This old house: excavations at Chiswick House
Chiswick House is a spectacular Grade I listed Palladian villa set within extensive landscaped grounds,…
Chiswick House is a spectacular Grade I listed Palladian villa set within extensive landscaped grounds, which are themselves widely accepted to be the birthplace of the English landscape movement. The restoration works currently taking place in the grounds have given archaeologists the first opportunity to investigate previously undisturbed parts of the site close to the 18th century villa.
What would these excavations uncover of the earlier buildings on the site, and does any evidence of the former garden designs remain? Maps and pictures can show us ground-plans and exterior facades at specific points in time. However, archaeology can uncover the missing details – how houses were built and then rebuilt, how they were serviced and supplied, and how both house and garden were constantly evolving in line with new owners, new money, and new taste.
A leafy oasis
The Chiswick Estate is a leafy oasis located in the London Borough of Hounslow, 15km to the west of central London, on the banks of the River Thames. The earliest building known on site was a Jacobean House, shown on the late 17th-century view of the estate produced by Kip and Knyff. This building dates from c.1610 and consisted of four ranges centred on an open courtyard, and was the existing building when the 1st Earl of Burlington acquired the estate in the late 17th century.
The Estate was inherited by Richard Boyle, the 3rd Earl of Burlington, in 1704. As befitting a man of his status, Lord Burlington went on two European Grand Tours (in 1714 and 1719) which fuelled his enthusiasm for the arts; he targeted his second Grand Tour towards the study of architecture, and particularly the work of the 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. In the mid-1720s, following a fire that had damaged the western range of the Jacobean House, Lord Burlington began his plans for the construction of a villa at Chiswick.
The villa was built adjacent to the Jacobean house and was eventually linked to it. As designed, the villa was never meant to exist in isolation and would always have needed ancillary buildings to fulfil some of its functions (for example, the Jacobean house contained the dining room). The villa would have been used as secondary accommodation, but a change in Lord Burlington’s political situation and standing meant that from 1733 Chiswick was elevated to his main seat of residence, and, consequently, any plans to demolish the Jacobean house were shelved. To the north-east of the Jacobean house there was a large L-shaped Service Building, constructed in the early 1680s, which contained the kitchen, servant’s hall, brewhouse and stabling, laundry and other functional rooms that were required for the smooth running of the house.
Work is now underway on site to restore the gardens and, at the same time, upgrade the site’s facilities. Part of this involves the construction of a replacement cafe building, less than 100m to the east of Chiswick House itself. The site chosen for the new cafe, a lawned area to the north, in part overlies the north-eastern range of the late 17th century service building. The site was chosen as a result of a desk-based assessment, including map regression, of the areas under consideration; this was followed by a series of small-scale archaeological evaluations in 2005. The granting of Scheduled Monument Consent required the archaeological excavation of the footprint of the cafe before the construction works began. The earlier evaluations had been hugely useful in guiding the architects and engineers in their design of a structure that would have a minimal impact on the surviving archaeological remains; even so, some excavation was inevitable.
Uncovering the Jacobean foundations
In the early summer of 2008, we excavated four trenches down to the base of the proposed foundation level: the main trench, covering the footprint of the cafe (600m); two drainage trenches (each 50m); and a trench investigating the garden features to the north of the service building (45m).
When we removed the topsoil it was immediately apparent that the archaeological remains survived extremely close to the surface – in some places just 10cm below lawn level. It was also obvious that the trench was full of archaeological features, ranging from garden planting to yard surfaces, boundary walls and buildings. As the last major demolition works were in the 1930s, there was also a great deal of building rubble spread over the site.
We were very fortunate, when excavating at Chiswick, to have a wealth of documentary evidence relating to the buildings, the landscape and the parkland as it existed at the time as well as to the proposed changes, all of which helped us in our understanding and dating of features as they were uncovered. The Estate views, such as that produced by Kip and Knyff in the late 17th century, were invaluable as guides to the development of the estate.
When the next survey of the estate was carried out in 1736 by John Rocque, the villa had been built and the other buildings altered – the fire-damaged western range of the Jacobean house can be clearly seen. There had also been dramatic changes to the garden design and layout, in part inspired by Lord Burlington’s landscape designer William Kent, who was a proponent of the more naturalistic ‘English style’ of landscape design.
Later surveys show how the landscape changed with successive owners of the estate. When Lord Burlington died in 1753, the property passed to the 4th Duke of Devonshire and remained in the Devonshire family until 1929. It was the 5th Duke who finally demolished the Jacobean House in 1788, adding flanking wings to Lord Burlington’s Villa to provide the functionality lost by the removal of the earlier building. In 1812, the 6th Duke extended the Chiswick Estate by buying the neighbouring 17th century Morton Hall Estate; he immediately demolished the main building to make way for new gardens, including an Italian Garden in front of a newly-constructed Conservatory.
Grand service quarters
We found a great deal of evidence for the various periods of work. In our main trench, the earliest features related to the 17th century use of the area. A fairly extensive and deep (0.10m) coal-rich yard surface was spread across the site. As the coal deposit contained no industrial waste material, it is likely the coal came from the domestic fires and was spread in the yard to create a functional surface in a primarily service area.
This yard surface pre-dates the construction of the L-shaped service building in 1682.
Designed by the architect Sir Thomas Fitch, this building contained a kitchen, bakehouse, brewhouse, wash house and laundry, along with dry and wet larders and a pastry room. The eastern range contained the stables (with stalls for nine horses) and a three-bay carriage house to the north. For a service building, it was quite grand and imposing, with a pedimented entrance front overlooking the gravel driveway and courtyard.
The service building was demolished in the early 1930s, and we found that the landscaping works following demolition had reduced the ground level to below the floor level of the buildings, leaving us with truncated archaeological deposits. Even so, we did uncover evidence for the building’s use as stabling: running down what would have been the centre of the stable, we excavated the remains of the main stall partition, which survives as a narrow linear strip of mortar with the impressions from a timber beam on the exposed surface. We also excavated a section of the drainage trench running along the back (western) wall of the stable, which would have been used when sluicing the stables clean. Although no in situ flooring survived, we did recover a large number of small paving bricks that, presumably, would have formed the hard-standing for the stables.
The rooms to the west of the stable were used as the laundry and washroom. In these we found evidence of water management, with rendered chutes through the walls and hearths for the coppers for boiling water for washing. To the north, there were brick water tanks associated with the use as the laundry, as well as a brick drainage sump with slate-bedded drains.
The northern end of this range was extended in the 18th century. Within the extension, we made one of our most surprising and unexpected discoveries. Excavating through a mortar bedding layer for a brick or tile floor revealed a vaulted brick structure approximately 3m wide; its length was unknown, as it continued beyond the edge of the excavation. There were two phases of vaulting, the earlier to the western side, the later to the east. By temporarily removing several bricks from the end blocking wall, we were able to take a photograph of the inside of the vault. In this, the original 18th century vaulted room can be seen in the background (with a blocked opening), with the later brick addition shown offset from the earlier vault alignment in the foreground. It is possible that this vaulted space provided cellarage for the brewhouse that was originally within the service building, and the modifications show that it continued to be used into the 19th century. It is not known when anyone last had access, although, as there is no record of its existence, it is unlikely that anyone has been into it since the building’s demolition in the early 1930s.
Into the garden
As hoped, we found evidence for the garden boundary and partition walls that were shown on the historic views of the site. These included the boundary wall separating Chiswick from the neighbouring Morton Hall Estate, and also walls that compartmentalised the garden. An unexpected wall was excavated at the northern side of the trench, cutting through the clinker yard surface. This curved 19th century brick garden wall had a brick-blocked opening at its eastern end, with the stepped footings of a semi-circular gatepost.
Further evidence for the design of the historic gardens was seen in the form of the excavated planting or garden beds. These steep-sided, flat-bottomed beds would have been on the Morton Hall side of the estate boundary wall, and on the late 17th century Kip and Knyff view this area is shown to have a bordered parterre garden. These beds were possibly part of this garden design, and therefore we have sampled the bed deposits for future analysis to discover their purpose.
We made our most exciting discovery in one of the small drainage trenches. Beneath the late 17th century service building we found two walls and a brick surface, probably from the detached service building or stable block for the Jacobean house. If this is the case, then it shows that this part of the Estate has always contained the buildings ancillary to the main estate house, and the new café will continue this long tradition.
The recent excavations at Chiswick House are a good example of how archaeology can confirm historical records, as well as fill in the gaps where no records exist – as in the case of the vault we discovered. It was exciting to trace the history of such an influential structure through its archaeology, and to consider the significance of the evidence we found, which was so responsible for influencing English architecture and landscape design. The current campaign to revitalise Chiswick House and Gardens will truly preserve one of England’s great architectural treasures.
Revitalising the gardens
Chiswick House is one of the finest neo-Palladian villas in England. Designed in the 1720s by the 3rd Earl of Burlington and set in gardens laid out by his protégé William Kent, it provided a setting for Burlington’s art collection and for select gatherings of his artistic circle.
The gardens at Chiswick House were once the most celebrated in England. A smooth lawn, described by John Watkins, English Heritage’s Head of Landscape and Gardens, as ‘the most influential lawn in the UK,’ slopes from the villa down to an artificial river. While this naturalistic style is now commonplace, its early appearance in 18th century Britain at Chiswick gives the garden its historic and cultural significance.
Located conveniently near the heart of London, the gardens have become a victim of their own success: attracting more than a million visitors a year has taken its toll. The Chiswick House and Gardens Trust is working with local groups and a number of project partners to revitalise the park and gardens. It will cost £12.1m to save them from an uncertain future, but a vigorous fundraising campaign has already won major support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage, the London Borough of Hounslow and a number of private donors.
With £1m still to be raised, the trust is close to reaching the target and is carrying out a public appeal to close the gap. By 2010, the gardens will be reborn, the statues and monuments preserved and much-improved amenities provided for everyone who visits this uniquely beautiful part of London.
To help with a donation, please visit the website on www.chgt.org.uk and click Donate Now.
Photography: All photos courtesy of English Heritage.