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Reconstructing the Parkland at Marble Hill House

A garden designed by Alexander Pope?

Marble Hill, on the Thames west of Richmond, was one of several Palladian villas in this then fashionable rural area. The house was built between 1724 and 1729 by Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk (1689-1767) and sits within 27 hectares of parkland.

Both house and park are now part of the National Collection of historic properties administered by the English Heritage Trust (EHT), and the site is intensively used by local residents. The visitor facilities need improvement, so the EHT is applying to the Heritage Lottery Fund and hopefully over the next few years the site will see major developments including the restoration of the mid-18th century pleasure grounds around the house.

Aerial photograph of Marble Hill House and grounds with the River Thames in the foreground.
Marble Hill House and grounds with the Thames in the foreground. © Skyscan Balloon Photography, Historic England Photo Library

The history of the house and park

Henrietta Howard was mistress to the Prince of Wales, later George II. She was also a lady-in-waiting to the Princess of Wales and friendly with her circle of courtiers who included many of the most fashionable gentlemen of Georgian England.

The architect Colen Campbell, credited as a founder of the Georgian style, designed the house and Lord Herbert, later Earl of Pembroke and known as the ‘architect earl’, directed its construction. In a similar vein the pleasure grounds, also commenced in 1724, saw the involvement of both the famous landscape architect Charles Bridgeman and the poet Alexander Pope, a long standing friend of Henrietta, who may have had a hand in the design.

Henrietta’s will included a legal clause that ensured the estate, house and contents remained together. In 1824, however, it was divided and the contents dispersed, though the estate was later reunified by General Jonathan Peel, MP and brother of Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. Following his death in 1879 and that of his wife in 1887, the house lay empty for ten years and was eventually sold in 1898 to the Cunard family who planned to develop the site as a housing estate. This was opposed by local residents and in 1902 an Act of Parliament was passed to protect the view from Richmond Hill, in which Marble Hill was central.

Following its purchase by a group led by the London County Council, the park was opened to the public in 1903 with the house serving as a tea room, and throughout the 20th century further alterations to the park were made.

Detail of a map of Marble Hill from 1852
Detail of a map of Marble Hill House parkland thought to be from about 1752. © Reproduced with the kind permission of Norfolk Record Office MC184/10/1

Reconstructing the park

The current Historic England project, designed to support the bid and the planned works, comprises a wide range of investigation techniques including aerial photography and lidar mapping, analytical earthwork survey, coring and vegetation analysis and various geophysical techniques. Some excavation has also been undertaken and more is planned.

One of the main uncertainties in the history of Marble Hill is the extent of Pope’s influence on the gardens. The present development plan proposes the reconstruction of the pleasure grounds as they appeared on a map of about 1752. However there is also a design attributed to Pope and thought to date to about 1724. The question is, was the earlier plan just a draft or was it implemented and later remodelled? There are many similarities between the two plans, such as the avenues south of the house and to the east, the central lawn with semi-circular features to either side, and the arrangement of the quarters including their asymmetric southern extent. It is possible, however, that such large-scale features could have been copied from one design to another or even discussed on visits and incorporated into several designs.

Detail of a plan for the pleasure grounds at Marble Hill House, thought to be of about 1724.
Detail of a plan for the pleasure grounds thought to be of about 1724. © Reproduced with the kind permission of Norfolk Record Office MC184/10/3

However, some small-scale features, several revealed by the earthwork survey, suggest that Pope’s design may have been implemented. The width given for the cross walk on the 1724 plan (30 feet) is almost exactly that suggested by the earthwork evidence. At the eastern end of the cross walk, quarter-circular features to north and south may be visible in the earthworks, and some of the unexplained features to the west of the slope down from the terrace may relate to the walks that appear on the 1724 plan.

Perhaps the most significant discrepancy between the two plans is the westward extension of the garden; the 1724 plan shows the cross walk extending further west than in 1752 and ending in a semi-circular area, the focus of several walks and perhaps intended to house some sort of ‘eye-catcher’. The 1752 plan shows an octagonal feature in this area and though it appears on that plan to be south of the line of the cross walk, Historic England’s surveys all show the feature to have been directly in line. This could therefore be a remnant of the earlier layout, for it is difficult to see why otherwise it would have been sited here, at the bottom of a slope and not particularly prominent.

It therefore seems possible that when the land to the south was acquired in September 1724, allowing development of the whole sweep of ground to the Thames, the plans which had already been started may have been reconsidered. Perhaps it was this that prompted Pope and Bridgeman to visit at this time rather than it marking the start of their planning.

Later uses of the parkland

The aerial survey has revealed the extent of the park’s wartime use. Typically, most of West Meadow and the southern third of East Meadow were given over to allotments with the northern two thirds apparently ploughed for pasture. This use persisted for a surprisingly long time, with large areas of allotments surviving into the 1950s and the last area only being removed in the early 1960s. Despite the urgent need for home-grown food during the war, the whole park was not converted to allotments. Parts were kept for sport; the areas north and south of the house featured football pitches, tennis courts and perhaps cricket squares. No doubt this helped maintain morale and fitness, and kept local children occupied.

A black and white aerial photograph of the Marble Hill House park in the immediate Post War period.
The park in the immediate post war period. © detail from USAF LOC304/14 023 22-APR-1944 Historic England USAF Photography

This period also saw the construction of a curious feature in the north-east corner of the park, shown on an aerial photograph of 1946. It appears to consist of a metalled, perhaps concrete, surface measuring 33x25 metres, but the detail of the internal features is difficult to interpret. Four small, probably square, structures were evenly spaced along the northern side with others towards the south corners, and at the south centre was another structure, which analysis of the aerial photograph indicates was larger and taller. There are lighter patches within the centre which are reminiscent of drainage or wear. The feature can be seen on some wartime aerial photographs and had been removed by 1949. Its short lifespan and relatively quick removal after the war suggest it was associated with the conflict, but we are not entirely sure what it was for and would welcome any suggestions, particularly if anyone with a long memory can recall it.

Aerial view of a 'mystery feature' at Marble Hill House park, photogrphed in 1946
The mystery feature in 1946 © Details from RAF 106G/UK/1271 5274 23-MAR-1946
Aerial photograph of a mystery feature in the parkland at Marble Hill House, photographed in 1947.
The mystery feature in 1947. © RAF CPE/UK/2112 5228 29-MAY-1947 Historic England RAF Photography.

This article only touches on the work undertaken and on how combining a range of techniques has proved invaluable in unpicking the history of the park. We hope that our work will enhance the current development plans and that the local community will continue to enjoy Marble Hill for years to come.

About the author


 

Magnus Alexander

Magnus Alexander, MCIfA

Senior Investigator, Historic Places Investigation Team East

Magnus is based in Cambridge and is a landscape archaeologist and archaeological surveyor specialising in analytical earthwork survey. For the last few years he has been working on the gardens at Marble Hill, Wrest Park and Audley End but has worked on a wide range of other sites.

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