Chiswick House and Garden is a show off. Slightly cocky while also genuinely confident. It doesn’t need to be extravagant; it has everything it needs, to just the right extent, in just the right order.
Rows of statues in the lawns try to bring formality, but the free lakeside and the weathered stones undermine the attempt. The informality of the wooded walks are trapped between broad formal avenues, and never feel completely mysterious. It’s easy to feel lost, through not to get lost. You trip in to small plots that just slightly shift how you view.
The house is the heart of it, observing and slightly impenetrable. It believes it is what all other houses aspire to, and it’s right, exactly the size and shape it needs to be, but unique and still surprising however much you’ve read about its conception as the Palladian ideal that all should follow.
Chiswick House feels more like a pocket palace then a residence. While Lady Burlington dies in an upstairs bedroom there is no sense of homeliness. One of the original purposes was to house Lord Burlington’s collection, and it feels like it’s showing off the collection more than exhibiting the work. It’s a box of fondant fancies, the gilt and flock wallpaper luxurious cossets rooms which stand alone in their splendour, despite the lack of corridors. There are passages to join spaces, now bare, serviceable. There are rooms which seem to have more doors than there are places to lead to. One downstairs room is just all doors.
It feels like it was built in a gleeful conspiracy of exploration and it’s an astonishing survival. It’s overlaid with centuries of interventions so it’s impossible to tell what it was supposed to look like; the chances are it never looked as any one person envisaged. The cascade feels more controlled than the sketches indicate and you can’t tell if that’s a deliberate achievement, a failing of construction or a result of modern management. Not that it matters. The whole effect, lake parkland and house, catches you off-guard on your first visit and pleases the spirit thereafter.
It has a remarkable history, interwoven with all the finest of England’s alternative from William Kent recreating the landscape and creating the English imagination, and the Cavendish family who have owned most of England at one time or other. It is an owned landscape, not wild and free nor connected with the wider world; it is a retreat. But there is a sense of the past, and even if you don’t know the names of the occupants or the politics of Fox or Canning it an still feel like a place of political debate; it makes you contemplate.
Pope tells Burlington that he would
Load some vain church with old theatre state,
Turn arcs of triumph to a garden-gate
And while I wonder at the tone it’s hard to disagree as you leave through the archway you feel the same ambiguity, the creation of the rustic from the historic evoked in the urban, that doesn’t fool anyone for a second except we too become conspirators in the attempt.