Parties Through the Ages
A short history of the parties and entertainment held at Chiswick House over the centuries.
Researched and written by local historian Gillian Clegg on behalf of Chiswick House and Gardens Trust. July 2009
Chiswick House was famous for its parties and some of the most sumptuous entertainments ever held in Britain took place in its house and gardens during the 18th and 19th centuries. Georgiana, 5th Duchess of Devonshire, doyen of the Whig party and charismatic leader of fashionable society preferred to give her parties at Chiswick rather than at her London home because it would be less 'hot and fatiguing' and not so limited as to numbers.
The London Chronicle in 1783 reported on a 'most elegant breakfast' given by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire at Burlington House, Chiswick, attended by the Prince of Wales and a select number of the nobility. 'The natural beauties of this delightful spot were enlivened on this occasion by the most pleasing decorations…the trees and shrubberies were hung with festoons of flowers, displayed in easy and unaffected variations. All the figures [statues] were ornamented with sashes of roses, intermingled with oranges and myrtles'. The party began at 1pm, tea, coffee, chocolate, fruit and ices were served and the guests left at 4pm.
It was at Chiswick too in 1800 that Georgiana held one of her most lavish entertainments. Lady Jerningham, a guest describes it thus: 'we accordingly found her [Georgiana] sitting with Mrs Fitzherbert by an urn. Several Bands of Musick were very well placed in the garden, so that as soon as you were out of hearing of one Band you began to catch the notes of another; thus harmony always met your ears…there is a Temple which was destin’d to be the Prince’s Entertainment and was very prettily decorated with flowers…there were about 20 covers and when we understood that the Duchess and these Fine People were in the Temple, we Goths took possession of the House where we found in every room a table spread with cold meats, fruit, ice and all sorts of wine'.
Georgiana's son the 6th Duke of Devonshire who owned Chiswick House between 1811-1858 held some magnificent fêtes in the gardens. In 1814 he entertained Emperor Alexander I of Russia, the King of Prussia, Marshall Blücher with 'many illustrious persons in attendance on these monarchs'. The Queen herself, Prince Albert and many other members of the Royal Family attended a fête in 1842.
Most celebrated of all, though, was the fête the duke held in June1844 in honour of the visit to Britain by Emperor Nicholas I of Russia. Apart from the Tsar, it was attended by the King of Saxony, Prince Albert and around 700 members of the principal noble families in the land. The royal cavalcade entered the gates of Chiswick House at five minutes to two, preceded by outriders in state liveries. On their arrival, the Imperial Standard was raised over the Summer Parlour and the Royal Standard over the Arcade and a 21-gun salute fired from a battery erected within the grounds. The bands of the Coldstream Guards and the Horse Guards simultaneously played the Russian national anthem.
After a tour round the house, the Tsar and 16 other important guests adjourned to the Summer Parlour which was fitted out like a 14th- century military pavilion where they dined off silver plate.
After the 'dejeuner', the royal party retired to the lawn. Here four giraffes were conspicuously on display and seem to have provided plenty of entertainment. According to an account in the Illustrated London News: '… the company dispersed in groups about the grounds – some few, among whom was the King of Saxony and his attendants, crossing the lake in boats manned by the duke’s watermen in their state liveries, for the purpose of inspecting the giraffes, which were on the opposite shore. Before the King’s arrival, however, one of these animals waded across the water and joined the company; an incident which amused the Royal party'.
After the death of the 6th Duke, his sister the dowager Lady Granville lived at Chiswick House for the last four years of her life and allowed the gardens to be used for various social entertainments. In 1862, her son Earl Granville celebrated the opening of the International Exhibition, of which he was Chairman, with a very grand event at Chiswick. It was reported in The Times for 2nd June '…the company began to arrive at three, and carriages continued to set down until nearly six o’clock. The company altogether numbered nearly 2,000 persons, and included their Royal Highnesses the Duchess of Cambridge and Princess Mary of Cambridge…' Various ambassadors attended as well as members of the aristocracy and notables such as William Makepeace Thackeray.
Lady Granville was succeeded at Chiswick by her niece, the dowager Lady Sutherland. She was a supporter of the military and political hero Guiseppe Garibaldi and the cause of Italian unification. Garibaldi was entertained for lunch at Chiswick House on 12th April 1864. He arrived in an open barouche to the sound of the band of the 2nd Life Guards playing the Garibaldi hymn – they played it again when he left. He was escorted to the centre salon to meet the company and was then taken to the 'summer dining room' where covers were laid for 20 people.
The Prince of Wales was the next tenant of Chiswick House. He used it as both a summer nursery for the children and a place where he could hold outdoor entertainments; his London home, Marlborough House, having only a small garden and his estate at Sandringham being too far away from town. Thanks to reports in The Times newspaper, we know about the brilliant garden parties the Prince held at Chiswick. Apart from his first year there, he normally held at least one party a year and two in each of the years 1870-1873. The parties were variously called dejeuners, breakfasts or garden parties; they started in the late afternoon and finished mid evening. Everybody who was anybody attended and the Queen sometimes put in an appearance. She travelled to Chiswick from Windsor by a special train and was escorted to and from the station by a detachment of the 1st Life Guards. However, a letter to her eldest daughter in July 1875 suggests she was not overly enamoured: 'You say that Bertie’s breakfast must have been charming. I myself think them dreadful and very fatiguing bores, walking and standing about and seeing fresh faces in every direction – but it doesn’t last long and pleases people and so there it is and easily done'.
The Prince’s most famous party was one given in honour of the Shah of Persia who visited England in 1873. The party on the 28th June was recorded thus in The Times: 'On Saturday afternoon the Shah went to the Prince of Wales’s Garden Party at Chiswick. From Buckingham Palace to the gates of the Duke of Devonshire’s beautiful villa the route was crowded. Her Majesty honoured the party with her presence, the gardens were in their fullest beauty and the long list which we publish will show that “everybody” was there'. (The list filled nearly three columns of the paper.)
'A Royal Garden party at Chiswick' was the subject of a very large picture by Louis William Desanges. Measuring 16ft by 7ft, it included 300 figures with Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales taking centre stage. The Prince and his family sat for Desanges in 1875 but the painting was not ready for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1876. It was exhibited at the premises of the Autotype Company in 1879. But, sadly in November of that year it was completely destroyed when escaping gas caused a massive fire. There is, though, an autotype (an early form of photographic reproduction) version of it in Chiswick House.
Gillian Clegg, July 2009