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Chiswick House

In the beginning of 17th century the aristocratic Boyle family bought an estate in Chiswick with a large Jacobean house, as a summer retreat. It caught fire in 1725, and the head of the family, Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, decided to build a new ‘villa’ in the grounds.

Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington
Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington

As the name suggests, it was not to be an ordinary English house. It was to be a Roman Villa – a masterpiece of classical architecture, coming to England all the way from Italy’s lost Roman buildings.

Chiswick House
Chiswick House

Richard inherited his title and riches at the age of 10, and, like many of his contemporaries, devoted himself to arts, going on Grand Tour of Europe in 1714 – 1719, and another one later on. The new villa was to house his collection of paintings and furniture, which he brought back from his  travels. Lord Burlington regarded himself as an architect, and designed the house himself, based on his experiences in Italy and a substantial collection of books and drawings acquired there. Also in Italy he met his sidekick, a person who was to change the English garden design forever – William Kent.

William Kent
William Kent

Kent studied in Rome in the beginning of the 18th century. Having met Lord Burlington on his travels there, he secured a commission to work on the design of the house and gardens at his estate in Chiswick.

Chiswick House is a fine example of the Palladian Style – Lord Burlington was inspired by the recently published English translation of  The Four Books of Architecture by the 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. In contrast to typical English Gothic style, this was all about classically proportioned geometric shapes and clear lines. The Dome, crowning Chiswick House, is a rare feature of domestic architecture, normally reserved for temples. The house is faced with Portland Stone, glowing brilliantly white in the sun.

Chiswick House
Chiswick House

 

The house was built between 1726 and 1729. Innovative and beautiful as it was, it was the gardens that made history.

 The formal Jacobean gardens of the Chiswick estate were replaced by the new ‘landscape’ style, as designed by William Kent. Being a painter and theatre set designer, Kent’s vision for the garden was derived from landscape paintings of the French artists Nicole Poussin and Claude Lorraine. It was all about the garden looking naturally beautiful, but every feature – either growing or man-made – carefully planned and in the right place, to achieve the most pleasing effect. The gardens included alleys shaded by trees, Ancient Greek statues, a lake and a cascade, as well as an obelisk and garden buildings, to evoke the appearance of Ancient Rome, combined with Lord Burlington’s Whig ideals.

 Chiswick House

The Ionic Temple survives from Lord Burlington’s times. It takes inspiration from either Pantheon in Rome, or the Temple of Romulus.

Ionic Temple
Ionic Temple

 Both Lord Burlington and William Kent were keen on theatre, and theatrical design is reflected in a semi-circular hedge, known as the Exedra. The actors are the Roman statues. Kent’s originals were ‘identified’ by the writer Daniel Defoe  as Ceasar (the one who invaded Britain), Pompey (responsible for the decline of the Roman Republic) and the philosopher Cicero. The Exedra also featured poets Horace, Homer and Virgil, and the philosopher Socrates.  The current ones are reproductions – the originals are inside the house.

Exedra
Exedra

 The lake was created in 1727 by widening an existing brook. 

Chiswick House lake
Chiswick House lake

Kent’s Cascade – the two level waterfall – graces the end of it which is closest to the garden. The hill was made by piling the soil from the lake, and this created an elevated walkway above the cascade, affording views of the estate and the nearby River Thames. We climbed it, but could not see anything due to trees and hedges…..

Cascade
Cascade

  Lord Burlington died in 1753, the estate passed to his daughter Charlotte, who had married William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire. It was their son William, the 5th Duke, who make the next major mark on the estate. His claim to fame is his famous wife Georgiana,

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, by Joshua Reynolds

She loved Chiswick House and referred to it as her ‘earthly paradise’. The house was extended to provide accommodation for prominent members of the Whig party, aristocrats, writers and artists partying in the house and gardens. Georgiana commissioned architect James Wyatt to design the Classical Bridge in 1774. The family added new wings, so that they could entertain a multitude of important guests, who, over the subsequent years, included a couple of Russian Tsars, Queen Victoria and Print Albert, the musician Handel, the politician Charles James Fox.

bridge Chiswick House 

Georgiana’s son, the Bachelor Duke (he never married, despite being one of the richest and most eligible men in England at the time), bought an adjourning estate, and in 1813 a conservatory went up, with a walled garden at the back and an Italian garden in the front.

Chiswick House Conservatory
Chiswick House Conservatory

His menagerie included an elephant, elks, emus, kangaroos and an Indian bull.

Tribute to the Duke's elephant
Tribute to the Duke’s elephant

 

The conservatory housed England’s earliest collection of camellias.

Camellias in 2017
Camellias in 2017

 After his death the family rented the estate to a number of tenants, who included the Prince of Wales in 1870s. Between 1892 and 1928 it became the Chiswick Asylum for wealthy patients. In 1929 Chiswick House was sold to Middlesex County Council, who raised funds by public subscription – among the subscribers was King George V. It became a view station during World War II and suffered bomb damage, resulting with a couple of wings having to be removed in the 1950s.

It is now managed by  the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust, formed in 2005 by Hounslow Council and English Heritage, and is an excellent day out experience for the whole family.

Chiswick House Chiswick House Chiswick House Chiswick House

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Sutton Hoo – the Story of a Find

In late 1930s an intelligent and gentle lady looked out of the window of her cosy sitting room over the estate that she owned. Her name was Edith May Pretty.

Edith May Pretty
Sitting Room at Sutton Hoo House – reconstruction

He came from a wealthy family of a rich industrialist, who devoted his ample spare cash to educating his two daughters by taking them on around the world trips, with particular interest in ancient artefacts. While her younger sister got married, Edith remained with her parents and continued travelling until her father died. She was 42 when she married a man who had been in love with her since she was 18, and they bought Sutton Hoo, a large estate in Suffolk with a beautiful house on a hill, overlooking the river Deben.

Sutton Hoo Manor House
Sutton Hoo Manor House, now Tranmer House, in honour of the last owners who gave the estate to the British Heritage

The happy couple had a son, but soon her husband died, and Edith devoted herself to charitable work and her young boy, – and spiritual healing, which was a popular fad at the time.

1930s interior of Sutton Hoo House

Her health was failing, and she must have spent quite a while looking at the mounds across the ditch visible from the window of her sitting room. This is what she saw

View from the window of Sutton Hoo House

She heard stories of ghosts of warriors marching atop those hills. She also knew that they had been plundered hundreds of years previously, with some metal nails found, and she wondered if there was more to them than just spiritual apparitions.

Edith organised – and paid for – an archaeological dig, by a local archaeologist Basil Brown, who was recommended to her by the Ipswich Museum. This is his workshop, reconstructed in a little building next to Edith’s manor house.

Basil Brown’s workshop

A smaller mound excavated in 1938 revealed a ship burial, previously dug up by 19th century, yielding some ship rivets. Now this one, known as Mound 2, is built up to its original height.

Mound 2

In fact, all mounds had been ransacked, as became apparent during excavations later, some as early as 16th century.

The works returned in 1939, when Edith insisted that the biggest, Mound 1, was to be dug up.

The famous Mound 1 – what remains of it

And this is what they found – a ghostly imprint of a ship in the sandy soil.

The ship was filled with belongings of an Anglo-Saxon king.

Some of the treasures found at Sutton Hoo

Quite soon it became apparent that this is one of the biggest Anglo-Saxon finds in England. Dignitaries from the British Museum told Basil Brown to ‘move over’ – Edith insisted on his involvement and ensured that his job was secure, – this is the kind of woman she was.

Sutton Hoo site in 2017

What they found was a real treasure – in terms of both material and historic value. The 18 mounds sitting close together on one plot of land turned out to contain two ship burials (out of only 3 known in England), 6 cremation burials, a burial in a (possible) coffin and a burial of a young warrior and his horse.

Reconstruction of the horse harness found at Sutton Hoo

Some artefacts are in Ipswich museum and in the visitor centre at Sutton Hoo, but the whole of the most important ship burial in Mound 1- thought to be of Anglo-Saxon king Raedwald – is in the British Museum.

This was the generous gift of Edith Pretty – the courts established that everything belonged to her, and she donated the treasure to the nation, with the provision that it will be displayed in the British Museum. This was the most valuable gift made to the British Museum in the lifetime of the owner. Sadly, Edit did not live to see her gift on display. She died in 1942.

It was lucky that Mount 1 was excavated in summer 1939 – the First World War starting in autumn 1939, and the estate was commandered by the military, with the house being used as, and the fields as a training ground for military vehicles.

During the war the Sutton Hoo hoard was stored in Aldwych Tube Station and now form the main part of the British Museum’s Anglo-Saxon gallery.

Sutton Hoo display at the British Museum

After the war the estate Edith’s son sold the estate, which became a farm. Edith’s will stipulated that the estate can be sold only on condition that the excavation rights belong to the family, who subsequently passed them to the British Museum.

After the death of the last owner in 1990s, Sutton Hoo became a National Trust property, and now offers a 1930s interiors reconstruction in the manor house, a visitor centre telling the history of Sutton Hoo finds, and, of course, a walk around the mounds, which brings us closer to the great mystery of the Dark Age Anglo-Saxons.

View of the house from the mounds
Visitor Centre

 

 

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Of Daffodils and Leeks – St.David’s Day, 1st March

Of Daffodils and Leeks – St.David’s Day, 1st March

This 1st March my front garden boasts 5 daffodils. Along with camellias and crocuses they are the first splashes of colour, after predominantly green British winter.

Daffodils are traditionally regarded to be the national symbol for Wales, along with leeks, dragons and St.David, whose day is also celebrated on 1st March.

St.David and leeks came together for Wales, according to legend, in 6th century, when the Welsh saint lived and performed miracles. This was the Dark Ages, when Anglo-Saxon ruled England. The term Dark Ages came about because Anglo-Saxons did not go for writing things down, and the majority of surviving written sources come from the latter part of Anglo-Saxon time, 9th-11th centuries. We know very little of what happened here after Romans left in 5th century, and for a long time the pagan Anglo-Saxons were regarded as uneducated savage lot, bent on wars and invasions. Through archaeological finds like Sutton Hoo we now know that they Ango-Saxon culture and trade were as sophisticated as in other time in history.

Back to St.David and Wales. David started a priest in a monastery in Henfynyw in Wales, where he was educated, later becoming a missionary and a bishop, then archbishop of Wales in 550. Starting from his early time in church he was performing miracles, like restoring the sight of St.Paulinus. He was a vegetarian and only drank water – his survival was a miracle in itself, as at this time in history water was the most dangerous drink of all, so full of bacteria that it was sure to kill you, unless coming straight from a clean spring. Legend has it that water springs appeared where St.David did anything of note (so he was OK with it, lucky chap!)

David founded 12 monasteries, showed examples of faith, like standing up to his neck in a cold lake while reciting scripture, revived people from the dead and travelled as far as Jerusalem on pilgrimage. He died, according to legend, at the age of 100, on 1st March, and was buried in St.David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire, in West Wales. In 12th century Catholic Church canonised David and declared him Patron Saint of Wales.

So, what about leeks – and daffodils? There is a story that during a battle between the Welsh Army (the Brits living in Wales at the time (6th century) were predominantly Christian, while invading Anglo-Saxons were pagans) and Anglo-Saxons, David (or it could be his spirit) advised the Welsh to wear leeks in their hats to distinguish themselves from the enemy. Leeks love growing in the Welsh climate and were plentiful in local monasteries, so the obvious plant of choice for a Christian!

William Shakespeare talks in Henry V about Welsh guards wearing leeks on St.David’s Day in memory of their saint.

The Welsh word for ‘leek’ is Cenhinen, and ‘daffodil’ is Cenhinen Pedr, literally meaning ‘Peter’s Leek’, so this is the popular explanation why daffodils came to be regarded as the national symbol of Wales,- they also must be more plentiful on the ground than leeks at this time of the year, and definitely look more jolly!