Just under 300 years ago, one of the country’s earliest Neo-Palladian villas was built next to the Thames, and now, following extensive restoration work, it’s opening up to the public.
This is Marble Hill, built for Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, who is mostly famous for being the mistress of King George II, but was a remarkable woman in her own right at a time when women had hardly any rights at all. Born into decent wealth, she married badly to Charles Howard, who abused his wife while squandering her wealth on the gambling tables. Henrietta was no fool though, and to rebuild her fortunes, travelled to Hanover to ingratiate with the future George I, and she caught the eye of his son the future King George II.
As King, George II was mostly interested in Hanover, Handel, hunting and heavy women, and while Henrietta was rather on the thin side for the fashions of the time, she clearly caught the young prince’s eye, and later quite a bit of his wallet. Fortunately though, the prince was astute enough to bribe the husband to bugger off and to ensure his gifts went to her in person, so that her wastrel of a husband couldn’t squander them.
Seeking a country retreat, in 1724, Henrietta commissioned a very modern villa to be built next to the Thames, close to many of the leading social and artistic lights of the time.
This was to become Marble Hill.
Fortunately for Henrietta, her husband died in 1733, and she soon married George Berkeley. Having been abused by her first husband, the second was a transformation, and there are many letters in the archives showing how much they cared for and missed each other when one was away from Marble Hill.
After her death, Marble Hill passed through a number of owners, many of whom coveted the now very fashionable architecture it was designed in, but at the turn of the 20th-century, the house and grounds were acquired by the London County Council. The extensive grounds are now public parks and sports facilities, and in 1986, the whole lot was taken over by English Heritage. Since then, it’s been a bit of an oddity, being a modest-sized grand villa in the middle of sports grounds. It was also starting to fall into disrepair until in 2015, the Heritage Lottery Fund provided funding for restoration work.
And now, after seven years of work, the window shutters are ready to be pulled back and the doors opened to let the public inside.
Unusually for English Heritage, they’ve restored the interior to pretty much how it would have been when Henrietta lived here, researching the paints and designs that the building would have had. That means the rather gaudy late Victorian bling has been covered over in a new layer of paint on top of the many beneath, preserving while also hiding it from view.
It’s not that the later history is unimportant, it’s more that the house has to have a personality, and none was better to choose than Henrietta herself.
As you go around, there are audio tracks with her letters being read out to give a flavour of the lady, and rooms decorated with suitable furniture from the time she was alive. Almost nothing that can be provably traced to her ownership survives, so where they know, for example, a dining table had four chairs, they’ve brought out four suitable 17th-century chairs. And so on around the house.
A pair of appropriately enough, marble tables are grand, and even more so when you realise one is a modern replica to replace one that was lost.
In keeping with the times, husband and wife had separate bedrooms, and it’s clear that she got the best room, being about three times bigger than his. She also had the double bed, so we can be clear who snuck off to whose room at night.
A top floor gallery at the top of a very narrow stone staircase has been restored with loaned artworks and books, and the windows offer a fantastic view across the park. A lot of the restoration work also involved the local community, with, for example, young offenders learning trades in the house when restoring the grand staircase.
They’ve not just restored the house though, as a grand villa would have had fashionable gardens, and these have been restored to how they would have looked at the time as well – with four separate gardens around the house. An ice-well is in one, a modern replica of the original bowls can be found in another, flowers for the house and fruits for the table.
For much of its municipal ownership, Marble Hill house has been a bit of a sore thumb stuck in the middle of the public park that was never quite seeming to be in the right place and purpose. However, in reopening the house, there’s an aim to reconnect the grounds with the house. To that end, the restoration work included the sports facilities and the cafe, and the house will also be open for free to visitors to wander in.
Being free means that it won’t be forbidding and offputting to go inside, and the idea is that people can pop in whenever they want to soak up a bit of history, and then carry on walking the dog or kicking the ball around.
It’s a modest-sized building, three floors with a few grand rooms and several smaller, but coupled with the restored gardens, and that you’re only a short walk from Strawberry Hill or a ferry from Ham House, you can fill a day on a trip to Marble Hill.
Marble Hill reopens this weekend, and will be open for free from Wed to Sun every week.