Chiswick House: the birthplace of English Neo-Palladianism architecture

Chiswick House

Walking along Burlington lane at Chiswick, west London, it is impossible not to be overwhelmed by the architectural grandeur of the 17th century Chiswick House, built by Lord Burlington (1694-1753), the 3rd Earl of Burlington, in 1729. In this discourse, I will be discussing the architectural and cultural importance of the House with regard to the architectural epoch Neo-Palladianism of which it is part, including its provenance, typology, and influence.

Burlington was born into wealth and nobility. After early retirement from public life, he devoted the rest of his time and fortune to set a precedent of architectural innovation and fusion which became known as Neo-Palladianism. His love for art and architecture gave him the titles: ‘Modern Vitruvius’, the ‘Apollo of the Arts’. After his second Italian tour, and inspired by the art and drawings of Palladio, Burlington designed Chiswick House as a stand-alone annexe to the mansion. During its days of glory, it had entertained Tsars of Russia, but in 1892, the 8th Duke removed the art treasures to Chatsworth and the House was let as a private lunatic asylum. In 1929, the House was acquired by the Middlesex County Council and used as a public park, and later as a fire station. Writings of the architectural historians in the 1950s renewed interest in the already dilapidated Chiswick House, which led to its restoration as a work of art. It now stands tall overlooking the Thames River as a rich source of enjoyment, and displays both the attitudes of the 18th and mid-20th century.

Key features of Palladianism include: geometric forms such as cubes and spheres; a piano nobile (the grandest rooms with decorative windows placed on the first floor); a portico (a porch which forms the entrance of a building, ordained by columns and a triangular pediment above called the ‘prostyle’ if it projects from the building, ‘in antis’ if it recedes into the building behind); a Diocletian or thermal window (a semi-circular window divided into three openings by two vertical posts); Venetian windows (a window with three compartments, the central being the largest and arched while the two on the side are smaller and covered by a straight architrave).

During his Italian tours, Burlington had acquired several drawings of the buildings of Palladio, and his plan of the Chiswick House was largely derived from the famous Villa Capra ‘La Rotunda’, built near Vicenza. However, Burlington was not a mere copyist as his initiative in designing Chiswick House, although controlled by relentless reference to authority, was more intellectual as compared to the epoch of Palladianism in 18th century England. Burlington was also inspired by the design of Villa Foscari in Mira (near Venice). Palladio’s use of the imposing six-columned portico, with a wider central intercolumniation (classical technique derived from the architecture of Roman temples), was not employed by Burlington – at Chiswick, all the columns are equal.

As you approach Chiswick House from Burlington lane, you are welcomed by two gate- piers, which lead you to a square courtyard enclosed by a box hedge. The House, which stands to the north of this courtyard comprises of two floors: the ground, with a domestic and functional role, is cladded in Portland stone and carved with rustication; the upper, with a lavish setting for a ceremonial and entertainment role, is much taller with a rendered surface marked out in graphite. Taking precedent from the unimpeachable classic Roman pedigree the Pantheon, there is the lead-covered octagonal dome in the centre, flanked on each side by four chimney stacks.

One notable Neo-Palladian feature of the House is that the side elevations answer each other, but the entrance and back fronts do not. The visitor is first confronted by a traditional porticoed front, and the unusual garden front is marked by the three Venetian windows.

Burlington wanted to create a symbiosis between humans, nature, and the spirits. He was inspired by Roman-style houses, which involved beneficial gods and spirits in the lives of the occupants. For example, at the foot of the portico of the House you see statues of Palladio and Inigo Jones (regarded as the first populariser of the Palladian and Italianate style in England); the presiding ‘gods’ and busts of famous philosophers and generals in the Dome Saloon. Similarly, some of the ceilings are adorned by symbiotic paintings. For example, the Muse of Architecture in the Blue Velvet Room displays an allegorical figure, crowned with the capital of a column to represent Architecture, surrounded by cupids carrying drawing instruments. In these paintings, Burlington is perhaps trying to create the synergy between the attributes of the gods, the spirits and human endeavour and achievement.

Chiswick House in its almost 200 year history has gone through several transformations in its architecture, structure, and design, and has been used as a venue for art, media, and educational and cultural activities. For example, in 1966 the Beatles used the premises to record their new songs ‘Paperback Writer’ and ‘Rain’; and in 2009, Biffy Clyro used the portico as the setting for his music video ‘That Golden Rule’. Chiswick House is now a grade 1 listed building maintained by English Heritage. It is used as a museum which houses the Burlington collection, and the garden is open to the public.


Note: this essay has been edited for the website. 

Copyright 2012 Raphae Memon

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