Thursday, February 8, 2018

Marble Hill - a country estate on the banks of The Thames

Henrietta Howard,née Hobart, Countess of Suffolk, estranged from her husband, became the mistress of George II, before he ascended the throne, between the years 1718-1723. When George and Henrietta amicably agreed on a separation he gave her a substantial gift, which she used to buy land along the River Thames at Richmond, and upon it, to build a house that become a model, a prototype, for country houses all over Great Britain. Construction began in 1724.

Garden Front

Henrietta now turned to her friends, among whom were some of the most celebrated people of the time. For the layout of her park she turned to her neighbor and friend Alexander Pope, the most celebrated poet in England. He had designed his own property walking distance away, working together with Charles Bridgeman, who was later appointed Royal Gardener. For inspiration they turned to descriptions of the gardens of ancient Rome. For the design of the villa itself she turned to another close friend, Lord Henry Herbert, 9th Earl of Pembroke, sometimes called "the architect Earl". He worked closely with Colen Campbell, one of the most influential architects of his time, and the author of Vitruvius Britannicus. Campbell had developed similar designs, inspired by the 16th century Italian architect, Andrea Palladio. The design for Marble Hill made it into a later volume of his celebrated book. The villa, as built, followed closely the published plan below, save for the external stair, which was eliminated to reduce costs. The plan below left shows the ground level, with entry hall and stair to the right. The plan at the right shows the main upper level, the piano nobile, with the 24' square, 24' high Great Room . The plan in the center shows the upper level, with the long hall at the left.

The entry hall has a lavishly carved staircase in mahogany. Marble Hill was one of the earliest great houses in England to use mahogany so extensively.

The entry leads into the lower hall, a 24' square room, directly below the great room of the piano nobile. This square room with its four columns opens directly to the gardens facing the River Thames and served as the main informal social space of the villa. Friends arriving by boat would be greeted here and the room was often furnished as a dining room.

The Great Room above was the main formal room of the villa. Here Henrietta entertained a circle of friends that included some of the most celebrated names of the time and several of whom were her neighbors. In addition to Alexander Pope and Lord Herbert, Horace Walpole and Jonathan Swift were regular guests.

photo from

The garden front of the villa, basking in summer sunlight, gazes serenely down a lawn gently sloping towards the banks of The Thames.

An engraving from 1749 -

Like the villas of Palladio, which face towards the rivers and canals of the Veneto, the garden front of Marble Hill faces The Thames. Guests would regularly arrive from this direction, as travel from London to Richmond was faster and safer by boat than by the country roads, which could be muddy and frequented by highway robbers.

Stables dating from 1825

A view of The Thames at Marble Hill

Saturday, April 29, 2017

March Wanderings - Along the river Indre

The river Indre holds a beauty and charm that does not readily reveal itself. It wends its way though the shadows of the forest, breaking into rivulets and streams, then rejoining into glittering ponds. Dotted along its length watermills capture its small drops, transforming the gentle but incessant flow into a means for grinding flour, the base ingredient for our most basic food, bread, the staff of life.

Nameless chateaux and manor houses rub shoulders with troglodyte homes.

Delightful homes spanning many centuries and various degrees of modesty...

There is a very famous castle at Azay-le-Rideau, but having visited it several times before I chose to explore the surroundings instead. In the heart of the village is the church of Saint Symphorien. Parts of the facade retain stonework dating back to the 9th century. The church went through many phases of construction, with the most recent being from the 16th century.

Beyond Azay, following the Indre up-river I came to the village of Saché, a place that has attracted artists for many generations. Honoré de Balzac stayed here often as a guest of the owners of the Chateau de Saché.
Alexander Calder settled in Saché and made it his home for the last 13 years of his life.

The village has a small but delightfully muscular church.

The bicycle ride from Saumur to Azay-le-Rideau was more than I could accomplish as a round trip in one day. So I spontaneously decided to stay the night at a Bed & Breakfast I found just outside Azay. This allowed me two days to explore further up the river Indre, reaching Saché at my farthest point. Here are a few photos of the B&B at which I stayed.