Chiswick House was built in the 1720s by Lord Burlington, a bright young thing who'd been inspired by the Palladian villas of northern Italy. He wanted a house to show off, but not to live in, and so commissioned a building the like of which London had never seen before. Porticos and Venetian windows, symmetrical steps and Roman pillars, all topped off with an octagonal dome. At Chiswick he would entertain the nobility, usually as part of his unofficial role as the country's chief patron to the Arts, and they would be duly inspired by the dazzling walls and ceilings within.
To set his pièce de résistance in context, Lord Burlington surrounded his house with stunning gardens, designed by a painter he bumped into in Italy while on his Grand Tour. William Kent created a naturalistic landscape, rather than the usual formal layout, dotted with evocative classical buildings and ancient statues, plus an ornamentalcanal at its heart softened to look like a river. Revolutionary for its time, it's generally accepted that Chiswick is the birthplace of the English Landscape Movement. It still puts your local park to shame.
Tumbling through history, the house and gardens became the responsibility of Middlesex County Council, and after WW2 the newly-formed Georgian Group were crucial in ensuring the bomb-damaged building wasn't pulled down. Today the house and gardens are jointly owned by the London borough of Hounslow and English Heritage, who've done a bloody good job in restoring both. Anyone can wander in and enjoy the gardens, and they do, but entrance to the house costs a potentially off-putting amount... unless you're an English Heritage member, or it's Open House weekend, in which case it's free.
Chiswick House is very much an upstairs downstairs building. Downstairs isn't much, all told, with a few passages off a central lobby leading to mostly empty rooms. Some contain a few heritage displayboards, and one room plays a couple of videos (which haven't changed since I was last here in 2010). Things only come alive when you locate the corkscrew staircase at the rear and climb to the first floor where, absolutely, the general decorative 'wow' is all around. It's easy to see how 18th century visitors would have been appropriately awestruck.
Upstairs includes a Green Velvet Room, a Blue Velvet Room and a Red Velvet Room (you'll know which is which), plus a central chamber lined by giant portraits beneath a coffered skylight. A lot of the intricate decoration is only carved wood, but gilded to look expensive, and applied to innumerable surfaces. Much of the artwork is original, which adds to the ambience, and you'll need the printed guides in each of the half dozen rooms to explain precisely what's what. But what you can't do is take photographs... which I have no problem with, but it means I can't show you what I saw.
It turned out photography's not actually banned per se, because on my visit a member of staff was showing round a scouting party armed with a big-lensed camera. Her job was to point out which items of furniture weren't allowed to appear in shot for copyright reasons ("Any of the twelve Roman busts except the one on a black plinth, thanks"), and to prevent them from snapping willy-nilly. I tried to keep out of their way, then went over to Seneca after they'd left but failed to spot quite what was so prohibitive about his replica marble head.
In good news, the (free) gardens are considerably more of a timespinner. Wandering the goosefoot paths and urn-scattered lawns is a treat, as is circling the lake. I always seem to manage to spot a heron whenever I'm here, which is nice. Continued perambulation will lead you to an Ionic Temple, or a tumbling waterfall (upon which I spotted two local schoolgirls swigging a Red Bull). A substantial number of dogs were being exercised, because if you lived in Chiswick you'd walk them here too. I also suspect rather a lot of the local au pairs bring their charges here to tire them out, because I don't believe W4 has quite that many teenage mums.
One must-see feature is the Conservatory, the largest glasshouse in the world when it was built, which was 1813. It's long and thin, almost 100m in length, with a famed botanical showcase all down one side. Chiswick's camellias arrived in 1828, a fashionable import from China, and some of the Duke of Devonshire's original specimens still thrive. This isn't the time of year to see them at their best, you'll need to come back in late February or March for that, but feel free to wander in from the Italian Garden and take a look whenever. Indeed, feel free to enjoy Chiswick's historic enclave at any time, and even if you don't do the house, do the gardens.