In architecture, the term grotesque comes from the Italian ‘grottesche’ meaning grottoes and refers to the light and fanciful style of decoration found within the excavated buildings of Ancient Rome. It consists of fantastic human and animal figures, scrolls, garlands and arabesques painted in a flat, two-dimensional manner. We are probably most familiar with grotesque gargoyles that adorn churches and cathedrals. The term grotesque can also refer to decorative walls and ceilings that are made up of these human and animal figures. In Chiswick House’s Summer Parlour, a room that has been closed to the public since we adapted the visitor route due to Covid-19 guidelines, we have a prime example of a grotesque ceiling. 

Originally built as a single-storey addition to the old Jacobean house in 1716 or 1717, what is now known as the Summer Parlour was redecorated in 1735 by William Kent. It was repurposed as a garden room for Lady Burlington, whose flower garden and aviary lay immediately to the east. The room is probably the only interior space at Chiswick House designed in its entirety by Kent. Its grotesque style ceiling is a particular highlight with figures, foliage and animal forms fancifully intertwined. 

Lady Burlington was a member of the Savile family, whose heraldic emblem of an owl appears in the corner panels of the ceiling. 

As part of Open House London Festival 2021, we are opening up the Summer Parlour to visitors to admire this weird and wonderful ceiling. Book a House ticket for 9-12 September and you can explore the Summer Parlour as part of your visit (Members go free but please reserve a space). One of our Visitor Experience team will be giving a talk about Kent’s grotesque ceiling and the history of the room. 

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