The Georgian urns at Chiswick House & Gardens

Garden Tour Guide, June Ford-Crush shares her fascination with the 300-year-old urns found in Chiswick House & Gardens.

I began looking at the Chiswick urns closely when I became a Garden Tour Guide and had the opportunity to study them in great detail whilst volunteering to clean them! The urns date back to Lord Burlington’s time. There are various designs to look out for amongst the obelisks, sphinxes and statues inspired by his love of the neo-classical style he saw on his ‘Grand Tours’ of Italy.

The 300-year-old Chiswick urns are made from Bath stone (oolitic limestone comprising granular fragments of calcium carbonate) and were commissioned from Robert Parsons and Sons – stone carvers based in Bath. Many are Burlington’s own designs – for example at the entrance to the small courtyard there are two ‘squat urns’ which were sketched there by William Kent c1738. They are decorated with foliage around the circumference. This design can also be seen at the Classic Bridge.

There are many urns with the design of rising hart’s tongue fern leaves with a plain body rising to a Vitruvian scroll under a Greek key rim and an acanthus decorated lid. He ordered 27 of these and incredibly we still have all 27! They can all still be seen in the Gardens where they line the walk from the back of the House between the two champion Cedars of Lebanon trees to the Exedra interspersed with cypress trees.

There are smaller urns decorating the steps to the House both front and back and even some on top of the Summer Parlour.

In the Exedra there are four larger spherical urns on pedestals, both with swags and two different designs of tablets and labels with fluted lids and in the Italian Garden there are four large spherical urns decorated with wreaths.

On the steps leading to the conservatory are two large Coade stone vases which are in fact copies made in 1994 of the ones now in the Conservatory for safe keeping – possibly purchased by the 5th Duke of Devonshire and later placed in this Garden by his successor. They are copies of the two celebrated ancient vases: the Medici vase which is in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and the Athenian Borghese vase which is in the Louvre Museum Paris.

Inside the House is a pair of porphyry vases made from hard volcanic rock and collected by Lord Burlington on one of his ‘Grand Tours’ of Italy.

I have counted a total of 83 urns at Chiswick House & Gardens. A programme has been started to clean them all and, as you can imagine, this is painstaking but rewarding work.

Urn cleaning – Conor and June

There is further information in the archives showing an illustration from the Bute survey of 1884 (the Marquess of Bute was a tenant at that time) showing 6 urns made of three different designs, one pair of each, with decorated pedestals.  They were around the Doric column in the rose garden with their positions shown.

There is also a picture from that time showing the urns in place when Venus had disappeared from the top!

The rose garden

These urns were made of lead, and we do not have them anymore – documents show they went to Chatsworth in 1893 but only one survives there.

Another illustration from the same time shows the positions of the statues and urns in what they called ‘the broad walk’ – and these are the large urns which we still have in the same positions today in the Exedra.

Next time you are walking around the Gardens – look out for them and see if you can spot the different designs!

June Ford-Crush (June 2023)

Sources – David Jacques and Gillian Clegg