Marble Hill. Engraving by Augustin Heckell

Marble Hill. Engraving by Augustin Heckell

Saturday 23rd October was the only day when I could possibly squeeze in a visit to Marble Hill in Twickenham. English Heritage would be closing most of its properties for the winter at the end of October and I really wanted to get there whilst Tracy Borman’s book was fresh in my mind. It was well worth it! No hold-ups on the way and plenty of parking available. I arrived just in time to join onto a guided tour. Sadly I did not get the chap’s name for he was excellent and I learnt a lot about Palladian architecture and cube shaped rooms etc. as well as reminding me of the interesting bits of the story of Henrietta, Countess of Suffolk. The tour lasted about an hour and then I went for a wander outside and down to the Thames towpath which provided an beautiful vista of Marble Hill.   

Marble Hill House: River Aspect

Marble Hill House: River Aspect

As you can see from the photos I took, the house has an almost identical double aspect, for in the 18th Century guests would have either arrived by river or road and both entrances would need to have been equally impressive. Of course the nicest way would have been by ferry – away from all the dust, mud, bumpy roads and likelihood of highwaymen. I could picture Henrietta watching out of the windows for the arrival of her guests! The river would have been very busy in the 18th Century with elegant courtiers travelling between St James’ Palace and Hampton Court as well as heavily laden barges pulled by dray horses plodding along the towpath.

Marble Hill: Park Aspect

Marble Hill: Park Aspect

Marble Hill is not at all pretentious and rather smaller than I had imagined especially so when I learnt how much Henrietta liked to collect porcelain in her later years. But its design was perfect for a mature single lady who liked to entertain. Guests would arrive in the Hall and be immediately aware of the allusion to 16th Century Venetian villas designed by Palladio. The  four central columns would be interpreted as the central court in a Roman house with central open-air square water basin or impluvium. However it was far more than just an architectural showpiece for it was furnished for dining and games. A fine mahogany staircase leads up to the Great Room where Mrs Howard would have held court with her intellectual admirers. On this, the piano nobile, guests would have paraded in their finery throughout the lavishly decorated bedchambers which led directly from the classicly ornamented ‘state room’. Conversation would flow, stimulated by the ‘Capriccio’ paintings, musical entertainment and dancing. Then the guests would have been invited downstairs to dine followed by an evening of cards or backgammon, port and walnuts. The picture below gives us an insight into how Henrietta’s parties may have looked! 

But how was it that the impoverished Mrs Howard end up wealthy enough to have such a beauty built for her? In 1723 at the height of the Prince of Wales attraction to her, Henrietta was granted £11,500 of stock in trust plus jewellery, furniture and furnishings. Her desire for complete freedom from her husband gave her the impetus to plan her own home on the banks of the Thames at Twickenham. In the short term these ideas needed to be kept quite secret as he would likely as not manage to jeopardise them. One of the trustees of the Prince’s settlement purchased the first eleven acres in 1724, adding a further fourteen acres in September to link it to the Richmond Road and down to the Thames. Roger Morris was engaged to to build from the plans of Henry Herbert, 9th Earl of Pembroke (1693-1750) and had completed the carcase by the September. The area had long been known as Marble Hill and had been used by market gardeners. Unfortunately the house then stood unfinished for more than three years whilst the Prince of Wales became King and rapidly lost interest in Henrietta which then meant that her husband, Charles Howard became unemployed and started harrassing her again. Building work resumed in 1728 and despite the house being finished in 1729, Queen Caroline would not allow Henrietta to relinquish her court duties. By 1734 she gained her freedom and by 1735 with a new husband in tow, together with her niece and nephew, Marble Hill became a family home. Pope observed in 1735, “There is a greater Court now at Marble Hill than in Kensington!”       

During the mid 18th Century Henrietta struck up a great friendship with Horace Walpole who was then developing Strawberry Hill nearby. He inspired her to make decorative and building changes at Marble Hill.

Marble Hill: Chinese Wallpaper

Marble Hill: Chinese Wallpaper

In particular she created a new dining room lined with Chinese paper in 1755. Despite there being no fragments of the original left, it has now been restored to its former glory . All the materials used are the same as in the 18th Century and the bird and flower pattern, popular during the 1750’s, was painted in watercolour, gouache and tempera.     

After the death of Henrietta in 1767 her will made it clear that she wanted the Marble Hill estate to remain intact and descend in trust through the Hobart family. Henrietta’s nephew John, 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire chose not to live there and decided to let the house. Fortunately as all the contents were to be kept intact a very detailed inventory was drawn up which of course was an essential record for the eventual resoration of the house! One of the most illustrious tenants, though only for a short while, was Mrs Fitzherbert, mistress of George IV when Prince of Wales. She is known to have spent time here in 1795, the year in which the prince was married to Caroline of Brunswick! It was the 5th Earl of Buckingham and his younger brother who in 1824 finally broke the entail and the house and contents were sold. At the turn of the 20th Century, fearing that the beautiful vista was about to be lost forever to suburban development, the residents of Twickenham and Richmond rallied together and persuaded local government bodies to take an active interest in the estate’s preservation. It finally passed to English Heritage in 1986.