T.S. Eliot called April the ‘cruellest month’ and its infamous rain showers can certainly take their toll on our beautiful Grade I Listed Conservatory, which requires a lot of tender love and care and a robust maintenance programme to keep it water tight. The glorious glass pavilions and central rotunda have weathered many a storm; part of Chiswick House and Gardens Trust’s charitable work today is to protect the sum of its parts, so that it can stand for decades to come.
The Conservatory was commissioned by the 6th Duke of Devonshire, the great-grandson of Lord Burlington, and is home to our heritage camellia collection, which bloom marvelously every March. It was designed by Samuel Ware, who also built Burlington Arcade in Piccadilly, and was completed in 1813. At 300ft long, it was one of the earliest large glass houses to be built and thus a forerunner of Decimus Burton’s glass house at Kew and Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace. It is definitely one of the beloved icons of our Estate! The Conservatory was originally used for growing fruit – vines, peaches, figs and possibly pineapples in the end pavilions. As such, the building was divided into a series of compartments, which were heated to maintain different climates, so fruit could ripen successively instead of all at once. This endeavour took six coal-fired furnaces and used over 100 tons of coal a year!
Then, in 1828, the 6th Duke made a fashionable switch away from produce and introduced camellias. Purchasing them from the 1831 Chandler and Sons Plant Catalogue, which saw the first varieties of Camellia introduced to England. Subsequently, in 1855 he extensively modernised the Conservatory, replacing the heating system and switching from small panes of glass to large panels, which were only just appearing on the market.
The Conservatory needed, and still needs, constant maintenance. Even as early as 1850, Charles Edmonds (Head Gardener from 1838 – 1878) was expressing concern about its poor condition. By 1930 the Conservatory was in danger of collapse, owned then by Middlesex County Council, and in 1932/3 was substantially rebuilt by the firm of Messenger & Company; one of the last Messenger glass house constructions ever made. It was then damaged by bombs during World War II (including having one fall through the roof, which luckily did not explode) but patched up, between that time and its next repair in 1983, the Beatles visited and recorded ‘Paperback Writer’ in the Grounds, giving us this iconic shot:
The Conservatory then fell into ruin in the late 20th Century, until the International Camellia Society stepped in to save the camellias and helped pave the way to the Heritage Lottery Funded, restoration project in 2007 – 2010, which saw the building virtually dismantled, conserved and reassembled.
Today, the Conservatory, bar the occasional leak, is structurally sound but does generate a substantial repair and maintenance bill each year, including £1500 for the window cleaning alone! Please help us keep this historic structure standing tall and consider donating to Chiswick House and Gardens Trust: http://chiswickhouseandgardens.org.uk/donate/
With thanks to Gill Clegg for her research into the history of the Chiswick House Conservatory.
About The Author
I joined Chiswick House & Gardens in 2018 as Development Officer, funded by the National Lottery as part of a Resilient Heritage grant. I'm passionate about all things arts and heritage and have a Masters in International Cultural Heritage Management.