Burlington displayed many of his finest works of art. Flanking the Tribunal Saloon were the large rectangular rooms known as the Red Velvet and Green Velvet Rooms. At the front of that floor could be found four rooms, all square, actually they were all cube rooms. These rooms were the Blue Velvet Room, the Red Closet, Lady Burlington’s bedchamber and closet.

Most of the rooms on the first, or ground floor, of Chiswick House were not nearly as ornate as those on the floor above. The Lower Tribune, just below the Tribune Saloon, was a very plain space which was used as a waiting room for those who had business with Lord Burlington. Also on the ground floor, below the Gallery Rooms, was the Library, consisting of a round, a rectangular and an octagonal room, facing the gardens. Collectively, these rooms housed Lord Burlington’s extensive collection of books, displayed in cabinets which had been specially commissioned from William Kent. There was a small set of a dozen steps in the octagonal section of the library which led down to an octagonal cellar room below. This vaulted brick room served as Lord Burlington’s wine cellar. Nearby, a shaft held a dumb waiter by which wine and other spiritous beverages could be raised up to the upper floor to serve guests enjoying a performance in the Tribunal Saloon. The shaft for the dumb waiter was just one of four which ran through the house from top to bottom, around the Tribunal Saloon. The three other shafts were for internal circular staircases which were intended to be used only by the servants. Beneath the four square rooms on the upper floor at the front of the Chiswick House were four rooms which were used for bedchambers. There was one important and richly furnished room on this floor. It was part of the link between the villa and the manor house. This room was probably constructed before the villa and became Lady Burlington’s Summer Parlour. It was the only room on the ground floor to have an elevated and painted ceiling, which depicted foliage in which could be seen a number of mythical creatures, including cherubs and sphinxes. There were also a number of owls, painted on the ceiling, since the owl was part of the heraldic device used by her parents’ family, the Saviles. Curiously, Lord Burlington had not included any space for kitchens or other work areas needed to support a home of that era. Instead, the servants from the main manor house would have to come over to Chiswick House to do the housework needed there. If meals were required at Chiswick House, they would have to be prepared in the manor house kitchens and then carried over to be served. Since Chiswick House was used primarily in the summer, food service there seems to have generally been along the lines of al fresco meals, usually served in the beautiful gardens rather than in the house.

Of course, this little gem of a villa had to be given a fine setting. Therefore, Lord Burlington, in collaboration with William Kent, wished to create a garden setting for the villa which they believed was reminiscent of those of Ancient Greece and Rome. Even before construction on the house was complete, Burlington and Kent were experimenting with a number of new designs for the surrounding gardens. Despite their intent to create an authentic classical garden, the end result of their various experiments was that they created the more natural, less formal style which came to be known as the English landscape garden. That was the style of gardening which was adopted so fervently by Lancelot “Capability” Brown. The gardens surrounding Chiswick House were studded with statuary, small groves, open bowling greens, winding walkways, fountains and cascades, as well as ha-has and classical fabriques, which came to be known in England as garden follies. Lord Burlington wished the gardens around his new Chiswick House to be every bit as delightful as the house itself. The majority of visitors there thought he succeeded very well.

In December of 1753, Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington, died in Chiswick House. He was the last of the Earls of Burlington, of that first creation, and the title became extinct with his passing. Burlington had three children, all daughters, so none of them could inherit his title. Sadly, as it happened, only one of his daughters survived him long enough to inherit his property. His first daughter, Lady Dorothy, had married the Earl of Euston, but she died before her father, leaving no children. His second daughter, Lady Julianna, had lived only three years. Therefore, only Lady Charlotte Elizabeth, his third and youngest daughter, survived her father, by just a year. She died of smallpox in December of 1754. Lady Charlotte had married William Cavendish, the eldest son of the third Duke of Devonshire. Her husband became the fourth Duke the year after her death. Thus, the properties of the late Earl of Burlington came into the possession of the Devonshire family, including Burlington House in Piccadilly, and Chiswick House on the Thames.

Lady Charlotte’s eldest son, named William, after his father, would become the fifth Duke of Devonshire, at the death of the fourth duke, in 1764. At that time, the fifth duke inherited Chiswick House, along with a number of other important properties which had come into the family through his mother. Ten years later, in 1774, he married the noted beauty, Lady Georgiana Spencer. Georgiana loved Chiswick House and she called it her "earthly paradise." Both the Spencer and the Cavendish families were strong supporters of the Whig party, and as a leading light of society, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, became quite politically active on the London social scene. She hosted many dinners and salons which were attended by most of the prominent Whigs of the day, at a number of her husband’s properties. But she particularly enjoyed hosting tea parties in the gardens of Chiswick House for her many Whig friends. She also did a great deal to further the career of her cousin, the prominent Whig statesman, Charles James Fox. Over the years, the Duchess of Devonshire had hosted a number of Whig gatherings at Chiswick House, especially elegant tea parties, during the warm summer months, when London was particularly unpleasant. These were always well-attended, and some Whig friends were invited to spend the night or even a weekend at Chiswick House. As it happened, Charles James Fox died at Chiswick House, in September of 1806, eight months after the death of his most formidable political rival, William Pitt, and just five months after the death of his noble friend and cousin, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Coincidentally, in August of 1827, the Prime Minister, George Canning, died at Chiswick House, in the same room in which Fox had expired, just over two decades earlier.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, had loved the gardens around Chiswick House from the first time she saw them. Not long after her marriage, she collaborated with the architect, James Wyatt, to design and build the Classical Bridge, which can still be seen there today. In 1788, the Duke of Devonshire had the old Jacobean manor house on the estate pulled down. At the same time, he hired the architect, John White, to add two extensive wings to the villa, in order to provide more accommodation for the many visitors who came to Chiswick House. Georgiana also became involved in the new addition, as she had roses planted all around the new wings of the house. The sixth Duke of Devonshire, Georgiana’s son, shared her interest in gardening, though he was more interested in the cultivation of exotic plants. In 1813, he had a large conservatory built on the grounds of Chiswick House. Designed by Samuel Ware, this glass house was at least 300 feet long and was topped by a central dome which echoed that of Chiswick House. This glass house was employed in the cultivation of both exotic fruits and camellias throughout the Regency period. The noted London garden designer, Lewis Kennedy, designed and built a geometric garden in the Italian style which surrounded the new conservatory.

In 1809, Georgiana’s best friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster, better known as Bess, became the second wife of the fifth Duke of Devonshire, and thus, the next Duchess of Devonshire. The new duchess was not as adept at hosting political events as had been her predecessor, but she did invite members of the Whig party to Chiswick House from time to time. She continued to play hostess to various Whig social/political events there, until the death of the fifth duke, in July of 1811. Curiously, it was Bess’ grandfather, John, Lord Hervey, who had quipped that Chiswick House was "Too small to live in, and too big to hang on a watch." However, by the time of her tenure there, the addition of the two large wings had significantly increased the size of the house and it was no longer too small to live in.

During the years of the Regency, Chiswick House was the property of the sixth Duke of Devonshire, who had inherited it in 1811, at age twenty-one, upon the death of his father, the fifth duke. Known as the "Bachelor Duke," despite keeping several mistresses, he never married. Many believe this was due, at least in part, to the fact that he had been in love with his cousin, Caroline, since he was a young boy. She refused him and married William Lamb, going on to have a scandalous affair with Lord Byron. Sometime later, the young duke had hoped to mary Princess Mary, though she was older than he was, but she rejected his suit. Sadly, Devonshire had lost most of his hearing, due to an infection when he was a child, so his deafness may have contributed to his introverted nature and his decision not to enter politics, as had many male members of his family. However, he was an astute businessman, and with careful management, he was able to clear up the enormous debts left by both his mother and his father within a few years of their passing. In particular, the sixth duke devoted himself to the care of his extensive estates and his keen interest in horticulture and gardening. He had large and impressive glass houses constructed at both his primary country estate at Chatsworth, and on his Chiswick estate. It seems likely that the time he spent at Chiswick House may have significantly furthered his horticultural ends. The Royal Horticultural Society had their own gardens in Chiswick, very close to Devonshire’s own estate. It was there that he met and befriended one of their gardeners, the young Joseph Paxton, whom he later hired as his head gardener at Chatsworth, in 1826.

Chiswick House remained the property of the Dukes of Devonshire for more than a century, until 1928, though they did not live there after about 1860. From 1862, they usually rented it out to a variety of tenants. During that time, they removed most of the contents to their primary estate at Chatsworth. In 1929, the property was sold to the Middlesex County Council. It suffered a significant damage from bombings during World War II. In 1948, the Council was more interested in the grounds for community recreational purposes and were planning to pull down the house. The Georgian Group, a recently created preservation group, lobbied to protect the house. They were partially successful, as the main block of the house was saved. However, the two wings added by the fifth Duke of Devonshire, in 1788, were demolished, in 1956. Chiswick House is now under the protection of the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust, which was founded by English Heritage, in 2005. Extensive restoration of the house, the conservatory and the gardens was completed in July of 2010, and they are open to the public.

Through the years of our favorite decade, Chiswick House was intermittently occupied, usually in the summer, by various members of the Duke of Devonshire’s extended family. They also invited a number of their friends and Whig political allies to join them there for various social occasions. Musical concerts and theatrical performances were still sometimes staged in the Tribunal Saloon, and tea parties held in the elegant gardens were still important social and political occasions. In the summer of 1814, during the celebration of Bonaparte’s abdication, the young Duke of Devonshire hosted several lavish social events to entertain the Russian Tsar, the King of Prussia, Field Marshal Blücher and several other foreign dignitaries. When members of the family were not in residence, the house and gardens were open to the public, as were many other country houses at that time. It would have made a nice day trip from London, since it was located just a short distance from the north bank of the River Thames.

Dear Regency Authors, might Chiswick House and its elegant gardens serve as the setting for one or more scenes in an upcoming romance? Might some of your characters be invited there in the summer of 1814, to take part in some of the social events surrounding the victory celebrations? Will you allow them to enjoy an elegant tea party in the gardens, or might they attend a concert or theatrical performance in the Tribunal Saloon inside the house? Or might one or more of your characters visit the house and gardens on a pleasant summer day. Will they journey out from Mayfair by carriage, or will they take a boat upriver from Thames-side in London? If one of your characters is interested in exotic plants, might they enjoy a look in the conservatory which the Duke of Devonshire had constructed there in 1813? Are there other ways in which Chiswick House and its extensive gardens can provide a special scene or three in an upcoming Regency romance?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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4 Responses to Chiswick House

  1. what an ugly pile, a shame to lose a gracious Jacobean mansion for such a carbuncle. Inefficient use of space too. I can’t say I’m impressed by the amateur architect. So often the way with people who have more money than sense. But a very good bad example to be held up to a wealthy hero of how not to waste his money.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Clearly, taste in architecture can vary greatly. I think Chiswick House is one of the Neo-Palladian gems of Great Britain. Lord Burlington spent a great deal of time studying classical architecture, so, though he was an amateur, it is in the sense of one who truly loves his subject.

      I suspect that one of the reasons that the old house was pulled down was actually political. By the early decades of the eighteenth century, the Jacobean/Baroque style was strongly associated with the Tories, while the Whigs generally preferred the Neo-Classical style. One of the most stunning examples of that association was when Thomas Watson-Wentworth decided to build a new, Neo-Classical east wing to his country home, Wentworth Woodhouse. He did that after his relatively new home, in the Baroque style, was criticized as being too Tory. Watson-Wentworth was keen to join the upper ranks of the Whigs. So much so he then built what is still the largest private residence in Great Britain.

      The Duke of Devonshire was also a staunch Whig, so, after he added wings to the villa, that may have had some influence on his decision to pull down the old house at Chiswick. Something Lord Burlington, also a Whig, had been unwilling to do, even after he built Chiswick House.

      It may well depend upon the point of view when one considers whether or not building Chiswick House was a waste of money. It provided income for those who built and maintained it. There were also many concerts, theatrical performances and other events held there over the years. They all brought traffic to Chiswick, which probably brought income to the village. In addition, the fame of Chiswick House seems to have attracted a number of other wealthy people to the area to build summer homes, bringing in even more income for the local residents.



      • oh well, it was undoubtedly a boost to the economy. How ridiculous to base architectural taste on political leanings though! I suppose it’s a matter of conservative against innovative, forgetting that today’s innovative is tomorrow’s quaint.
        I find the proportions of Chiswick displeasing, even faintly disturbing, especially as compared to somewhere like Houghton Hall. Stourhead House, or of course Chatsworth, the gracious Kenworth House, or the paradigmatic Harewood House which is on my bucket list to visit.

  2. Pingback: Historical Blog Posts of Interest #ReadARegency – Sophia Dalgety

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