The River Thames wends it’s tortuous way across England from Thames Head in Gloucestershire until it reaches the southernmost part of the North Sea. It’s journey stretches for 215 miles. Finally the wide Thames Estuary which pours it’s contents into The North Sea is bordered on the north bank by the Essex coast and Southend on Sea and at its southern bank by the Kent coast, Sheerness and the entrance to the Medway.
The Thames from Richmond Hill. the view protected by an act of Parliament.
Along it’s course The Thames passes though some beautiful English countryside before it enters the Greater London area passing by Sunbury and on to Hampton , then Hampton Court, Kingston upon Thames, Twickenham and Richmond. At last it reaches the centre of London with its iconic landmarks. The Thames, from London along it’s whole length, has a long history of Iron Age villages, Roman habitation, Saxon towns, and mediaeval settlements, Tudor Palaces and Georgian and Victorian Villas. London itself began as a Roman settlement for trade, built at the nearest bridging point to the coast where they had their port called Ritupiae (Richborough). They wanted to penetrate the hinterland north of the Thames. Indeed the names Thames which was Celtic in origin but had it’s Roman equivalent (Tamesas recorded in Latin as Tamesis) and London (Londinium) come to us from Roman times.
Over the centuries the Thames outside of London has provided a beautiful Arcadian retreat for the wealthy, the famous, the aristocracy and the monarchy away from the stench and diseases prevalent in many periods of London’s history. They built palaces and grand houses and villas with adjoining estates and landscaped parks to relax and take their leisure in. Marble Hill House is a Palladian Villa built between 1724 and 1729, very close to Richmond upon Thames but on the northern bank of the Thames near Twickenham. It was built for George II’s mistress, Henrietta Howard.
To view Marble Hill House a good place to stand is on the Richmond side of the river, which provides a panoramic view, set amongst river bank reeds and vegetation It is just past Ham House, a superb example of a 17th century country mansion.
Ham House beside The Thames.
You can watch rowers exerting themselves in their eights, or coxless fours or their single sculls. Richmond Hill looms up ahead with a broad meadow stretching beneath it with cows grazing.An unusual rural sight you might think for London. To your left, across the Thames you see the remains of Orleans House built in 1710. Before you reach Richmond Town itself you will see Marble Hill House opposite you.
Marble Hill house is one of many villas built here in the 18th century. It was built between 1724 and 1729 by Henrietta Howard, mistress of George II. There was a strange arrangement made between her husband, Charles Howard, the younger son of the Earl of Suffolk, who was a wife beater and compulsive gambler and George II. Money passed hands and permission was given by Charles Howard for Henrietta to be the mistress of the then Prince of Wales who was later to become King. Henrietta did not get a good deal from this at first appearances. She went from a wife beater and compulsive gambler to George, who had a notoriously bad temper which he often vented on poor Henrietta. George’s official wife, Caroline of Asbach, was compliant with the arrangement. You can almost sense her relief that Henrietta took the brunt of her husband’s bad moods.
Marble Hill House from the lawn bordering the Thames.
However Henrietta was a survivor. After her husband died in1733 she didn’t look back. In 1735 she married the Hon. George Berkely, a member of Parliament and the son of the Earl of Berkely. She was granted permission to retire from court and from being a member of the bedchamber to the King. The King was generous and gave her a large financial settlement for her services. With this money she was able to build Marble Hill House. During her time at court she had made many friends amongst the writers, artists, politicians and intelligencia of the time. Henrietta’s friends included Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford (24 September 1717 – 2 March 1797). Walpole was an English art historian, man of letters, antiquarian and Whig politician. Apart from being famous for building Strawberry Hill, he is famous for his Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto. Along with the book, his literary reputation rests on his Letters, which are of significant social and political interest. He was the son of Sir Robert Walpole, and cousin of Admiral Lord Nelson. Henrietta, was also good friends with Alexander Pope(21 May 1688 – 30 May 1744) who was an 18th-century English poet, best known for his satirical verse and for his translation of Homer. He lived a mile away in a villa he had built beside the Thames. She would entertain not only Pope but Jonathan Swift (30 November 1667 – 19 October 1745). Swift was an Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer ,first for the Whigs, then for the Tories, poet and cleric who became Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin. He is remembered for works such as Gulliver's Travels, A Modest Proposal, A Journal to Stella, Drapier's Letters, The Battle of the Books, An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity, and A Tale of a Tub.
Henrietta also entertained the playwright John Gay (30 June 1685 – 4 December 1732). Gay was an English poet and dramatist and member of the Scriblerus Club. He is best remembered for The Beggar's Opera (1728), a ballad opera. The characters, including Captain Macheath and Polly Peachum, became household names.
These leading literary, political and artistic elite who Henrietta Howard was well acquainted with, were some of the leading lights of what was termed the Scriblerus Club.
The Scriblerus Club, or as their members were termed, the Scriblerians, consisted of a group of thinkers and writers who wanted to satirise the world and the politics of the time. A character who was named Martin Scriblerus was invented and the members wrote articles about, “every art and science,” under his name. They imagined him as a man who had dipped into every sphere of learning, but injudiciously. The members originally intended to preserve their anonymity through this device.
Some others who were members of the The Scriblerus Club and amongst the greatest wits of the age included, Lord Bollingbroke, The Bishop of Rochester, William Congreve, John Arbuthnot, and Joseph Addison. There were others. The only meetings of the whole group that were documented were between March and April 1714 at John Arbuthnot’s lodgings in St James’s Palace in Pall Mall.
Enthusiasm for the project waxed and waned amongst the group. John Gay went off to work in the embassy in Hanover for a while and the others were distracted from the project by other work too. When they did try to rekindle an interest in Martin Scriblerus, lack of enthusiasm by Gay and others made the project falter. However the ideas of the club had far reaching consequences.
Thomas Parnell coming over from Ireland was enthused by Alexander Pope for the principles of the Scriblerus Club and wrote Homers Battle of the Frogs and Mice… (1717) which used some of the ideas and philosophy promoted by the Sciblerians such as mock heroic verse and mock scholarly commentary. John Gay, although not enthusiastic about the club continuing wrote satirical farces in the spirit of the Scriblerians such as, The What d’ye Call It (1715) and the mock, Georgic Trivia (1716) and the farce ,Three Hours after Marriage(1717).Gays masterpiece, The Beggars Opera, is a further development of Scriblerus satire. Alexander Pope also said that Jonathen Swift’s , Gullivers Travels, originated from ideas discussed amongst the Scriblerians.
The satire promoted by the Scriblerus Club has its echoes in political satire today. They all had brilliant wit, and an edgy mix of antagonism and political subversiveness. Oliver Goldsmith and Samuel Johnson saw them as the high watermark of eighteenth century satire.
Henrietta died at Marble Hill House in 1767 at the age of seventy nine.
Other famous people who lived at Marble Hill House after Henrietta’s death included Mrs Fitzherbert, the mistress and illegal wife of George IV. In the 19th century it was the home to General Jonathen Peel, the brother of Sir Robert Peel the Prime Minister. Jonathen Peel was the Secretary of State for the War Department. Peel lived in the house even longer than Henrietta had from 1825 until his death in 1879. After his widow died it was sold to the Cunard family. They wanted to demolish the house and build houses on the site. Local residents got up a petition to stop this. In disgust the Cunard family sold the house to the local council who had raised donations from the people of Richmond and Twickenham.
In 1902 an act of parliament saved not only the house but the view from Richmond Hill which Marble Hill House is part of.
In 1902 an act of parliament saved not only the house but the view from Richmond Hill which Marble Hill House is part of.
The view from Richmond Hill comprises a quintessential view of England and because of the act of parliament,can never be destroyed. The local council still have ownership and guardianship of the grounds in which the house is situated but since 1986 the house has been looked after by English Heritage. It has been brought back to it’s full Georgian splendour. The house has been refurnished to create a sense of the period. Some original artefacts from the time of Henrietta Howard have been recovered including original paintings. These paintings include those by Giovanni Paolo Panini. There is a fine collection of Georgian paintings from the period including portraits of all the members of Henrietta Howard’s friends and circle, Hogarth, Hayman, Wilson, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Ramsay and Hudson.
The initial design for the house in the Palladian style was drawn by Colen Campbell, but probably Henrietta’s friend, Henry Herbert, the 9th Earl of Pembroke and Roger Morris, the architect, had a hand in it’s design and construction too. Along with the building of Chiswick House a few miles away, it sparked an interest in the Palladian style. Palladian architecture is a European style of architecture derived from and inspired by the designs of the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio (1508–1580). It drew ideas from classical Roman and Greek architecture and is uniform and symmetrical. If you visit Marble Hill House you will notice the geometrical design of the house. The back and the front are identical and overall view has a satisfying symmetry. Echoes of Marble Hill can be seen in civic buildings in Britain and America. The great estates of England owe a lot to Marble Hill House and also Chiswick House, which is a couple of miles from Marble Hill House. Chiswick House was designed by Lord Burlington and William Kent (1685–1748) doyens of the Palladian style in England. Georgiana Spencer was an infamous occupant of Chiswick House, using it for weekend parties set in a rural idyll away from London. The influence of the Palladian style and in particular the designs of Chiswick House and Marble Hill provided ideas for the construction of plantation buildings in the Southern United States.
Chiswick House, the weekend retreat of Georgiana Spencer.
The view from across the river is spectacular but it is important to visit the house and enter. A little way along the Kingston Road which is set back a little from the river; there is a left turn into Beaufort Road. This is at the entrance to Marble Hill Park. There is a small car park. The park is open to the public and people walk their dogs. As you approach the front door of this beautiful Palladian villa you notice that the front door is rather small, in fact no bigger than the front door to an ordinary suburban home. There is no grand entrance. There are two low arching walls at either extremity of the house that seem to gather those approaching towards this inauspicious entrance. The other thing that strikes you is that the door is closed and there is no sign to greet you. English Heritage like it like this. They want you to think that you are visiting it like somebody in the 18th century. You are an invited guest and you can obtain entrance by merely walking up to the door, knocking, turning the handle and walking straight in. Inside you are met by perfect classical symmetry. The entrance hall is vast. It reaches right up to the roof with a balustrade encircling the upper floors from which the upper rooms proceed. A grand staircase on either side gives you the choice of which way you want to ascend. The downstairs grand entrance continues across the whole width of the house to the other side of the building with an identical door on the other side. This door leads you out onto a broad stretch of green lawn that reaches down to the banks of the Thames. This is the side of the house you see from your walk on the other side of the Thames, walking from Ham House. The interior is spacious and light with all those paintings to contemplate.
As an aside, walking along the Thames opposite Marble Hill, amongst the reeds and vegetation, with fields and grazing cattle about you, contemplating the geese and waterfowl and noticing rowers and sailors, you are walking in the steps of many famous people throughout the centuries, some of them fictitious. Arthur Clennam, a major character in Charles Dickens novel Little Dorrit walked from the centre of London across Putney Heath and Richmond Park to the river here and took the ferry, still plying it’s way, across to the Marble Hill House side, to visit his friends the Meagles family.
Dickens himself often brought his family to Richmond for weekends away from the hustle and bustle of London. It was here too that the great Tudor Palace of Richmond was situated and where Elizabeth I died. From here too, Frank Churchill rode on horseback to visit his family at Highbury and Hartfield in Jane Austen’s Emma. Even nowadays, some of the grand villas and houses in and near Richmond are the weekend retreats of the aristocracy and famous music stars, such as Pete Townsend and Mick Jagger. Film stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Sienna Miller both own beautiful Georgian mansions at Petersham, an idyllic village on the Kingston side of Richmond next to the river.
Hogarth House where the Hogarth Press was begun by Virginia and Leonard Woolf.
Another famous resident of Richmond who lived not far from Marble Hill House was Virginia Woolf, who moved to Hogarth House in Paradise Road in 1915 after a bout of violent mental illness. She published her first novel that year called, The Voyage Out. She was thirty three years old and had actually been writing and rewriting The Voyage Out since she was twenty five.The book is a fascinating study of mental illness and the writing process. It took her eight years to bring it to the public. Richmond features in the novel, with some of the characters in the book living there, when not on board the ship, Melymbrosia or residing in a fictitious South American port. The main protagonist, Rachel Vinrace, is twenty five years old within the scope of the novel and has been brought up by spinster aunts in a large house in Richmond. It comprises all her life’s experiences at the start of the novel. She can be seen as a version of Virginia Woolf herself and there are some autobiographical elements in the book. The story is a sort of rite of passage for Rachel and also Virginia Woolf. Rachel plays Bach and Chopin on the piano, reads the Brontes and Hardy but mostly Cowper and Jane Austen. Early in the novel she expresses her views about Austen and especially Persuasion. She feels she could not live without Austen.
The view from Richmond Hill painted by Turner.
William Wordsworth visited Richmond and wrote a sonnet. In his sonnet “June 1820” (1820), he refers both to the nightingales for which Richmond Hill was once famous and are commemorated in the name "Nightingale Lane.”
"Fame tells of groves – from England far away –
Groves that inspire the Nightingale to trill
And modulate, with subtle reach of skill
Elsewhere unmatched, her ever-varying lay;
Such bold report I venture to gainsay:
For I have heard the quire of Richmond hill
Chanting, with indefatigable bill,
Strains that recalled to mind a distant day;
When, haply under shade of that same wood,
And scarcely conscious of the dashing oars
Plied steadily between those willowy shores,
The sweet-souled Poet of the Seasons stood –
Listening, and listening long, in rapturous mood,
Ye heavenly Birds! To your Progenitors."
An extract from Sir Walter Scott’s, Heart of Midlothian, describes the view passionately from Richmond Hill. It could almost be a description of the scene today
"A huge sea of verdure with crossing and interesting promonteries of massive and tufted groves,… tenanted by numberless flocks and herds, which seem to wander unrestrained, and unbounded, through rich pastures. The Thames, here turretted with villas and there garlanded with forests, moved on slowly and placidly, like the mighty monarch of the scene, to whom all its other beauties were accessories, and bore on his bosom a hundred barks and skiffs, whose white sails and gaily fluttering pennons gave life to the whole."
The Thames near Popes Grotto.
Alexander Pope , mentions the Thames at Richmond, in his most famous poem, The Rape of The Lock.
(The start of part 2)
NOT with more Glories, in th' Etherial Plain,
The Sun first rises o'er the purpled Main,
Than issuing forth, the Rival of his Beams
Lanch'd on the Bosom of the Silver Thames.
Fair Nymphs, and well-drest Youths around her shone,
But ev'ry Eye was fix'd on her alone.
On her white Breast a sparkling Cross she wore,
Which Jews might kiss, and Infidels adore.
Her lively Looks a sprightly Mind disclose,
Quick as her Eyes, and as unfix'd as those:
Favours to none, to all she Smiles extends,
Oft she rejects, but never once offends.
Bright as the Sun, her Eyes the Gazers strike,
And, like the sun, they shine on all alike.
Yet graceful Ease, and Sweetness void of Pride,
Might hide her Faults, if Belles had faults to hide:
If to her share some Female Errors fall,
Look on her Face, and you'll forget 'em all.