London: Chiswick House

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Yes, I’m back to historic homes again, but it is in the blog’s tagline after all, so I suppose there’s no escaping it.  We actually parked at Chiswick House back when we visited Hogarth’s House some years ago, but we didn’t go in because it was winter and only the gardens were open. (Even in the summer, the house is only open from Sundays-Wednesdays; perhaps they rent it out at weekends?)  The gardens are free to enter, but the house’ll cost ya £6.30, unless you’re an English Heritage member, or have a National Art Pass, in which case it’s free (because why else would I be going, right?).

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The house was built for the third Earl of Burlington (I’d never heard of him either) in the first half of the 18th century by William Kent, and is supposed to be a good example of neo-Palladianism, which means very little to me, other than that it is symmetrical, Georgian-y, and has a classical revival thing going on.  And there’s a lot of sphinxes.  Unusually bosomy sphinxes, which may have been appreciated by the “bachelor” Duke who later lived here.

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The house was cold and damp feeling inside, and didn’t allow photography, hence all the exterior shots.  They enforced this by having a stern woman clomping around the upstairs rooms, “fixing” the room guides after we apparently didn’t place them back in their slots exactly right, and just generally glaring silently at us. I was afraid to put a foot wrong.  There was no one working in the downstairs section of the house (except the admissions desk guy), but there wasn’t much else down there either, save for a video and some posters about the house.  There were a lot of corridors that just kept going, with some crumbling statues at the end of one, and a wine cellar in the basement, but there wasn’t really a whole lot to see.

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Even the upstairs rooms (accessed by a uneven winding stone staircase), which were decorated, still felt rather sparse and chilly.  Despite the elaborately painted ceilings and velvet wallpaper in many of the rooms, they felt empty, probably because most of them didn’t have much furniture.  Standing under the rotunda was cool, simply because it reached so high up, and I enjoyed some of the creepier saint paintings (there was a St. Lucy who had her eyes gouged out, only for them to “miraculously” grow back, so she was painted with her eyeballs on a plate.  Apparently some squeamish person a century or two ago had them painted out, but they were restored when the painting was cleaned), but that’s pretty much it.

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Fortunately for us, the sudden torrential downpour that had started up when we were in the house had subsided by the time we were finished, so we were able to look around the gardens.  It was a good thing, too, because the gardens were the best part of the experience.  Georgians did love their follies, and though this place didn’t have anything really cool like a grotto or a hedge maze (I mentioned the lack of a hedge maze to my boyfriend when we were there and he went, “No hedge maze!  Well, you’ll probably only give this place one star now.”), it did have a Greek temple, a waterfall, a bridge, and a bunch of random obelisks, to say nothing of the many awesome crumbling statues and busts (seriously unfortunate looking busts, like the one shown above the previous two paragraphs.  I’m not sure who it was supposed to be, but I think we can assume he was famous for his mind, rather than his looks.  Or they just caught the poor guy on a really bad day, and now he has to bear centuries of mockery).

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Unfortunately, you’re apparently only allowed in the temple on special occasions, so we could only gaze at it from afar (to be honest, it was a little tricky even doing that, as there were a lot of fences in this place.  Presumably to keep dogs out, as there were also a lot of dogs (with their owners, not just random strays or anything).  One of them was even wearing red long johns (they went over all four legs, I’ve never seen that before!)).

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But Mr. Derps-a-lot the lion, and crumbly nose dude probably made up for that.  Plus, you know, all the bosomy sphinxes that were apparently re-creations of the originals, which were made of lead that flaked off.  There was an original just-as-top-heavy sphinx inside the house, so we could see the difference.

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They had signs up telling us how great the camellias inside the conservatory were, so we also went to check those out.  I think most of them were on the turn, though there were a few nice individual flowers that hadn’t yet turned to brown wiltiness.  There’s a camellia plant inside that only exists there and in one place in New Zealand (if that’s the kind of thing that impresses you), and apparently some other rare specimens as well.  The conservatory was bombed during the war, and the collection was subsequently so neglected that everything was half dead in the ’80s, though they managed to revive it in the years since (or so they say; like I said, they were past their prime when we were there, so it was hard to tell whether they’d been brought back from the brink of death or not).

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We also learned inside that the Beatles had shot a couple music videos at Chiswick House, including in front of the Italian garden just outside the conservatory.  I tried to get my boyfriend to do his best Beatles pose next to one of the urns in the garden, but he wasn’t having it.  I think he was afraid of looking like Ringo.

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As far as Chiswick House as a whole goes, I have to say that this was the rare property where I enjoyed the gardens much more than the house.  Not as much as I would have enjoyed them had there been a hedge maze, but I liked that there were so many statues and outbuildings to discover around the property, and also that there wasn’t an unsmiling woman trailing me to make sure I didn’t touch anything (seriously, the lack of volunteers or other friendly people in the house was bizarre and off-putting).  I wouldn’t pay for this one, but the gardens are probably worth walking around if you live nearby and want a bit of exercise (which is clearly what many people do), however, none of it is worth any kind of special trip, even if you can justify stopping at Outsider Tart for a Snickers blondie as part of the excursion.  I won’t quite give it as low of a score as my boyfriend suggested, but it won’t be particularly high either.  2/5.

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7 comments

  1. Oh, the suspense! I was beginning to think you were just teasing us with all that talk of sphinxes and weren’t going to show one. Definitely looks like the best thing in the place.

    1. Sorry about that (though there are a few more pictures of them scattered throughout the post, you just have to enlarge them to make out the bosoms)! They were all over the place. I think it’s fair to assume the 3rd Earl was a breast man, even if his wife didn’t look particularly large-chested (I just checked).

  2. Ah, having gone back to look I see them. Reading on a small device and I guess I just thought they were lions or something! Very meticulous to go back and check out his wife. Mind you, she was probably chosen for him. Maybe his mistresses were more bosomy.

  3. I quite liked the portly guy with the pig-nose – though it probably wasn’t so piggish before it fell off. Too bad the staff-woman was such a grump. Honestly, at least pretend to be welcoming.

    1. I think he’d be unfortunate looking even with a less piggy nose though. Really it’s that hairstyle that does it. Random curls only at the front of your head, and short hair everywhere else is not a good look on anyone. Although I’m really not one to talk, as evidenced by my brief and ill-considered blonde dreadlocks phase.

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