Architecture Art Biography Local Interest

Mr Secretary Johnston’s House

If one had rowed up to Twickenham, when Marble Hill was completed in 1729, one would have seen a large classical style house facing the river, very close to Marble Hill. This house was originally known as Mr. Secretary Johnston’s House, but later known as Orleans House. James Johnston (1655-1737) had been Secretary for Scotland under William III.

Johnston had commissioned John James (c.1672-1746) to build the house, which was completed in 1710.  The house was a substantial two-storey brick building with mansard roof, rectangular windows and a central stone entrance surmounted by an arched window surrounded by carved Portland stone with floral decoration.  James had worked under Sir Christopher Wren at Hampton Court and the Royal Naval Hospital and had been responsible for rebuilding St, Mary’s, Twickenham in 1714.  One of his major commissions was St. George’s Hanover Square, the church, where Handel worshipped.  The house was illustrated in Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus published in 1715. None of the original house has survived.

Johnston had become friendly with George I during time he spent in Hanover and he needed a grand enough room to entertain royalty.  In 1716, he commissioned James Gibbs (1682-1754) to design the Octagon Room. Gibbs was a Catholic, who had originally gone to Rome to study for the priesthood in 1703, but decided that this vocation was not for him and decided to study architecture instead under a leading Baroque architect, Carlo Fontana and was thus one of the few architects of his generation who knew the continental Baroque at first hand.

The Octagon, which was completed in 1720 and was initially separate from the main house and was built for lavish entertaining, complete with wine cellar, which still exists.  The outstanding feature in the interior is the ornate plasterwork interior, created by two Swiss-born  plasterers, Guiseppe Artari and Giovanni Bagutti, who had also worked with Gibbs on other commissions including St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields. Gibbs’s first major commission, when he returned to this country in 1708 was St. Mary-le-Strand.  He also designed Sudbrook Park at Petersham for the Duke of Argyll.  It is recorded that in 1729 Queen Caroline and her children dined with Mrs. Johnston in the Octagon on dishes including venison, vermicelli soup, a chine of lamb, chicken with peaches, and capons with oysters. King George II and his consort’s country retreat was at Richmond Lodge which was demolished in 1770.

When Johnston died in 1737, his house was bought by George Morton Pitt and the house then became known as the Pitt House and while living there, he created a link room between the main house at the Octagon. George Pitt had been governor of a small fort on the outskirts of Madras, so he was known as Governor Pitt. He died in 1756 and Sir George Pocock, a distinguished naval officer, bought the house in 1764 and it remained in his family until 1837. His son, also George, inherited the house in 1792, but rarely lived there and preferred to let it

The most distinguished tenant was Louis Philippe, duc d’ Orleans who occupied the house from 1815 to 1817 and thereafter the house was known as Orleans House.  He later became King Louis-Philippe of France from 1830 to 1848, when he was deposed and died in exile at Claremont, Surrey.  In the meantime George Pocock, who had financial problems, sold the house to Alexander Murray MP who owned the house until his death in 1845 when it was bought by Lord Kilmorey who then sold it to Coutts Bank, the trustees of the Duc D’Aumale, son of the King Louis-Philippe.  The duc of D’Aumale lived there until 1871 when he returned to France to live at the chateau at Chantilly. While at Orleans House he made a number of changes including adding a library, a picture gallery and the extensive stabling.

The house passed through various hands being briefly a sports and social club. It was then bought by developers who proposed to demolish the house after the First World War.  To save some of the buildings, The Hon. Nellie Ionides bought the Octagon, the gallery and the stables, which she then gave to the Borough of Twickenham.  Today the Octagon, picture gallery and stables are owned by the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames and are regularly used for exhibitions.  In the last few years the stables have been converted to create a superb educational centre.  The rest of this large house was demolished in 1927.  However there are still two pieces of sculpture which belonged to Mr. Secretary Johnson, which have survived.  He had commissioned a sculptor John van Nost to make lead models of his two dogs and these were taken to the chateau at Chantilly by the duc d’Aumale.  The chateau is now a museum and these statues are still there today. Alexander Pope had celebrated them in two lines of poetry:

And Twick’nam such, which fairer scenes enrich
Grots, Statues, urns and Jo—n’s Dog and Bitch

John Moses

Writing for the Marble Hill Society