Neoclassical architecture, grand gardens and beautiful sunshine
The other week I was in Bath, enjoying the splendid Georgian architecture in that fabled city, a favourite haunt of Jane Austen and Thomas Gainsborough. Back in London, I decided to seek out some of the capital’s best examples of neo-Palladian, Georgian architecture and design. We are spoiled for choice in London since so much of the city was rebuilt in that period.
I said in my Bath post that the Georgian style of archtecture – sometimes called neoclassical or Palladian (after the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio,1508–1580) – is not a direct copy of the architecture of the ancients but an interpretation of it. The chief objectives of Neoclassical architecture are symmetry and proportion. Decoration and ornament also follow the classical tradition but are often restrained, sometimes even minimal.
In the 17th century, this style was principally applied to great public buildings and palatial homes, like Wren’s cathedral of St Paul or Hawksmoor’s Christ Church in Spitalfields. These architects of the baroque were strongly influenced by Palladio’s interpretation of the classical but were not ready to reject the gothic architectural forms. The blended together their exploration of the architecture and design of Antiquity, the Renaissance, the English Middle Ages and contemporary Italian baroque.
By the 18th century, the grand style was also applied to smaller and more modest buildings*, which started to take on Neoclassical architecture’s sense of form and restraint beloved of people like Robert Adam (Kenwood House), James Gibbs and John Nash, among others. The style began to dominate English country house architecture. The houses were increasingly placed in grand landscaped settings, situated to look impressive from a distance.
Chiswick House (1729) is an excellent early example of this kind of style and landscaped garden. Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (1694-1753) deigned and built the house for his own use. William Kent designed the gardens and landscape. Later, the house passed to the Dukes of Devonshire, and inhabited by the 5th Duke and his wife: the extraordinarily beautiful, famous and controversial Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. You may be familiar with her story from the film The Duchess, with Kiera Knightley playing Georgiana (an excellent performance and great production design.)
At the time of my visit, Chiswick House itself was not open due to Coronavirus. Still, the gardens were, so I had a good look at the architecture.
The first thing you notice is the attempt to set the house in a neo-classical environment. This means statuary and a folly in the shape of a small Grecian temple next to a pond. There is also an Egyptian-style obelisk. You can’t actually visit the temple. YThese follies weren’t designed for use, but to be looked at. The statuary was made to look antique (we saw this previously in the Roman baths). Not much of the statuary at Chiswick House is particularly good as art, but it is fascinating.
You can clearly see the sense of geometry and proportion in the design of the building. Yet it is not as it was when built by Boyle: it has also been added to and messed around with over the years.
Two full length and quite excellent sculptures of the architects Inigo Jones and Andrea Palladio are still in situ at the front entrance of the house. The other statuary is very much Roman in design, including several busts of emperors, including Augustus Caesar, a homage to the so-called “Augustan age” of the early 18th century.
Eventually, Chiswick House fell into disuse and became a mental asylum from 1892 until its sale in 1929 to Middlesex County Council. Somewhat bizarrely, it then became a fire station. It was damaged during World War II by a V-2 rocket and was partially demolished in 1956. Fortunately, today it is a listed building maintained by English Heritage and normally open to the public. Given what he has been through, I would not imagine much of the original interior design still exists within the building. When it reopens, I will go and have a look to find out.
To get to Chiswick House, the easiest way is to go to Turnham Green Tube on the District Line and walk down (takes about 20 minutes), although you can certainly walk along the river from Hammersmith and avail yourself of the lovley riverside pubs on the way. The gardens are free and open all day and there is a cafe.
*In Bath and London, the style – much simplified – was also applied to ordinary residential housing. These are usually terraced houses, which typically open directly onto the street, frequently with a few steps leading up to the door. There is often an open space, protected by iron railings, dropping down to the basement level, with a discreet entrance (originally for servants and deliveries but today they are more often separate apartments).