Friday, 25 August 2017

A tale of two houses

Last weekend I visited Chiswick House. It's not far from where I live and it's ridiculous that I don't go there more often.

Chiswick House, like Marble Hill House, which is very close to home, is managed by English Heritage. My visit made me think about what "heritage" means in a country where we are surrounded by things that have been around for a while.

Chiswick House

Chiswick House was designed by Lord Burlington who was impressed by the architecture he had seen on his visits to Italy between 1714 and 1719. Completed in 1729, it’s an excellent early English example of the Palladian style which it popularised in the UK.

The complex of houses (for over the years there have been several) grew as buildings and wings were added or demolished over time. What remains now is an architectural gem, always intended for social gatherings and showing off the artworks which it has always housed. It was never really a home and the service wings that made it habitable were demolished in the 1950s.

Beautiful as Chiswick House is, the gardens are arguably more important than the house itself. Like the house, these have grown and shrunk as land has been acquired or sold off over centuries. The original garden design would have been a standard Jacobean affair of rigid formality, but from the 1720s Burlington experimented with different approaches. The strongest influence was that of William Kent. An architect as well as a landscape gardener, Kent, like Burlington was an enthusiast of the Palladian style. He sought to escape the formal rigidity of 17th century garden layouts in favour of a more informal approach, often called “natural” but not actually natural at all. The extensive gardens at Chiswick House allowed him to work on a grand scale and they became the first gardens to be designed in what became known as ‘English landscape style’.

The gardens were open to the public for a small charge. They remain beautiful and had a significant influence on garden design across Britain.

Marble Hill House

Around the same time that Lord Burlington was building Chiswick house, Lady Henrietta Howard (one-time mistress of George II) was having a house built for herself on the banks of the Thames just outside Richmond. Unlike Lord Burlington, Henrietta Howard was not especially interested in architecture (although she may have had some input into the plans for the house) and had not (as a woman) made the Grand Tour. This leads many people to think that Marble Hill House, like Chiswick a classical Palladian villa, was modelled on Lord Burlington's work. In fact, building started two years prior to Chiswick house. Both Burlington and Lady Howard are likely to have been influenced by the same fashions. Both were friends of Alexander Pope and both worked with the King’s Gardener, Charles Bridgeman.

Marble Hill House, like Chiswick, was intended as a place for entertaining. It was, however, always a home and from 1734 it was Henrietta Howard's main residence. In the 1740s a substantial service wing was added, making it even more suitable as a regular house. As at Chiswick, there were some beautiful paintings, including some that appear to have been specially commissioned for the space, but the collection was never as impressive as Chiswick and the house was (unlike Chiswick) not generally open to the public. Henrietta Howard, though, did host fashionable gatherings with many of the most glittering social figures of the time, notably Alexander Pope. She is said to be the subject of his poem, On a certain lady at court:

I knew a thing that’s most uncommon
(Envy be silent and attend!)
I knew a reasonable woman,
Handsome and witty, yet a friend.

The grounds of Marble Hill House were initially less extensive than at Chiswick Gardens. Henrietta did buy additional land and by 1752 it totalled around 66 acres, the size it is today. Marble Hill Park and Chiswick Park today are very similar in size (some of Chiswick Garden were sold for building land as London expanded), although the open lawns of Marble Hill make the grounds appear smaller.

The garden at Marble Hill represents a transition between the formal Jacobean garden and the English landscape garden. It is a rare surviving example, considered more important because a plan survives showing what it looked like at the time of its creation.

From private gardens to municipal parks

After the death of Lord Burlington and his wife, Chiswick House passed to the Duke of Devonshire, who had married Lord Burlington's daughter. It continued to be used by the Devonshire family until 1862, when they started to rent it out. Until 1892 it was used by a succession of wealthy men (including the Prince of Wales) looking for a grand venue to entertain. It then became an asylum for the treatment of wealthy patients suffering mental health issues. In 1929 it was sold to Middlesex County Council. The House was eventually taken over by the Ministry of Works and later transferred to English Heritage. The grounds became a municipal park which, with local government reorganisation, became the responsibility of the London Borough of Hounslow.

1951-2 saw the start of efforts to restore the gardens. There was a strong feeling that they should return to the way that Burlington had designed them and this approach has guided restoration work since.

In 2005, English Heritage and Hounslow set up the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust to run the house and the gardens as an integrated project. In practice, it seems that English Heritage has taken the lead in this with substantial archaeological research being carried out in the grounds. English Heritage used the results of their research to guide the partial restoration of the original planting schemes, abandoned by Hounslow when it had adopted a more cost-efficient municipal approach – for example replacing gravel paths with asphalt.

There is a cricket pitch on one side of the grounds, screened from the rest of the park by trees.

Marble Hill House remained in Henrietta Howard's family until 1824. In 1825 it was bought by Gen Jonathan Peel the younger brother of the Prime Minister. The grounds were used for rearing racehorses and growing hay. One of the horses, Orlando, won the Derby in 1844.

This magnificent Black Walnut at Marble Hill may pre-date the building of the house

Henrietta Howard had planted mainly traditional British broad-leafed trees in the grounds. Peel added imported trees, such as cedar and some conifers. The result is a wonderful treescape with an unusually wide spread of varieties.

Cedar at Marble Hill

Peel remained at Marble Hill until he died in 1879 and his widow lived there until her death in 1887. The property was then bought by the Cunard family with the intention of demolishing Marble Hill and developing a housing estate. There was strong public opposition to this and in 1902 the land was bought by the London, Surrey, and Middlesex County Council's, the Richmond Corporation, and the Twickenham Urban District Council.

From 1902 Marble Hill was run as a municipal park with the house owned by local government. Eventually, local government reorganisation led to its being owned by the Greater London Council. It was an early example of open green space being preserved at a time when the London suburbs were expanding very fast. On the abolition of the GLC, the House and park were transferred to English Heritage. There was some resentment of this at the time, as the Park, which had been purchased using local funds, was transferred to a national body and out of local control.

The character of the parks today

Chiswick House Gardens and Marble Hill Park are both municipal parks open to the public, and both a very similar size. However, the character of the two parks is very different. This is reflected in their names. The gardens at Chiswick House are essentially public gardens. The amount of wooded and shrub land, with winding paths, led to them being seen as a potentially dangerous place for families and children, but when the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust was set up it established a Ranger force staffed by ex-service men and women and the area is now seen as very safe. It is widely used by dog walkers and is popular with families and children. There is a small children's playground. However, apart from the cricket field, there is relatively little open land.

Chiswick Park, although a valued local amenity, is cut off from the community around it by high walls and busy roads. (One boundary is the A316 and another is the A4.)

Marble Hill Park, by contrast, is largely open space. There is a cricket pitch and nets, rugby pitches, and a hockey pitch. There are dog walkers, of course, but also people doing keep fit or jogging, teenagers playing football or throwing frisbees, and kids flying kites. It's a popular place for picnics.

The two main boundaries of the park are simple fences, one running along the Thames path. There is a large children’s playground adjacent to the park and people are constantly walking along the suburban road that marks its northern boundary.

Northern boundary fence at Marble Hill

There is a small area of woodland along the eastern boundary. English Heritage did want to increase the amount of shrubbery in the park to create something like sweet walk that may have been there in the the 18th century, but at a public meeting a few years ago there were strong objections to this on the grounds that it would create the sort of environment that could lead people to feel unsafe. At the moment the park is generally seen as a safe space with a playgroup for under-fives and an adventure playground for older children open in the summer.


The problem with history is that it keeps changing. The archaeological research already suggests that the pattern of planting in the 18th century altered. Since then, of course, it has changed a great deal more. What, in 2017, is the “heritage” that we want to protect? Is it the gardens of Henrietta Howard? Is it the park after Henrietta Howard when her grotto (a dubious reconstruction of which was built in the 1980s) was buried and lost? Or is it the municipal park of the early 20th century? There is at least an argument that the historic importance of Marble Hill as an early example of the protection of public open space from private development is as significant to the heritage of modern London as Henrietta Howard's garden design.

The grotto at Marble Hill (an unfortunate 1980s reconstruction)
The restoration of Chiswick Gardens to something more similar to their original appearance made obvious sense because what existed in 2005 was essentially a degraded form of the gardens that were originally laid out. Marble Hill Park, though, is not a degradation of anything. Its current form reflects its development from private park to public open space in the 20th century.

Chiswick and Marble Hill were both built at a period when public land was increasingly being brought into private ownership, through a series of parliamentary Inclosure Acts. Neither park enclosed common land (although the main road was eventually re-routed to put more garden between Chiswick House and the public highway) but the privatisation of public space was the historical background against which the development of these grounds was taking place. 

The late 19th and 20th centuries saw this process reverse. The first urban park (in Preston in 1833) was soon followed by the first purpose built publicly owned urban recreational park in England: the Derby Arboretum, which was opened in 1840. The importance of public open space in and around towns was reflected in a series of parliamentary acts, including the Public Health Act of 1875, which enabled local authorities to maintain land for recreation and to raise funds for this purpose. In 1878 the Epping Forest Act preserved the Forest as "an Open Space for the recreation and enjoyment of the public". The legislative high point of the process of opening private land to the public was probably marked by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 which gave 'the right to roam'.

The 21st century has seen a move back to the expansion of private rights over once public land. Increasing amounts of London are now 'privately owned public spaces' (pops). Major developments, such as Canary Wharf, Granary Square and More London along the South Bank near Tower Bridge are private land, owned and policed by private companies which can restrict public access. It is not my intention here to join the lively argument being conducted as to whether this is a useful way to improve publicly accessible space without state spending or the effective privatisation of public assets. It is, however, a significant change from the early to mid-20th century notion that the best way to preserve publicly accessible space was to take it into public ownership. To see how a space like Marble Hill has moved from being a private home to (under Gen Peel) essentially a commercial exercise to land being bought for straightforwardly commercial development by the Cunards and then being taken into public ownership is to see the history of much open space in this country. Arguably the transfer from the GLC to English Heritage (a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation, or quango) demonstrates the shift from straightforward public ownership back towards something that is at least partway to privatisation.

Cricket on the lawn - Marble Hill

The social history of Marble Hill Park is important to anybody who wants to understand, in its broadest sense, England's heritage. The park as it is today reflects all of those changes. 

History tells us as much about the present as about the past. The decision as to whether Marble Hill should be restored to reflect the period when it was private space or whether it should reflect its later history is not a decision taken outside the social and political context of the 21st century. Those of us who are fascinated by British history and the way that it has shaped this country might well feel that it should be preserved as it is, rather than developed as another bit of quaint nostalgia for the Jane Austen tourist market.

A word from our sponsor

James Burke, the hero of my Napoleonic Wars series, was born in 1771, well after the houses I write about here were built. He grew up, though, at a time when grand houses like these were being used as family homes by the families that had built them. The wars with France started the process that eventually ended that way of life, ushering in the Victorian era when this sort of house was no longer viable. My books about James Burke are essentially adventure stories about a soldier-spy, but they also chart the end of an era.

The books can be bought through Simon & Schuster in the USA and will soon be republished by Endeavour Press in the UK. Watch out for them.


Chiswick House and Gardens Trust (2012) 'Report on The Chiswick House and Gardens Trust for Chiswick Area Forum'

Richmond Libraries' Local Studies Collection 'Marble Hill House'

Thorpe D (2006) 'A history of greenspace and parks'

Tittenbrun J (2013) 'The privatisation of public space' The Conversation

White R (2001) 'Chiswick House and Gardens' English Heritage

For a more detailed discussion of the plans for Marble Hill Park, see my post HERE.

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