Sunday, 16 October 2011
Lord Henry of Chiswick Park
It’s only his aristocratic bearing that prompts me to give the famous – or so I learned – heron of Chiswick House’s fabulously restored gardens his title; to several folk passing over James Wyatt's beautiful 1788 central bridge, he’s well known as plain ‘Henry’: celebrated for sensing the arrival of his most regular feeder from the other end of the park, and for being fed by a Chinese lady with chopsticks. It was an unexpected bonus to an afternoon off; Friday was such a blue-sky day – and more autumnal than our recent heatwavy Indian summer – that I took a couple of hours out and cycled along the river, which usually means either to Chiswick or to Kew. This time I rolled up the drive of Lord Burlington's Palladian villa to be greeted by the guardian sphinxes and the facade shining in the sunlight.
Anyway, here’s Henry at closer quarters perched elegantly but somewhat perilously on a delicate branch of a fir tree overhanging the lake, intermittently and not so elegantly dropping his load into the water.
His local fame is only possible thanks to the fact that the grounds are open to all; the domesticated canine life was almost as interesting as the birds on the lake.
I can’t have walked around the grounds properly since the extensive English Heritage-advised restoration was completed in June of last year. I seem to remember the Inigo Jones gateway Burlington bought from that collector of collectors Hans Sloane and had transported to Chiswick under wraps; not so now.
And here, at last, after long fencing-off, is the completely renovated Victorian conservatory with its legendary collection of camellias. Joseph Paxton started here before going on to bigger things. Again, it all feels like part of a limited-admission stately ‘ome set-up, whereas it’s a facility for everyone who lives locally to drop in and use. They even have several of the original vases of coade stone.
I've only just learned about Eleanor Coade (1733–1821), who made her living flogging architectural decorations and garden ornaments to stately homes made from an artificial stone which was subsequently named after her. There's a fine river god at Ham House, and the above vase is the real thing, too; the replicas in the early 19th century Italian garden look equally splendid.
It remains dotted with heavily-scented roses still blooming in mid-October.
In another recently-renovated formal garden stands a replica of the Venus de'Medici on an intricately carved Doric column which I find a bit more interesting.
Lord Burlington's model was Hadrian's villa at Tivoli, from which he seems to have liberated several of his statues.
Burlington’s Ionic temple was one of the first buildings to be renovated, and even without its original surrounding orange trees it still looks handsome from several perspectives
not least those of the nearby spiders.
And so via the bridge, Henry and the south alleys back to the house
and bike. I must say the whole renovation has lifted the gardens to a new acme of free-to-all perfection. Some of the planting seems a bit questionable and virginal, but give it time. And the café, since it’s run by the impeccable Company of Cooks, livener-up of institutional fare from the Southbank Centre to the Royal Opera House, may be many folk’s first reason for coming here; and why not?