The lifestory outlined by the guide in the first room on the tour is so good it ought to be made into a film. The daughter of a Norfolk landowner, Henrietta Howard was orphaned by the age of twelve, her father having died in an unnecessary duel. She married a drunken womaniser, who gambled away their money more than once, and the pair cunningly sought to regain favour by joining the court of the Elector of Hanover just before Queen Anne died. Returning to London, Henrietta diplomatically escaped from her husband to spend a decade as the mistress of George II, before being elevated to the role of Countess of Suffolk. I've skipped over lots of good twists. But importantly for today's post, in 1724 she bought 66 acres of land by the Thames in Twickenham and built Marble Hill House. Somehow it's still there.
The surrounding park is always open, the house rather less so, being closed throughout the winter months. It was supposed to be closed for the whole of 2018 for conservation work, but tours quietly restarted a few months back, and I thought I'd better dash before everything shuts down again at the end of the month. Access is only via guided tour, and there aren't many of these, indeed turn up on a Saturday after 12 noon and you'll have missed them both. I turned up on a Sunday, when there are four, and wasn't surprised that an intense downpour had kept people away. On decent days they get thirty people looking round, but our tour didn't even muster half a dozen.
Photography is not allowed inside the house, which is why I'm illustrating this post with essentially the same exterior photo three times. The front and the back look quite similar, which is how things were in the early 18th century as the Palladian style gained favour. Chiswick House was the pioneer, and a fair few similar mansions were built along this stretch of the river. I could see the similarities... and would say that Chiswick is more stunning, but Marble Hill much more interesting.
Your experience here will be very much dependent on which guide you get - I could tell they're very different simply from encounters in the gift shop. To be fair, I was a little worried. But my tour proved to be a tour de force of facts and stories, delivered at a rattling pace, cramming in everything anyone might want to know about Henrietta's story and every item on display. Whilst most of the interior is original, most of the furnishings are not, but they do give an appropriate flavour of an elegant Georgian home. The beds come from the V&A, the busts are of famous neighbours, and the portraits include some of Henrietta even if they never hung here.
Downstairs looks good, but things really bling up when you ascend to the first floor, the piano nobile. At the heart of the building is the Great Room, a cubic saloon with lavishly gilded decoration and bedecked with fine art. English Heritage had to spend a lot of money to buy back the original five capricci paintings by Pannini, two of them from the British Rail Pension Fund. The handpainted Chinese wallpaper in the dining room is only a reproduction, but still got a wow. Elsewhere is a portrait of another of the house's residents who was also a mistress to another King George, because I told you the stories were good.
Just when you think you're done there's a trip to the second floor, via what looks like a minor servants' staircase but was in fact the sole access to another suite of rooms. The long gallery's not especially long, but contains yet more of the house's collection of Chinese porcelain. Further Chinoiserie includes a bequest of hand-painted mirrors, because English Heritage thought this would be an appropriate place to display them. And after your final circuit, exit down the stairs through the gift shop.
English Heritage have big plans - lottery-millions-worth of plans - to upgrade the house and especially the surrounding parkland. They want to relandscape by cutting back trees, reinstate the formal gardens leading down to the river and improve the legion of adjacent sports pitches. Their plans are so big that they've already had to scale back in the face of local opposition, but haven't scaled back enough that opposition has gone away. The next protest meeting, copiously advertised hereabouts, is at 7.30pm this Tuesday in St Mary's Church Hall.
There has been a long history of vocal local protest, which is the sole reason Marble Hill House is still here. In 1898 the Cunard family bought the house with the intention of demolishing it and turning over its estate to suburban development. But that would have destroyed the famous view from Richmond Hill of an elysian bend in the Thames, as painted by Turner, and this was to be prevented at all costs. Their raised voices led to the Richmond, Petersham and Ham Open Spaces Act 1902, then to the Richmond Hill (Preservation of View) Bill, and Cunard duly sold up. The weather yesterday was too poor to see the preserved view at its best, but here it is in the opposite direction from a bit further along the river.
If English Heritage's revised plans get through, regular guided tours of the house will cease at the end of 2019. The bonus is that Marble Hill House will be open five days a week, and entrance will be free of charge. But information will be imparted by "explainers" and light touch information boards rather than seventy minutes of expert commentary, and I'd be amazed if 2020's visitors departed similarly enriched. If you prefer the human touch there are two more weekends to go this year, plus the whole of next summer, to get your Henrietta Howard fix.