My Plans For The Future Of Chiswick House And Gardens

New director of the Trust Clare O'Brien gives her first interview

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The recently-appointed Director of the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust, Clare O'Brien, has a long personal connection with the area despite spending her early childhood in the north of England.

Her father, the late Sir Richard O'Brien (a distinguished WW2 veteran who was an influential figure in the worlds of industry, government and the Church of England), was a former chairman of the Chiswick House Friends, the charitable trust that was established in 1984 to support the restoration, preservation and enhancement of Chiswick House and grounds.

The family moved from Birmingham to London when Clare, the youngest of five children, was a teenager. Her mother Ailsa, a well-known child psychiatrist, still lives in London. Clare attended school in Ealing for three years and the family lived in Kensington. Chiswick House was a popular meeting place for weekend walks with family friends.

Clare's memories are of "a very elegant park" where she played sometimes played frisbee in the grounds. With that personal connection, she feels very comfortable taking up her new role after several busy years as Director of Marketing and Development at The Wallace Collection in central London.

Chiswick House will now move onto its next phase of development, following the restoration overseen by the Trust's first director, Sarah Finch Crisp. The Trust, a registered charity, was created jointly by English Heritage and the London Borough of Hounslow in order to integrate the management of Chiswick House and Gardens and its work centres around the protection and enhancement of the Grade I listed villa and registered Grade I gardens, which have been a public park since 1929.

While Clare has ideas for future projects there are also the many daily decisions to be made. Her arrival coincides with one of the wettest and windiest winters in over a century and the Gardens have been closed on a number of occasions for public safety following Met Office warnings.

"Much as we hate to deny people the opportunity to come and walk in the gardens, safety is absolutely a priority, and if there is a Met Office warning, then we have to take appropriate measures," she says.

Chiswick House welcomes 13,000 visitors a year, half of whom are English Heritage members. The first big task for Clare as Director of the Trust will be to steer the negotiations for the Trust to take control of the House from English Heritage (it will remain in government ownership). All going well, this should happen in April 2015. The House is intrinsic to Clare's vision for the future and she would like to see it opened on a more regular basis.

Chiswick House is the first and one of the finest examples of neo-Palladian design in England. Created by the third Earl of Burlington, who was inspired on his grand tour by the architecture of ancient Rome and 16th century Italy, it is a homage to the work of Renaissance architect Palladio though it was not originally intended to be a private residence.

"It was a groundbreaking estate and one of the first to have a garden that was not just a formal garden, but has a special quality. It's beautiful and it's also quite extraordinary and really it is world -class. I want people to realise what a magnificent resource they have and be proud of it.

"I would like to see the House at the centre of things, opening more regularly for all visitors, opening in winter as well as in summer, maybe even at Christmas. And I think this will enable us to establish a broader schools and public education programme. I believe if we were to link the House and Gardens we could expand much more on what we offer."

At present the Trust and the Friends run a variety of fund-raising events, ranging from the summer Opera in the Gardens to the May Fayre and the Dog Show, but there is always more to be done, particularly in an economic climate where large public houses have to be seen to help pay towards their upkeep.

"I'd also like to reintroduce a river walk that used to take in Hogarth House and Chiswick House, and maybe bring back the evening 'Bat Walks'. I'd like to do something about better pedestrian access to the entrance on the A316. I'd like to see people come into the House at Christmas. I want to make the estate much more vibrant and widen out what we offer to the public ".

pic- John Fielding

Clare is looking foward to the Camellia Festival next month (1st-30th March) which will be her first public event since taking on her new role. The Fourth annual Camellia festival will be held in the 300 ft glasshouse designed by Samuel Ware in 1813 for the 6th Duke of Devonshire. The spectacular burst of winter colour will showcase what is believed to be the oldest collection under glass in the western world, including flowers descended from the original 1828 planting.

Two years ago local residents complained about having to pay an £8 admission charge to enter the Conservatory to see the blooms, but Clare says the Trust has to raise money and the admission charge will remain in place. The Camellia Festival is a valuable part of their annual fundraising events.

"We will continue to charge, as the Conservatory and the estate need funding for its upkeep . We do have lottery funding which pays for our gardeners, marketing etc but that will run out in September. We have to have a Business Plan to keep everything running."

She is very impressed with the fact that local people feel they have a stake in Chiswick House grounds, whether as a place they come to walk the dog, or have family picnics in summer.

"The committment and passion of local people is to be celebrated and I hope Chiswick residents are proud that the House is of world importance. I know there are people in the area with so much knowledge about the House and grounds and I'd love them to be part of what we are doing. And I also have to say how impressed I am with all the volunteers and the tremendous work they do- at the moment they are out in all weathers planting for the Camellia festival. And of course their work in the Kitchen Garden is tremendous."

Clare's career has followed a swift trajectory in the the arts and charity corporate sectors ever since she took up her first job at the box office of the Wyndhams Theatre after graduating from Leeds University with a History degree. She has spent time at the Royal National Theatre, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) and the Shakespeare Globe Trust. So what attracted her to Chiswick?

"I was ready for a new challenge and because I had some knowledge of this place I felt this would be very exciting. My brief at the Wallace Collection was to double the self generating income and double the visitors numbers and I feel it would be great to do the same in Chiswick House."

During her time at The Wallace Collection, whose 25 galleries in a London townhouse possess wonderful displays of French 18th century painting, furniture and porcelain, she was also involved in transforming some of the galleries into opulent rooms and modernising an entrance from a cramped space into a hall and cloakroom area surrounded by glass, giving the 'Wow' experience to visitors when they enter from the street. Clare's vision for Chiswick House is to have visitors experience something similar, the feeling of stepping into another world and leaving the traffic, the noise, and the daily worries behind for a while.

A passionate supporter of theatre and the arts, Clare lives in north London, taking public transport to Chiswick and cycling from the train station to her office in the grounds of Chiswick House estate. Her partner is a photographer and in her free time she enjoys entertaining, is a regular at the Hampstead Theatre and likes playing tennis and climbing mountains. And for those Chiswick dog lovers who wanted me to ask the question- the answer is No, Clare does not own a dog.

Anne Flaherty

* A talk on The Historic Camellia Collection at Chiswick House will be give by former head gardener Fiona Crumley at the Garden Museum, Lambeth Palace Road (SE1 7LB) at 7 pm (6.30 arrival for a glass of wine) on Monday, 10th February 2014. Tickets (members of London Parks & Gardens Trust); £8, non-members £9 on the door or phone 0207 8393969

February 10, 2014