To live in London, as I did for 17 years, is to be surrounded by history and architectural beauty, but one of my favourite historic sites is Chiswick House, situated in the heart of a West End residential neighbourhood that once formed part of its grounds.
First built between 1726 and 1729, Chiswick is considered one of the most important neo-Palladian villas in the world. It’s small compared to many other grand houses of its time; an elegant jewel box of a space, really. Part of what makes it remarkable is that it was designed not by a professional architect but by the nobleman who would inhabit it, Lord Burlington, with the aid of his friend and protégé William Kent, who would go on to design or contribute to other famous British architectural landmarks.
The house was initially conceived not as a residence, but as a place where Burlington could entertain his friends and show off his fine art collection. (For example, there is no kitchen at Chiswick; the family would have stayed in an older house on the property when visiting, reserving the main house for receptions and other gatherings.)
The ground floor was reserved for Lord Burlington’s private rooms, a waiting room, and service rooms such as a butler’s pantry. Less ornate in design and not really intended for entertaining guests, this level is still very beautiful in its own way, with its restrained and carefully conceived attention to detail, serving to underscore Burlington’s respect for Palladian and Greek ideals. Among its features are a simple, spiralling stone staircase (that may have allowed the Lord to appear at parties as if out of nowhere), and what looks like a colonnaded space that leads to a beautiful arched window overlooking the park.
Yet it’s the first floor that the house is most famous for. It consists of a series of rooms, arranged enfilade-style, lit by towering arched windows that frame views of the grounds, rotating around a grand central rotunda. The rotunda would have been an impressive sight for guests, especially since it was an uncommon feature in houses of the time. The fashion for large private residences tended more to impressive layouts such as the “piano nobile,” a lofty principal floor with a vast entrance and opulently proportioned staircase, imparting an almost theatrical sense of grandeur. (Burlington overcame the floor-plan limitations imposed by his rotunda by placing his grand staircase on the exterior of the house.)
One of the magnificently appointed rooms on this level is the Gallery, made up of three rooms linked by small archways. The two outer rooms, one octagonal and the other round, were designed in the style of the renowned 17th-century English architect Inigo Jones; the central section features magnificently patterned apses at each end, with ornately gilded, diamond-patterned ceiling coffers painted by William Kent in the manner of the Temple of Venus in Rome, illustrated by Palladio.
The Gallery is my favourite space in Chiswick, and fills me with awe each time I go back to visit. Despite the glory of the details in this room, what is most striking, to my eye, is not the lavishness of its decoration but rather the restraint. There’s something in the clean stone walls, the symmetry, the views (both interior and exterior), and the exquisite beauty of the embellishment, that makes the space read as successfully today as it did in the 1700s.