Want to immerse yourself into the nearest way one may approach an Italian Palladian garden and villa in London? Dream yourself away on the Brenta River in Venetia but actually be within a few minutes from a red double-decker bus-stop? Exalt your pleasures by being surrounded with magical creatures lit up as lanterns: flamingos, dragons, peacocks, parrots, monkeys, even giraffes, pandas, zebras and kangaroos as twilight descends inexorably upon you?
If you love to immerse yourself into a illusory atmosphere and forget the weariness, the fever and the fret of this world then head for Chiswick House (get the bus to it from Turnham Green station on the District Line) by about five o’clock when the park, which normally closes at this time will be open and (hopefully) a glorious sunset will descend upon the fairy-tale spectacle before you. (Full details at http://www.chgt.org.uk/?PageID=595 )
And you don’t have to be a child to enjoy all this although to be child-like does help!
Chiswick House is, of course, well worth a visit in its own right and its grounds have been beautifully restored to keep to their original layout. Designed by Richard Boyle, Lord Burlington, one of the founders of the Royal Academy, and built in close collaboration with his friend architect William Kent after their grand tour of beautiful Italy, the house takes its inspiration from Palladio’s own Villa Capra near Vicenza in its circular form and strictly symmetrical features.
It’s one only of two such English inspirations taken from the Villa Capra, the other being Mereworth castle in Kent.
Chiswick House wasn’t Lord Burlington’s main residence but was, instead, designed as his ‘pleasure-dome’ where he could spend the weekends with his coterie of friends away from his London palazzo, now known as Burlington House, home of the Royal Academy and the venue for the extraordinary ‘Painting the Modern Garden’ exhibition described in my previous post. There would be parties, card games, discussions on aesthetics and a little flirting in the garden’s secret arbours and nymphaea. Even Rousseau and Voltaire were visitors to the house!
O to be a fly on the house’s flocked wall-paper then!
(Photos taken on our visit to Chiswick house in 1999)
Incidentally, Burlington House is one of the last still-standing palazzi built by English lords in London. Most of them fell victims to rising land prices, changing family fortunes and speculation. Very few, unfortunately, are left today. One of the remaining ones is Spencer House, the ancestral London address of the late Lady Diana, which can be visited (see http://www.spencerhouse.co.uk/ ).
Our evening at Chiswick House Gardens was an enchanted farewell to our last night in London. Clearly, the inspiration for the almost surreal display was Chinese but never had these anthropomorphic magic lanterns been illuminated in such noble surroundings. It was an absolute première and, I’m sure, Lord Burlington would have been delighted!
We certainly were delighted, as indeed were all children from the ages of 1 to 100 who visited this charmed garden that evening.
Let our photographs tell something of what we felt. As explained by one of the attendants there is a rich symbolism, dating back to ancient Chinese philosophy, behind many of the items, transforming Chiswick House and gardens into something worthy of Kubla Khan’s wildest reveries.
I wonder what the moorhens, coots and Canada geese all made of it? Especially of the dragon!
Incidentally, putting a Chinese inspired lantern display in a Palladian garden may not seem so improbably surreal. Lord Burlington was influenced in his garden design by Chinese gardens as a result of seeing engravings by Father Ripa. Father Matteo Ripa’s (1682 -1746) was an Italian priest sent to China as a missionary. He became interested in Chinese art and worked as a painter and engraver at the Kangxi Emperor’s Manchu court under the name Ma Guoxian. So there!
Kubla Khan: or a vision in a dream – a fragment
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery….
Samuel Taylor Coleridge