Visiting Chiswick House: Italian Villas & Muddy Riverbanks

Chriswick House, Cr-wikipedia

Chriswick House, Cr-wikipedia

just up the road from the riverfront at Chiswick in London lies Chiswick House and park, a defining moment in English palladian architecture.

The villa has long been enveloped by the encroaching suburbia, which has glued together the disparate parts of the urban metropolis over the last two centuries. The riverfront itself is ringed with modern brick houses and paved walkways. The mild winter weather produces a grey mist, shrouding the river and the few specks of islands that seem to drift and dissolve into the water with the mud. The scene is melancholy, drizzly and hopelessly English.

Just up the road, however, lies the park that the Earl of Burlington built in the 18th century. Its purpose is that of a retreat and there is certainly a certain bijou quality about it. In one sense, the villa appears as something of an expensive plaything, a garden replete with whimsical curiosities. On the other hand, the feeling that the project was very seriously conceived indeed is no less apparent.

The Earl’s thoughts on architecture had profound consequences for an entire century of building in Britain. The style, since known as English Palladianism, seems to have been the product of a combination: A re-appreciation of the work of 17-century architect Inigo Jones and impulses drawn from the grand tour.

The Earl travelled, in particular to Italy and was clearly impressed by the works of Italian architect Andrea Palladio and in particular the villa known as Villa Capra or la Rotonda. Chiswick House has often been taken, in fact, to be something of a copy of Palladio’s original work.

However, the comparison does not necessarily do Chiswick House any favours as far as the elevations are concerned. The architect William Kent who assisted the Earl was unable to avoid features that are both obvious and awkward.

While the Italian version is surmounted by a discreet and softly inclined dome, reminiscent of the Roman Pantheon, the dome of Chiswick house is raised on a drum, which fits poorly with the sloping roof. Odd peg-like chimneys disguised as obelisks dot the roof in a manner designed to recall ancient design but are not very effective in doing so. In borrowing so heavily from Palladio, Kent and Burlington also inherited the questionable assumption that Romans would adorn a private house with a temple front.

Though the architecture of the villa itself has its flaws, the English talent for gardening shines through in the arrangement of the elements found within the park. Curiously, the bulbous dome of the small ionic temple is much more successful than that of the villa by eliminating the cover of the structure to dome alone. The amount of classical details: bridges, obelisks, gateways are cautiously peppered across the park in a manner that succeeds in being subtle. Despite the Italianate nature of decoration, the overall impression comes off as idiosyncratically English.

The Earl of Burlington would go on to create several other architectural creations on the basis of Palladian and ancient models. In doing so was born the Burlington school, a movement that would dominate British architecture for decades.

Copyright-Joachim Moxon- ©

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