An A to Z of the Chiswick House Archives: I is for the Italian Garden

In the latest in our A-Z series, volunteer archivist Cluny Wells explores the origins and influences behind our Malmaison-inspired formal gardens found in front of the Conservatory.

The Duke’s new gardens

In 1811 William Spencer George Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, known to his family as ‘Hart’, came into his inheritance.

As the new owner of Chiswick House, he bought the next-door property Moreton Hall, which by 1812 was described as ‘dated and in need of repair’. As the Duke was keen to extend his gardens, he demolished the house and incorporated the 18-acre grounds into his existing land. He instructed a Conservatory and a formal garden, now known as the Italian Garden, to be built.

Taking inspiration from Empress Josephine

The Conservatory was designed by Samuel Ware, but the Duke chose instead a young garden designer Lewis Kennedy to design him a version of an ’Italian Garden’ to lie in front of Ware’s Conservatory. Kennedy’s grandfather, also named Lewis Kennedy, had supplied plants to the Duke’s great grandfather Lord Burlington, and Kennedy (junior) had previously worked for the Empress Josephine, and was influenced by her rose garden at Malmaison, outside Paris.

Kennedy designed the new garden in a semi-circular shape with its width corresponding to the length of the Conservatory (91 metres approximately). It was to be a formal garden with geometric shaped ‘parterres’ surrounded by an informal planted bed.

Above is an example of one of Kennedy’s initial designs for the back of the Italian Garden proposed by him in his Notitiae (of bound green vellum) for Chiswick. This was not his final design for this view. Kennedy’s designs were implemented, having been inspired by the Empress Josephine’s Malmaison rose garden.

Tulips in the Italian Garden, image by Gregor Petrikovic

The revival of formal gardens

This Italian Garden was one of the earliest revivals of the formal gardens of the 17th century, with flower filled rectangular beds. By 1814, formal gardens were gaining in popularity again, probably because people wanted to show off new plants being brought into Britain.

The ‘Italian’ style of the new formal garden was characterised by the use of terraces, sometimes supported by parapet walls on which occasional vases were placed. Around this time the Orangery, built originally in Lord Burlington’s time, was converted into a roofless arcade, which formed an archway and view between the old (Burlington’s) and the Duke’s new gardens.

In 1853 Charles M’Intosh described the Italian Garden as follows:

The flower garden is of a semicircular form, placed in front of a splendid conservatory, elevated upon a well proportioned terrace base…The greater part of the beds are cut out on grass, and bordered with gravel walks. The two central or principal parterres are on gravel, with box edgings. The squares along the sides of the outer walks, as well as two within the parterres, are pedestals, on which excellent specimens of sculpture are placed; and behind those, by the side of the semicircular walk are three rows of standard roses.



The survey plan above, by M’Intosh, shows the planting in 1853, which had only slightly changed from Kennedy’s in the preceding 41 years. (For the purposes of the key the letter s should show in the top left hand triangular shaped bed.)

Key to the planting:

a. Border with tufa; with alpine and herbaceous plants, Cotoneaster microphylla, Alyssum sempervirens, edged with double row of Gentiana acaulis

b. Terrace bank

c. Flight of steps with vases on pedestals

d. Busts on terms

e. Row of equally spaced ancient urns

f. Row of Iberis sempervirens

g. Row of Alyssum saxatile

h. Three rows of China roses

i. Row of common white lilies

j. Row of hollyhocks

k. Festoons of climbing roses

l. Plantation chiefly of evergreens

m. Beds cut out of grass

n. Beds separated by gravel walks

o. Some of the larger and central beds raised a foot or two above the rest

p. Row of standard Robinia inermis

q. Row of standard roses

r. Specimen trees, such as a cork tree, Salisburia, and some scarlet thorns

s. ‘Cluster of good climbing roses on poles, and a remarkable standard rose, with a clear stem nearly 18ft in height, and with a drooping head’

t. A few small sculptured figures on pedestals, and some plain vases

u. Row of standard Robinia inermis

Charles Edmonds was the Head Gardener at Chiswick from 1838 to 1878, and he maintained Lewis Kennedy’s design for more than 40 years. He was one of the first gardeners to experiment with massed planting of annuals in some of the beds. Edmonds was described as being “not an innovator, but a safe and sound practitioner and advisor”. He remained at Chiswick until the end of the Prince of Wales’ tenancy.

Head Gardener Michael May, from 1880, did some rearranging of the Italian Garden. His reasons for change were practical ones as he wanted to use a new invention, the lawnmower, and this called for straighter lines around the beds. The planting in the beds was to be simplified and mixed, rather than massed as in Edmond’s time, and to be according to size, i.e. larger plants in the central and largest beds, smaller ones in the outer and smaller beds. It seems that May’s alterations were maintained for decades.

In the Gardeners’ Chronicle, 9 May 1936, there was a very pleasing item about the Italian Garden, saying that it:

 Presented a very attractive picture, ……that the fine Italian Garden has been preserved

Image by Liz Pepperell, 2009, showing the proposals for the Rose Shrubbery during the Restoration.

The Italian Garden of 2023

Today the Italian Garden is being developed in line with the planting information we have from Michael May’s tenure, when the garden was simplified and the planting more sustainable. Whilst taking the historic as a guide, the planting has a high nature value.

Birds eye view of the Italian Garden by LUMIERE


Article: The Italian Garden at Chiswick, Jan Woudstra


Chiswick House and Gardens, Gillian Clegg

The Book of the Garden, Charles M’Intosh

Chiswick House and Gardens, David Jacques


Thanks to Head of Gardens, Rosie Fyles for her input, Liz Pepperell, Botanic Illustrator, for her beautiful illustration and all our volunteers for helping keep the Italian Gardens looking neat and tidy all year round.

More examples of Liz Pepperell’s work can be found through her agency: