In the early 18th Century, when the present Chiswick House was built, Chiswick was a small riverside village. During the previous century it had become a popular location for wealthy families to establish suburban villas, conveniently located close to London and accessible by river. The original Chiswick House was one of these, built in the 1620s.
Richard Boyle, the 3rd Earl of Burlington (1694-1753), inherited Chiswick House in 1715, along with Burlington House in London and substantial estates in Yorkshire and Ireland. He was one of the most influential cultural figures of the day; an artistic patron whose circle included Handel and Alexander Pope. He went on the Grand Tour of continental Europe twice, amassing a considerable collection of paintings, sculptures, drawings and books. Greatly inspired by the architecture and culture of Ancient Rome and the Italian Renaissance, he aimed to bring about a new renaissance in England. As a gifted ‘amateur’ architect himself, he was able to demonstrate his thinking in his own work. The villa and gardens he created at Chiswick were a showpiece of his ideas and became hugely influential.
Lord Burlington was particularly influenced by the work of the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, and by Inigo Jones, James I’s court architect, who introduced classical architecture to England in the early 17th century. His sense of cultural mission was expressed by Alexander Pope in his Epistle to Lord Burlington of 1731:
Make falling arts your care,
Erect new wonders, and the old repair;
Jones and Palladio to themselves restore,
And be whate’er Vitruvius was before
Work began on the Chiswick gardens soon after 1715. Lord Burlington built classical temples, laid out formal avenues and winding serpentine walks through a “wilderness’, created formal ponds and an artificial river, and ornamented the gardens with statues, obelisks and urns. The earth excavated from the river created a raised terrace walk along the edge of an otherwise rather flat site, with views across the meadows to the Thames. Trees were planted that might be found in a Roman garden: cedars, cypresses and evergreen oaks. Orange trees in tubs were placed around the grass amphitheatre.
The new Villa was built from 1726-29 to the north-west of the main Jacobean house. It was not intended for living in; it was built for entertaining, to house Lord Burlington’s collection, and to promote his ideas. It was also rich in symbolism, whose interpretation is still a matter of lively debate. The design was greatly influenced by Palladio, and used many ideas and forms taken from the buildings seen on the Grand Tour, which were combined to create something entirely new. The Villa played a leading role in establishing the “Neo-Palladian” architectural style that dominated the mid-18th Century in England and spread across Europe and America, and which remains an iconic piece of architecture today.
Work on the gardens continued into the 1740′s, increasingly under the direction of Lord Burlington’s friend and protege, William Kent. Kent started out as a painter, but with Burlington’s encouragement he took up interior decoration, architecture and garden design. He designed garden features such as the exedra and cascade, but more importantly he was involved in softening and relaxing the original formal layout. Kent’s method of working without line or level and sketching views from the imagination led to a revolution in garden design. The new thinking was described in verse in Pope’s Epistle, most famously summed up in the instruction to the landscape designer to “consult the genius of the place in all”; to work with and adapt to the inherent qualities of the landscape rather than imposing an entirely formal design. The naturalistic curves of the lake and the informally sloping lawns at Chiswick were some of the earliest appearances of what was to become the English Landscape Garden style.
Lord Burlington’s estate passed to the Dukes of Devonshire in 1753. The 5th Duke and his celebrated Duchess Georgiana inherited in 1764. They were leading figures in society, fashion and politics, and used Chiswick as a retreat from London and for luxurious parties. Georgiana called it her “earthly paradise”. They demolished the Jacobean House and built 3-storey wings on the sides of Burlington’s Villa. Several of the existing temples and garden buildings were also demolished, and the straight avenues were replaced with curving shrubbery walks.