Grounds for Optimism

The Restoration of Chiswick House Gardens

HAZELLE JACKSON talks to English Heritage Project Director MARTIN CLAYTON

When the ambitious and fashionable young Lord Burlington built his Palladian-style villa in the late 1790s, alongside his family's Jacobean mansion at Chiswick in West London, he set it in formal gardens designed by William Kent to evoke the idealised Roman campagna, celebrated in the paintings of artists like Claude and Salvator Rosa.

Burlington had the money and the ruthlessness to achieve his architectural vision and Kent the skill to realise its ideal setting. Between them the pair started an architectural and gardening revolution which still resonates today. Over the next hundred years the gardens at Chiswick were a work in progress as successive members of the family extended and embellished Chiswick House and its grounds. In the late eighteenth century the estate passed by marriage to the Dukes of Devonshire, owners of Chatsworth in Derbyshire.

In 1788 the 5th Duke demolished the old Jacobean house and hired James Wyatt to enlarge Burlington's Palladian villa, adding matching wings to the north and south. Wyatt also made improvements to the grounds, including a classical style bridge over the river.

During the later nineteenth century Chiswick House was let to a series of wealthy and titled owners and from 1892-1929 it was used as a private mental hospital.

Public Park in 1929

The 9th Duke sold the estate to Middlesex County Council in 1929 and the grounds became a public park. After World War II, Chiswick house required extensive repairs and, in view of its historic importance, it was transferred to the Ministry of Works by Deed of Gift. Today the house is owned by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and cared for by English Heritage under a Section 34 agreement.

Repair work in the 1950s, connected with the removal of the late eighteenth century wings, has led to guttering problems and let in internal water. The house is currently covered in scaffolding as part of an ongoing maintenance programme by English Heritage, which includes repairs to the roof, gutters and external rendering. Major restoration expenditure on the house is however still needed.

The grounds remain a public park, now owned by the London Borough of Hounslow, which is responsible for their upkeep. This shared ownership has led to the unusual situation where a Grade I listed landscape garden is also a public park. Like many local authorities, with escalating statutory demands on its budget, the LB Hounslow has struggled to keep the grounds at Chiswick House in good repair. Hounslow currently spends around £200,000 annually on the upkeep of the grounds, one quarter of its total parks budget, and still can sustain only minimal maintenance. In recent years this lack of funding has started to take its toll.

Chiswick House: The Orange Tree Garden, Obelisk Pond and Temple. (Photo: Hazelle Jackson)

The Orange Tree Garden, Obelisk Pond and Temple.  This scene existed c. 1728, when PA Rysbrack recorded it in a painting.

Palladian Influence

Chiswick House (photo: Colin Wing)

In specifying the design for Chiswick House in the 1700s, Lord Burlington was heavily influenced by the work of the sixteenth century Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-80) and his reinterpretation of the classical villas of ancient Rome. Elements of Palladio's work can be found throughout Chiswick House and grounds, with a particular influence being the domed Villa Capra near Vicenza.

La Rotonda

Palladio was greatly inspired by the Parthenon in ancient Rome, also known as La Rotonda. This took its name from its design, intended to be viewed from all sides. Palladio himself classified the villa at Vicenza as a palazzo, rather than a villa-farm, because of its close proximity to the city, its situation on a hill and because it lacked a surrounding estate. It was designed to be a pleasure palace, where his patron Paolo Almerico, could entertain his guests.

Some historians believe that Lord Burlington had the same plans for Chiswick House. There are strong classical and Egyptian influences at Chiswick, including obelisks and sphinxes. All these classical allusions would have been recognised and understood by Lord Burlington's educated guests. In Greek mythology the sphinx guarded Thebes and, wherever they were found, they represented wisdom.

There is a school of thought which associates the statues and imagery at Chiswick with Masonic rituals and practices.

English Heritage Logo

For information on visiting Chiswick House, please consult the English Heritage web site,


Trust Established

In an effort to rescue the estate from accelerating decline, a joint initiative was launched, involving English Heritage, Hounslow Council, heritage societies and local residents, to explore new ways to halt the decline and safeguard the estate's future. It was decided to seek Heritage Lottery funding for a major restoration and in April 2005 the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust was established between English Heritage and the LB of Hounslow to drive this forward. The long-term aim is to unite the house and grounds under a new independent body.

An initial plan was commissioned from Landscape Design Associates to submit to the HLF for a Stage 1 pass. In January 2006 the Heritage Lottery Fund announced it had earmarked £7.9m for a Stage 1 pass, towards a total project cost of £12.1 m, to restore the historic gardens at Chiswick House. The Stage 1 pass will enable on-site staff to be appointed and work to go ahead for a Stage 2 Bid in Autumn 2006. Work on the gardens can now advance.

Chiswick House bridge
Waterfowl enjoy a close-up view of the beautiful classic bridge, attributed to James Wyatt, over the river or canal at Chiswick House Gardens.
This decision to prioritise the restoration of the gardens before that of the house, and the Trust's intention to increase commercial use for the estate to secure its long term viability, did not lack criticism and led Marcus Binney, the distinguished art historian and Georgian expert, to resign as a trustee.

Project Director

To be successful, the restoration at Chiswick must strike the right balance between local residents' attachment to their park and the conservation of an internationally important historic house and landscape. So to talk about some of the issues involved, I recently went along to Chiswick House on a bleak February afternoon to meet the Project Director for the restoration, English Heritage's Martin Clayton.

Martin, who previously worked on the award winning Whitby Abbey Headland Project in Yorkshire and at Danson Park in Southeast London, is fired up to meet the challenge. "This is a key time to make this (restoration) happen," he told me. "If we lose this opportunity, we might have to wait for another generation for the next opportunity and by then the historic landscape at Chiswick will be lost."

In the damp chill of an English winter afternoon, Chiswick seems a long way from Rosa's idealised paintings of the sunlit Italian countryside which inspired Burlington and Kent, yet, walking round the grounds, in the teeth of an icy east wind, Martin's enthusiasm kept him warm as he pointed out some of the problems at first hand. "The water supply to the river comes direct from the Thames and, when the sluice gates open, all manner of debris washes in. Part of the restoration will be to drill a deep bore hole to supply the river with clean, unpolluted water."

Chiswick House: running repairs are made to the roof, but major restoration will have to wait.

Sometimes earlier repairs have led to current headaches. The early nineteenth century conservatory was repaired with low quality wood in the 1950s and this is now deteriorating fast. Martin estimates that repairs to the conservatory alone will be well in excess of £1 m.

The conservatory is not the only major restoration task on his agenda. The old kitchen gardens are now largely abandoned, and closed to the public, although a recent young persons' project has restored part of the walled garden for growing vegetables and there are longer term plans to restore some of the garden bothies.

Repairs to the conservatory are estimated at well in excess of £1 million.

The orchard sadly appears beyond redemption, although it is to be hoped that an old mulberry tree, which has survived in one corner, can be saved.

A particular feature of the grounds are the vistas, allées of clipped hedges and a series of classical style buildings and statues which serve as eye-catchers. All need restoring and an arboriculturalist has been retained to advise on the trees for the management plan.

On our tour Martin pointed out the work done by volunteers in recent years in clearing away vegetation and opening up the vistas and paid tribute to the commitment of the Friends. Martin also emphasised how much remains to be done and how the gardens were currently "a landscape in a long-term spiral of decline". He said his immediate priority was to address the more vulnerable aspects of a site where nearly every element is part of the Grade I landscape.

As part of the consultation exercise, local residents identified three aspects of the park they valued most:

  • Community Value
  • Heritage Value
  • Sustainability

Chiswick Sphinxes Return

TWO stone sphinxes are to be replaced at Chiswick House Gardens after being missing for over 100 years. The originals of the imposing sphinxes, which stood guard on the main gate piers, were removed in 1897 and taken to Green Park as part of the celebrations of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee.

The original sphinxes will remain at Green Park but new ones are to be cast for Chiswick from a metal copy in the House. The £38,000 cost is being met by the Wolfson Foundation.

Melvyn Rodda of Rupert Harris Conservation prepares to take a mould of the Chiswick House sphinx.

Melvyn Rodda of Rupert Harris Conservation prepares to take a mould of the Chiswick House sphinx.

Sustainability is a key factor in any successful restoration today. There is little point in spending millions of pounds only for neglect and decline to recur in the next generation. Today the HLF focuses closely on sustainability. So does English Heritage: "Sustainability and commercial considerations are very important in English Heritage at present," says Martin Clayton.

"The next step," says Martin, "is to develop the details of the plan and get everyone's buy-in. "Overall," he concedes, `it is going to be one hell of a challenge. There are a lot of very strong views held."

Implementation of the Stage 1 pass has been awarded to consultants Scott Wilson, who have also started work on the Stage 2 bid to be submitted to the HLF in the autumn. Some preliminary repair and restoration got underway in late 2005, thanks to a £600,000 grant from the Wolfson Foundation. This includes restoring the Burlington Lane Entrance, Gateway and Obelisk; replanting the Camellia Shrubbery; creating a new education building in an old stable building and reinstating the sphinxes on the gate piers.

Looking ahead Martin Clayton estimates that once the final restoration is complete, the annual running costs will be around £600,000 annually, compared to the £200,000 currently spent annually on the park by LB of Hounslow. This shortfall can only be made good with commercial income and the Trust hopes to exploit the site's proximity to Heathrow airport as a venue for hospitality events.

The Business Plan envisages holding twelve major events a year near the house, although currently the "ball park" figures on which the costings were based are omitted from the plan as "commercial in confidence." This has caused some local comment. Martin points out that the underlying comparators used - visitor numbers, catering costs etc. - were supplied in confidence by other sites. Revealing these now would not only breach this confidence but could prejudice the tendering process when letting contracts in future. He anticipates the underlying figures will become clearer as the project progresses.

Many local people have strong feelings about any commercialisation and Martin is realistic about the challenge this poses: It is not going to be easy - people will have to make judgements and compromises to get this through."

Car parking and access are another contentious area with seven different entrances to the 68 acres of park, which is sandwiched between two busy roads, one of which, the A4, is a dual carriageway. One plan under consideration is for occasional car parking to be located in a landscaped area of the old kitchen garden with a nectarium planted around the borders.

Support Funding Sought

As with all HLF projects, the Lottery money is not intended to fund 100% of the project. Other stakeholders must also make contributions. Support fund-raising, with a target of £2.5m from private donors, is currently underway.

The Chiswick House and Gardens Trust will not take over ownership until the restoration work is complete. This is to maximise potential savings in areas like VAT. Once the restoration is complete the Trust will be offered an option to take the estate on a lease but the final terms will depend on the tax position at the time. There is also, as Martin points out, another benefit in having the estate owned by a trust. "This enables us to ring-fence funds, so that money which comes into the site or is raised for the estate, stays in the estate. Both English Heritage and Hounslow Council have a wider remit."

Commenting on the successful lottery fund bid, Rupert Hambro Chairman of the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust said: 'We want to make sure that the gardens are once again as magical as when they were first laid out nearly 300 years ago, while creating a public park fit for the wide range of visitors who enjoy it today."

If everything works out as the Trustees, the public and Project Director Martin Clayton all hope, then before long visitors to Chiswick will once again find to use the words of an early commentator, "Prospects to excite not only the eye but the imagination..."

Three Key Principles

Three key principles have been identified to guide the restoration

  • The Gardens must remain a public park, free to enter.
  • The site must be financially sustainable for the future and its management and maintenance properly resourced.
  • All revenue raised on the site must be reinvested in the site.