19/05/2022Marble Hill Revived: West London Villa and Gardens Restored to Their Georgian Glory
- Marble Hill re-opens 21 May, free of charge
- Lost 18th-century garden reinstated, complete with ninepin bowling alley
- Restoration does justice to owner Henrietta Howard, too often reduced to her role as King George II’s mistress
On Saturday 21 May, the historic house at Marble Hill in west London will re-open, its opulent Georgian rooms restored by English Heritage – thanks to funding from the National Lottery – and with its lost pleasure garden, inspired by the poet Alexander Pope, reinstated.
Home to Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, Marble Hill is a rare example of a house built by and for a woman in Georgian England, and one of the last survivors of the 18th-century villas and gardens that once bordered this area of the Thames – the 'Hamptons' of its age. Howard created the neo-Palladian villa and landscape with the advice of fashionable connoisseurs, including the poet Alexander Pope, and Marble Hill was intended as an idyllic retreat from crowded 18th-century London. "There is a greater court now at Marble Hill than at Kensington", wrote Pope in 1735 and it was here that Henrietta Howard entertained many of the preeminent writers and wits of the age, including Pope, Horace Walpole, John Gay and Jonathan Swift.
In more recent decades, Marble Hill had lost a lot of its lustre: the historic house was rarely open and damp threatened the collection; within the garden, the 18th-century planting had been lost; and the wider park was far from being a rich and diverse habitat. The facilities across the much-loved public park – including the sports block and pitches – needed upgrading. Now, a major transformation by English Heritage, supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and The National Lottery Community Fund, has revived both the house and its 66-acre riverside parkland, with the local community at its centre.
Kate Mavor, English Heritage’s Chief Executive, said: "English Heritage’s restoration of Marble Hill has not only done justice to the house and gardens but to its owner, the remarkable Henrietta Howard. This summer we’re inviting local people, Londoners, and everyone to discover – and enjoy – one of the forgotten gems of Georgian England."
Stuart McLeod, Director England - London & South at The National Lottery Heritage Fund, said: "We are thrilled to celebrate the completion of works at Marble Hill. Thanks to money raised by National Lottery players, a £5million grant helped to restore this historically important 18th-century villa and pleasure gardens. With community at the heart of the restoration, this ambitious makeover ensures the house at Marble Hill and park will be enjoyed by visitors and its local community for many years to come."
Marble Hill’s house – "fair Howard’s elegant retreat" Horace Walpole
Dating from the 1720s, the house at Marble Hill is an important and relatively rare example of a house built for and by a woman in Georgian England. The villa is a textbook example of neo-Palladian architecture, the building style inspired by the Italian architect Palladio and based on classical principles. As part of the house’s restoration and following expert analysis, English Heritage has re-instated the paint scheme that existed during Henrietta’s lifetime in several of the interior spaces, including the Great Room. The charity has also conserved the fine collection of early Georgian paintings, including portraits of Howard’s circle, and has restored and re-created some of the house’s furniture including an intricate carved peacock motif table (peacocks being the symbol of the ancient Roman goddess Juno, protector of women, suggesting Howard as commissioner of the piece) and luxurious crimson silk wall hangings in her dressing room. Also on display in the house are a number of beautiful personal items belonging to Howard, from a Chinese lacquer screen bearing her family’s crest to her prized collection of Italian Paolo Panini paintings.
Marble Hill’s gardens and park
Immediately outside the house and leading down to the river, English Heritage has also reinstated key elements of Marble Hill’s once famed garden. Charles Bridgeman, later royal gardener to King George II, together with poet Alexander Pope, were both significant contributors to the design of an ‘Arcadian’ landscape for Henrietta Howard (Pope sketched designs on the back of his transcriptions of Homer’s Odyssey). Over the last three years, English Heritage’s team of gardeners and volunteers have reinstated this all-but-lost design, opening up previously inaccessible woodland areas, re-installing serpentine paths, re-planting the avenues of trees from the house to the river and thus re-creating the vista that the owner and her guests enjoyed. Howard’s ninepin bowling alley is also now restored and following its excavation, Marble Hill’s 18th-century garden grotto will also be transformed to its 18th-century appearance for visitors to explore. Across the wider park, biodiversity has been greatly improved with the planting of trees, flowers and shrubs as well as the establishment of wildflower meadows of which the flowering plants and delicate grasses are encouraging wildlife such as grasshoppers and butterflies to thrive.
Doing justice to Henrietta Howard
In 1714, Henrietta Howard was made Woman of the Bedchamber to Caroline, Princess of Wales. Soon afterwards she also became mistress to the Prince of Wales, later George II. The creation of Marble Hill was almost certainly made possible by a large gift to Howard from the Prince of Wales of stock, jewels, plate, mahogany and furniture. Yet, English Heritage’s new interpretation reframes her story as far more than simply the King’s mistress, exploring her abusive first marriage and the role deafness played in her life, her rise in Georgian society and the social circles she captivated. Marble Hill not only embodies Howard’s legacy as a patron of architecture and landscape gardening, but also stands as testament to a woman who fought hard for her independence and security.
And at the heart of the local community
English Heritage’s Marble Hill Revived project has been far more than the restoration of a historic house and landscape. As a public park much loved by local residents, the needs of the community have been at the heart of project. The sports pitches and changing facilities have been dramatically improved, the Coach House Café refurbished, and a new play area created. This has all been accompanied by a huge volunteer drive and an extensive programme of community events, bringing local people and Londoners back to the park through stories and themes, inspired by Henrietta Howard and her home.
Marble Hill Revived was made possible by a £3m investment from English Heritage and a £5m grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund and The National Lottery Community Fund.
Marble Hill will re-open to the public, five days a week (Wednesdays to Sundays), on 21 May. Entry to the house is free. For more information and to keep up-to-date, visit: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/marble-hill-house/