Chiswick House and Gardens restoration

Can maintaining the birthplace of English landscaping be reconciled with the needs of a modern city park? Gavin McEwan reports.

An unapologetically modern Carew St John-designed cafe forms art of the restored Chiswick House and Gardens - photo: HW
An unapologetically modern Carew St John-designed cafe forms art of the restored Chiswick House and Gardens - photo: HW

After four years of fundraising and two years of work on-site, the £12 million restoration of Chiswick House and Gardens finally opens to the public tomorrow (19 June). Only then will it become clear whether the investment can be safeguarded and revenue generated to sustain it.

For decades, management of the 26ha west London site was complicated by the split ownership, with English Heritage owning and managing Chiswick House and the London Borough of Hounslow looking after the historically important grounds, which had been in a long, slow decline, particularly since the advent of compulsory competitive tendering and the reduced maintenance that it brought.

English Heritage head of gardens and landscape John Watkins says: "Unlike buildings, you have to work hard to keep the design intentions clear in a garden. If the design intention is lost, vistas are lost to trees, and different character areas become very similar. At Chiswick, we have restored the landscape, but also revealed it."

The problem of dual ownership was resolved with the creation five years ago of the Chiswick House & Gardens Trust. But this only took on management of the house and gardens earlier this year, with a 99-year lease on the gardens from the council.

Its director is Sarah Finch Crisp, previously head of heritage at Swindon Borough Council, where she oversaw the restoration of Lydiard Park, another major lottery-funded project. "We can give the site the attention you couldn't give it if you have 100 other green spaces to manage as well," she says.

The project has been as much about finding a sustainable form of management as about hard and soft landscaping, says Watkins. "There was a need for a major project but a local authority would never have had enough money to look after such an important site. But just having a capital project to put stuff in wasn't enough."

Finch Crisp adds: "It will rely very little on external funding. The borough will make an initial grant, but the majority of funding we will raise ourselves, from catering, hospitality, events and the retail outlet in the house. Some services such as weddings will not be affordable to all, but all will benefit from them. It's a challenge though - not many places make themselves pay and we want to respect the integrity of the site and avoid over-commercialisation."

Watkins says: "Not everywhere will have the kind of business opportunities you have here. The council will get a fantastic resource for no extra money." This role as a free facility - "a local park where children learn to ride bikes", as Watkins puts it - marks Chiswick out from the typical English Heritage property. It will be closed at night but will have the usual wear and tear from around a million users a year, including dog walkers and school children, with which to contend.

"There's now an area where dogs can run free, as well as areas for children and picnics where no dogs are allowed," explains Watkins. "That way, everyone's happy." The grounds will be maintained by contractor Burley. Watkins says: "It also helps having a head gardener based here." Former Chelsea Physic Garden head gardener Fiona Crumley was appointed to the job in April 2007.

Finch Crisp sees the project as of wider significance to the community. "Other Heritage Lottery Fund projects have given a huge lift to places - they affect many other areas of activity," she says, adding that a secluded cricket pitch used by three local clubs has been "greatly improved".

As well as its social role, the park is an important site for nature conservation - for example, bats around the lake and avenues. Areas of wilder woodland will be rotation-coppiced to maintain an open, insect-friendly habitat, while an island at the north end of the lake where birds can roost and breed has also been re-established.

Well documented

Unlike English Heritage's previous large-scale garden project at Kenilworth Castle, the grounds at Chiswick were copiously documented at the time. "We were fortunate in having so much information, both written and visual," says Watkins. "The job has been to find what's most important. But it didn't develop much horticulturally beyond the sixth Duke of Devonshire in the first half of the 19th century."

University of Sheffield landscape historian Jan Woudstra was commissioned to research the archives of Chatsworth House, seat of the current Duke of Devonshire, which holds many of the Earl of Burlington's original materials. These have included illustrations by prominent artists of the day as well as design plans.

Some concessions have been made to modern needs. Most of the paths have been relaid and made more durable by spraying stone chips onto Tarmac. "A lot of the work has been infrastructure," says Watkins. "We have replaced the many different sorts of railings with a robust yet unobtrusive hoop-top design."

These and other functional furniture are painted an "invisible" dark green, while signposts are in navy blue and white. But otherwise interpretation has been kept to a minimum. "It's awful if you have too much," Watkins explains. A friends group, active for 25 years, will continue to offer support to the new trust. Group chairman George Nissen says: "We feel sure that the friends have a special role in representing the interests and views of the many users of the gardens, particularly Chiswick residents."

It has also been home to the Kitchen Garden Trust for several years. The walled garden will continue to provide education now it has been incorporated into the overall house and gardens trust. An educational officer has been appointed and a former stable has been equipped for teaching. Finch Crisp says: "The park was much appreciated even when it was dilapidated, but it's glory days aren't in people's living memory. What's important is that now, one of our most beautiful landscapes can be enjoyed for free."

CHISWICK HOUSE AND GARDENS: KEY FEATURES

Western lawn: The English Landscape Movement can trace its origins to what is on the face of it an unremarkable stretch of lawn running from the villa to the lake. But by replacing the previous formal layout with a more naturalistic vista, Burlington instigated a style that has since been adopted and adapted worldwide. Restoring it has involved removing several mature trees and railings from the lake edge.

Lake and temple: The original cascade at the south end has been restored and trees around the lake have also been thinned. "With too many trees with thick leaves around it you get too much nitrogen in the water," says English Heritage head of gardens and landscape John Watkins. Sadly, the adjacent Ionic temple has suffered from the theft of the lead from its roof. "It's a drain on the restoration - money spent policing the site is money away from other work," Watkins explains.

Woodland: Among the original rhododendron bushes, which are being propagated to bulk up planting, is the surprising sight of a Wollemi pine in a circular clearing. "There is a history of conifer introductions here, from cedars to Taxodium," says Watkins. "We wanted to mark the restoration with a 21st century conifer."

Rosary garden: The site of a late 18th century shrubbery north of the villa has been planted up with roses donated by David Austin Roses and a new sculpture of Venus has been mounted on the Doric column in the middle. The enclosed space "will be a destination in its own right", says Watkins.

Forecourt: Columnar cedars have been cloned from existing trees in the grounds. "They are an important setting for the house, as you can see in illustrations of the time," says Watkins. "There's a wider genetic diversity here than in Lebanon, where the cedar forests have been cut down. It's a resource that could also be used in the wild."

Camellia House: The glasshouse has been taken back as far as possible to the original Messenger & Co structure, while preserving the important camellia collection inside. "We have discovered a whole history of glasshouse development," says Watkins. Vents have been reinstated, along with external shading, and small separate rooms at either end, which benefit from the heating, can be used for small functions.

Italian garden: This formal garden in front of the Camellia House is from a later period, having first been laid out in the early 19th century. A survey from the 1880s gives a layout that will largely be emulated, including mop-headed Robinia and roses trained onto rope swags. However, Watkins admits: "We have missed planting for this year."

Walled garden: The vast walled garden was the borough's nursery before compulsory competitive tendering. A formerly wooded area has been given over to turf, reinforced in parts to serve as overspill parking. The area has also been planted with historic cherry varieties, while heritage forms of apples and pears will be used around the garden. "We will have the biggest collection of historic fruit in London," says Watkins.

Cafe: The unapologetically modern Carew St John-designed Portland stone building replaced a north-facing rather shabby facility east of the villa. The interior can be divided into separate preparation and entertaining areas for functions. It also houses public toilets, whose maintenance falls to the cafe franchisees, while an adjacent marquee will stand for three months in the year, hosting more events.

AN ENLIGHTENED VIEW

Known as "the architect earl", Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington, was a major player in the arts in early 18th century England. "Burlington's period at Chiswick was the significant one," says Watkins. "He took a not very special layout around the old Jacobean house, kept the existing lines, such as the three 'goose foot' avenues, and also built the Palladian villa."

Burlington had taken the grand tour three times and had met Inigo Jones, Alexander Pope and William Kent, who became his resident landscape designer. "He also collected a lot of statues and antiquities, as well as making sketches of Roman and Palladian buildings," says Watkins.

"He then followed on from Jones in making that English. You can see the evolution of his ideas in the grounds of Chiswick House, which effectively saw the birth of the more naturalistic English Landscape movement that became institutionalised by Capability Brown."

After his death the Jacobean house was knocked down - its basement was discovered during archaeological work for the restoration - and wings added to the villa, but changes to the grounds were less drastic. Its "goose foot" layout north of the villa predates even Burlington.


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