Chiswick House Gardens in West London, designed by William Kent and Lord Burlington in the 1720s and 30s are of immense importance in the history of Western art and culture, as they are the birthplace of the English Landscape Movement that would eventually transform country house and park landscapes throughout Europe and North America.For the first time, a garden moved away from the straight lines and formality of Renaissance gardens in favour of natural curves and clusters and what was to become the Arcadian image of the English Garden can now be seen in landscapes from Villa Reale in Italy to Central Park, New York.
Over the past 300 years, the Gardens at Chiswick House have been transformed from a great nobleman’s estate to a public park. The different areas within the estate each embody a distinct historical period and combine to deliver a beautifully illustrated history of English garden design.
However, by the end of the 20th century there was a slow decline in the fortunes and the beauty of the Gardens as its vistas became overgrown and its paths struggled under the strain of over a million pairs of feet a year.
Funding shortages meant that while grass and hedges were cut, very little was done to maintain the trees and woodland. The vigorous regeneration of self sown trees, following the great storm in 1987, prevented sufficient light penetrating to the woodland floors, choking-out the ground flora and leaving bare ground and muddy patches.
In 2005, English Heritage and the London Borough of Hounslow formed the independent Chiswick House and Gardens Trust to oversee the regeneration of the Gardens with the aim of revealing the cultural and natural heritage of the site as well as improve the facilities for visitors.
Their ambition was to restore the special character of the Gardens, making them a source of beauty, inspiration and recreation for visitors from the local Chiswick community, London and across the world.
Part of this process included the restoration of the Conservatory, a Grade I listed hothouse, located north east of Chiswick House, and a spectacular landmark within the Gardens.
It had been initially designed by Samuel Ware for the sixth Duke of Devonshire in 1813, and had become famous for its large collection of camellias, a significant number dating from the original 1828 planting. In fact many people know it as the Camellia House rather than The Conservatory,
The camellia collection is probably the oldest in England (and perhaps outside China and Japan), it includes some extremely rare specimens, not least the ‘Middlemist Red’ – one of only two specimens in the world.
The 19th century superstructure had been rebuilt in the 1930s by Messenger and Co. while the back sheds behind the conservatory rear wall retain many elements of the original structure, including the historic hot air heating system.
However the conservatory had become unsafe for the general public and required major conservation, restoration and repair. Throughout the works, the camellia collection was carefully protected.
With the restoration complete, the public can now enjoy full access and the conservatory, which is also available to hire for private parties and other functions.
The image at the top of this article shows Head Gardener Fiona Crumley tending to the rare camellia. It blooms a deep pink – rather than red – for around a month each year.