In 18th Century England, Twickenham was a small village on the north bank of the river Thames, a mile west of Richmond. Here, in the meadows and market gardens beside the river, it became fashionable to build luxurious villas, upstream from the stench and hurly burly of London, close to the royal residence at Hampton Court.
Marble Hill House was one of these villas.The house was built between 1724 and 1729 by Henrietta Howard, mistress of George II and later Countess of Suffolk. An initial design for the house was probably produced by Colen Campbell, but there is evidence that her friend Henry Herbert, 9th Earl of Pembroke and his protégé Roger Morris were the architect and builder respectively. The house is a very fine, very early example of the Palladian style of architecture. Together with Chiswick House being built at the same time a few miles away by Lord Burlington, it sparked an enthusiasm for Palladianism which became the ubiquitous ‘Georgian’ style. The echoes of Marble Hill can be found in the civic buildings of Britain and America, the great country estates of England and the plantation houses of the southern United States.
Henrietta Howard’s life was rich with incident, but punctuated with periods of considerable misery. Daughter of Baronet Henry Hobart, with a family seat at Blickling Hall, Norfolk, she was orphaned at an early age. After a disastrous marriage to violent, dissolute Charles Howard, the 3rd son of the Earl of Suffolk, she became the acknowledged mistress of the future King George II. Her character and personality was such that she commanded considerable respect and sympathy in court circles despite the invidiousness of her relationship with the King.
Henrietta’s fashionable friends included Alexander Pope, who had already built himself a villa by the Thames a mile away, Jonathan Swift and playwright John Gay. Henrietta would entertain them at Marble Hill House, and in this idyllic retreat far from the obligations of court life, we may still imagine the connoisseurs, poets, playwrights and former politicians charming their learned hostess and creating a centre of literary wit. She retired from court in 1733, and subsequently made a happy marriage with George Berkeley MP. Towards the end of her life she became close friends with Horace Walpole who was building the amazing Gothic revival villa, Strawberry Hill, the other side of Twickenham. She died at Marble Hill in 1767 aged seventy-nine. Her story has been the subject of a biography by Tracy Borman.
After some time the house was let to a succession of tenants, some of them significant 18th and 19th century personalties. Thus in the 1790’s it was occupied by Mrs Fitzherbert, mistress (and illegal wife) of George IV, then Prince of Wales. When the Prince was induced to to marry Princess Caroline of Brunswick, Mrs Fitzherbert moved to Twickenham. She did not remain long at Marble Hill and shortly after her departure in 1796 the house was again let to tenants.
In the nineteenth century it was the home of General Jonathan Peel, the brother of the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel. He was an MP and Secretary of State for the War Department. Peel’s ownership of Marble Hill lasted even longer than that of the Countess of Suffolk’s, extending from 1825 until his death in 1879.
Stripped of its contents Marble Hill House stood empty for ten years after the death of Peel’s widow. The Cunard family then bought it for housing development in 1898. Linking the house and its grounds as an integral part of the view from Richmond Hill, local residents mounted an opposition campaign against its destruction. In 1902 an Act of Parliament was passed to protect the view, and thus prevent development at Marble Hill. Thwarted, the Cunard family were persuaded to sell the estate. It was bought for public use by local council donations and private subscriptions and in 1903 the park opened under the care of the London County Council. With the emphasis on Marble Hill as an open public space, the house itself suffered until restoration work began in 1965 by the Greater London Council which brought it back to its former 18th century glory.
In 1986 English Heritage took over. They have re-furnished the house to recreate a sense of the period when the house was first built. The 18th century taste for Chinoiserie is well represented. Some original objects have been recovered including the original paintings in the Great Room by Giovanni Paolo Panini.
The house also has a fine collection of British paintings of the early Georgian era, including portraits of members of Mrs Howard’s circle and examples of the champions of British art, Hogarth, Hayman, Wilson and Lambert, as well as the great portraitists who succeeded them, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Ramsay and Hudson.
Marble Hill House remains today a fine memorial to a most attractive personality of the 18th century. Henrietta Howard was a woman of reason in the Age of Reason, an age which is reflected in the cool, rational, symmetrical exterior of the Palladian house, and by contrast, an interior enlivened with exuberant colour and exoticism.