It’s time to go to Chiswick again, where the formal landscape garden has long been something of a Cinderella in the heritage world. Created in the early 18th century by the 3rd Earl of Burlington, with the assistance of William Kent-when Handel provided the music and Pope the bon mots at the Earl’s parties-the Palladian villa and 65-acre estate remained in the hands of the Dukes of Devonshire through the 18th and 19th centuries before being acquired by the local authority in 1929 (via a stint as a lunatic asylum in the 1890s).
Through much of the later 20th century, this pioneering formal landscape garden was treated as a local park and amenity, the proverbial dog-walkers’ paradise, where the statues, buildings, lawns, lakes and temples were treated more as a backdrop for picnicking than as an historic landscape of international importance. Standard park benches, ugly fences and Tarmac paths added to the atmosphere of municipal mediocrity.
Now, at long last, this Cinderella of a garden is being allowed to go to the ball. In 2005, Chiswick’s joint custodians, English Heritage and Hounslow Council no longer the Ugly Sisters of the story-put their heads and their wallets together to come up with a plan that would put the landscape back in good heart, by means of a huge restoration project overseen by a trust. They also needed to ensure the place had a viable commercial future as a venue for wedding receptions and corporate events, as there was no endowment or other visible means of support.
The result is a magnificently restored landscape garden that looks and feels neat, trim and cared for, and which will only improve over time. Some £12 million has been spent. In key areas near the villa, such as the western lawn, the processional avenue (lined with cedars, cypresses, urns and statues) and the exedra, there is a sense that a design whose outlines have long been blurred is now sharply in focus again.
The celebrated sphinxes are back on the gate piers at the front of the house, where young cedars of Lebanon have been replanted to re-create, over time, a dark canopy. The restored Regency camellia house and Italian Garden add a 19th-century dimension to the Georgian splendour elsewhere, and the effect of the replanting of some 1,600 trees across the estate will become apparent in coming years. Last, but not least, there is a smart new cafe.
There has been controversy along the way, of course. The plan to erect a semi-permanent marquee for revenue-generating events adjacent to the villa met with hostility from some parts of the heritage sector (notably the Georgian Group), and some ‘stakeholders’ were fearful that their wishes would be ignored. But all is well.
The vociferous dog-walkers were not only tamed, but became the most stalwart supporters of the restoration project, and criticism from the heritage lobby has subsided. Head gardener Fiona Crumley is clearly as good at PR as she is at horticulture, and has done more than anyone to get local people on side. Chiswick redux. Now we can all go to the ball.
Meanwhile, in academia, garden history as a subject has lurched into crisis. In March, two apparently unconnected decisions were made, to the effect that the UK’s two MA courses in garden history at Bristol and London Universities were both to be axed at the end of this academic year, victims of the current round of cost-cutting in the public sector.
As this column went to press, news came through that the Bristol course, at least, has been reprieved, which means there is one place remaining in this country where garden and landscape design, arguably our greatest contribution to the arts of the West, can be studied at a serious level.
Prof Tim Mowl at Bristol reports that 19 new students have already enrolled for next year.