As the £12 million restoration of Chiswick House Gardens is unveiled

Trust Director Sarah Finch-Crisp speaks about the project and plans for the future

As the £12 million restoration of Chiswick House Gardens is unveiled, Trust Director Sarah Finch-Crisp speaks about the project and plans for the future.

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The Western Lawn and Cascade

Chiswick’s Western Lawn and Cascade is one of the most significant developments in the birth of the English Landscape Movement. It has been so copied that today it looks almost common place; an informal lawn slopes down from Chiswick House to the ornamental river. However in its day this naturalistic interpretation of the estate was groundbreaking. Originally divided by hedges and lawns, the area was opened up and extended by Lord Burlington and William Kent in the 1730s to create uninterrupted views of the House and providing a visual link to the surrounding landscape with the neo-Palladian villa.

The nearby cascade terminates the river and is the last major work undertaken at Chiswick during Burlington’s lifetime. A waterfall descending a series of rock steps through three archways was inspired by designs Burlington and Kent had seen in Italian Renaissance gardens.

The Avenue and the Exedra

The Avenue, a flat lawn, extends from the rear of Chiswick House and terminates in the Exedra, a semi-circle of yew hedging with niches containing statuary. This area is thought to have been designed by William Kent and clearly illustrates his ‘pictorial’ approach to garden design. Kent conceived gardens as semi-naturalistic scenes similar to the paintings of 17th century artists such as Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin. Trees, urns and sphinxes form a symbolic processional avenue reminiscent of the ancient Apian Way leading from Rome. The statuary in the Exedra dates from both ancient Rome and the 18th century and was collected by Lord Burlington. Daniel Defoe attributed the origins of three of the Roman statues to Hadrian’s Villa near Tivoli. The Roman origins of the statuary, the classical use of Egyptian imagery and the shape, motifs and decoration of the urns all express and exemplify the unique Italian quality of the Burlington design. As part of the restoration the urns and statuary have all been restored.

The Conservatory

Chiswick’s Grade I listed conservatory is a spectacular landmark within the Gardens. It was initially designed by Samuel Ware and completed in 1813. The author Mary Berry described it as “a magnificent hot-house” and it was a forerunner of those designed by Decimus Burton at Kew and Sir Joseph Paxton at Chatsworth. It is famous for its important collection of camellias, a significant number dating from the original 1828 planting. Thought to be the oldest camellia collection in England (and perhaps outside China and Japan), it includes some extremely rare specimens, not least the 'Middlemist Red' – one of only two specimens in the world. The conservatory has been painstakingly restored with detailed archaeological and historical research undertaken by English Heritage experts to ensure the accuracy of the restoration.

The Italian Garden

Chiswick’s Italian Garden is located in front of the conservatory. Most 18th century conservatories were seen as exotic extensions of kitchen gardens and were built to look onto those gardens. Chiswick was unusual in that it looked onto a decorative Italian garden, which may be why the sixth Duke quickly turned the hothouse over to housing the exotic blooms. The Italian Garden forms a semi-circular parterre and was designed by Lewis Kennedy. It dates from 1814 and represents an early example of the reintroduction of formal gardens to England. The garden is characterised by its symmetrical formality and intricate pattern of flower beds. Stone urns on plinths are set against an enclosing semi-circular path, the central path is flanked by copies of two magnificent Coadestone vases (the originals are in the conservatory). The planting of mop headed Robinias, rambling roses trained to swags ropes, hollyhocks, lilies and shrub roses, is based on a detailed garden survey undertaken in the 1850s.

Doric Column and Rosary

Thought to have been designed by Lord Burlington in about 1728, the Doric Column was originally surmounted with a copy of the statue of the Venus de Medici which sits in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. By 1736, it was the focus of a small triangular area of dense planting, with six allées radiating out from it. This was replaced by a rose garden, laid out by the fifth Duke of Devonshire and first recorded in 1811. Over the years, the rose garden fell into decline and by the 1950’s had been grassed over, while the copy of the Venus de Medici mysteriously disappeared in the late 19th century. The column has now been restored and a new copy of the Venus statue installed on top. The rosary has been restored to its mid-19th century appearance and the Victorian radial layout of paths, beds and planting re-installed.

Rysbrack Paintings in the Green Velvet Room

Commissioned by the third Earl of Burlington, these eight paintings are among the first to record the transition from the ‘formal to the informal' English landscape garden. Formerly held in private collections and dispersed through auctions, the paintings have been reunited as a set and are now on display as a set for public exhibition for the first time in over fifty years. Two sets of eight paintings were commissioned by Burlington from the Dutch painter Pieter Rysbrack, the second set was for Burlington’s sister, Lady Bedingfield. While a single or pair of paintings of an aristocratic estate was not unusual, the wide scope of this commission was extremely uncommon. The only previous occasion the public has had to view the paintings was when the set originally belonging to Lady Bedingfield, was put up for auction in 1951.

The Blue Velvet Room Ceiling

The Blue Velvet room is the most sumptuously decorated in Chiswick House and was used by the third Earl of Burlington as his study. Today the curtains and wall coverings have been recreated to reflect their original appearance. The most striking feature of the room is the ceiling, supported on pairs of massive curving brackets, a feature which Burlington recreated from a sixteenth century Italian ceiling design in his own collection of architectural drawings. The structure is overlain with glittering decoration, predominantly in blue and gold, painted (probably by William Kent) in imitation of mosaic. The central panel is sometimes taken to represent Architecture as it depicts a woman seated on a fallen column on a cloud, holding compasses and an architectural plan and wearing a Corinthian capital as a crown. The other interpretation is that, as these are also Masonic symbols, the room may have doubled as a secret meeting of Craft Masons, also know as ‘Blue Masons’.

Statues of Andrea Palladio and Inigo Jones

From the forecourt, visitors can admire the perfect proportions and carved details of the façade of Chiswick’s neo-Palladian villa. The portico to the villa is reached by an elaborate staircase ornamented by elegant urns, probably only used on exceptionally grand occasions. Positioned on either side of this staircase are two full length statues of Burlington’s favourite architects, Andrea Palladio on the left and Inigo Jones on the right. The sculptures are attributed to one of the most famous and sought after talents of the day, the Flemish sculptor Michael Rysbrack, whose brother Pieter painted the two sets of paintings that Lord Burlington commissioned to celebrate the development of the grounds. Before the completion of the villa the two statues had stood outside the earliest of the gardens’ buildings, the Bagnio. As a devotee of the architecture of Ancient Rome, Burlington wished to honour two earlier masters, Italian and British, who had pioneered the revival of Classical architecture in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Coffered Dome in the Upper Tribunal

The great octagonal central hall of the villa was the first room that visitors entered on arriving via the portico on formal occasions. It was called the ‘Tribunal’ by an early visitor in 1772 and the ‘Salloon’, in the 1770 inventory. Apart from its practical functions as a hall from which to reach the other main rooms on this floor, it is primarily an imposing architectural space. In the decoration there is a strong emphasis on classical antiquity. The coffering of the dome is particularly impressive and was copied from the 4th century Basilica of Maxentius in Rome. The Basilica was the largest and one of the the last buildings to be built in the Roman Forum and was used as Rome's public law courts.

Chiswick’s Sphinxes.

Sphinxes were considered creatures of wisdom, of protectorship and guardians of arcane and occult knowledge. Chiswick has several examples which were possibly intended as symbolic guardians of the villa. One of these is a lead sphinx made by the sculptor John Cheere (1709 -87). It was was originally situated in the gardens alongside the path from the Link Building to ‘patte d’oie’. Today, it is protected from the elements in the villa’s Link building – added by Lord Burlington in about 1732-3 to provide a covered connection between the old Jacobean house and the new villa – which is used to display several important pieces of original sculpture. Three other sphinxes can be found in the grounds to the rear of the villa. As part of the restoration of Chiswick House Gardens, two new lead sphinxes have been created and placed on the stone gate piers at the entrance to the villa, where two originals once stood. The originals were commissioned by Lord Burlington when the villa was built in the 1720s but were removed at the end of the 19th century and are thought to have been taken to Green Park.


Chiswick House Trust

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June 15, 2010