The Beauty of Symmetry
By Lisa Booth
In Chiswick, West London, England, on Burlington Lane, resides an 18th-century neo-palladian villa called Chiswick House; it is one of the last of its kind in London. The building itself is colored in shades of whites, grays, and creams. It consists of geometric shapes and angles. If you were to split the main villa down the middle, it would be nearly symmetrical. Most of the garden grounds surrounding the property are symmetrical as well, with plants and trees mirroring each other.
Chiswick House was inherited by Richard Boyle, the 3rd Earl of Burlington, in 1715. The neo-palladian villa began construction in 1726 and was completed three years later, after intense renovation.
As I walk along the corridors of the white and golden exterior, I try to imagine what it would have been like to have lived in the manor during that time. I try to imagine the grandeur of being waited on and served and living in rooms of white and gold, and I just can’t picture it. Growing up in a low-middle income family in a small town in Connecticut, with only my mother and younger sister, I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have lived the way the wealthy Earls, Dukes, and Duchesses did during the 17th and 18th centuries in England. I had the opportunity to study abroad in London, which in itself still surprises me because of my circumstances. Even though I can see the living space that these people inhabited and I read about their lives, I still can’t piece the picture together in my head the way it probably was. My mind instead creates dreamlike images, romanticizing the lives they may have led, when in reality it was probably a lot less pleasant than what my imagination conjures up. While Chiswick House is a beautiful piece of architecture with an antiquated charm, the history is a lot darker than the light creams and whites make it seem.
In 1753, Richard Boyle died, followed subsequently by his only remaining daughter and his wife, all within a five-year span. Their deaths changed the lineage of ownership of the Chiswick House from Earl of Burlington to Duke of Devonshire — from Boyle to Cavendish. Boyle’s son-in-law inherited the manor and then passed it down to his son.
In the Chiswick house, tall, arched windows line the hallways and marble statues and busts come in pairs. They stand straight against the walls and in corners, continuing the symmetrical theme throughout the property. The European Palladian architecture that the manor replicates was inspired by Andrea Palladio, whose work focused on symmetry, as well as the perspective and values of the formal classical architecture of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The manor still retains those architectural ideals despite its many renovations after Boyle’s death.
I think about physical and intangible change: the change you notice and the change that happens subtly. In my own family, the deterioration of my parents’ marriage and my mother’s new romantic prospects were unexpected. Her new boyfriend kept appearing wherever we went; he always wanted it to be the weekend I went to see my father so he could have my mother all to himself. It all happened before my very eyes, yet I couldn’t see it. My family was still my family and the same rules somewhat applied, but life was different. I had a stepfather who wanted to get rid of me and a new sibling on the way, and the changes that were occurring in my life were anything but subtle.
Boyle’s grandson, the 5th Duke of Devonshire, and his wife, Duchess Georgiana, inherited the property in 1764. Together, the pair renovated the property to hold lavish parties. Georgiana loved the villa and often used the property as an escape to get away and rejuvenate. In 1813, almost 50 years later, the next generation, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, commissioned more renovations to the property. He had a 300-foot conservatory built with a geometric garden built around it.
The Chiswick conservatory is light and made almost completely of glass. The windows are narrow panels that align in rows all around. Like the manor, the conservatory is also symmetrical and replicates the same geometric shapes that are present in the house. I walk through the bright cream-colored space and take in the white frames juxtaposed with the translucent glass. The conservatory is a popular wedding venue, the crisp white and clarity surrounded by the rich greens of the garden making it a lovely place to say “I do.”
I wonder what my own wedding would be like if I were to have one. Would I want a big white wedding? Would I want to get married in a beautiful place surrounded by friends and family? I don’t know. I don’t think about it often, but something about being in this place, listening to couples talk about the amazing pictures that they’ll have makes me think about the what ifs. My mind creates images of a white and warm beaming sun and an unidentifiable man who I could maybe spend forever with and my father walking me down the aisle. I think for a moment that that would be nice, but then the clouds darken and erase any thought of it and the subsequent rain washes it away. I haven’t spoken to my father in years. My thoughts shift and I begin to wonder what the 6th Duke used the conservatory for in the past. I can only imagine that if he had something this intricate and pristine, he’d want it to be seen.
In the 1820s, the 6th Duke held many lavish parties and entertained royalty at his Chiswick home. Queen Victoria, two Russian Tsars, and the kings of Prussia and Saxony were entreated to the beauty of the villa and the exotic animals that the Duke kept. Some of the animals were an Indian elephant named Sadi, as well as an Indian bull, a Neapolitan pig, a Peruvian llama, elks, emus, and even kangaroos. It is believed that the Duke collected animals to keep him company, as he never married. He was known as the “Bachelor” Duke.
I wonder, with all my insecurities and dysfunctional relationships, especially with my absent father and insecure stepfather, if I’ll be the bachelor in my family — not of my own volition, but because I don’t know what a healthy relationship looks like.
The 65 acres of Chiswick gardens follow the same patterns of symmetry and replication of Ancient Greek and Roman styles as the villa. There is a classical stone bridge that connects the two pieces of land divided by the lake. The channel is narrow like a river, its edges altered to give the body of water a river-like illusion. It’s calm and peaceful. The grounds are alive with nature, birds chirping, squirrels running up trees, and fish swimming just below the surface of the water. I’ve come into contact with very few people. It’s a serene atmosphere, completely quiet except for the little creatures scuttling around and the whistle of the wind. I am alone with my thoughts. With so much land, I imagine that one could feel completely isolated if they lived here alone. I walk along the pathways and take in all the nature and landmarks around me ranging from ponds and fountains to monuments and temples. It’s all beautiful — from the lake to the cascades and everything in between, but I can’t help but think that this would’ve been nice to enjoy with a friend.
I often felt alone growing up with an absentee father who was only sometimes present and a mother who had a new baby. My life didn’t really intersect with my family during the two years that my mother and stepfather were together. I would watch them be a family when they passed the baby to one another and when they all slept together in the same room, in the same bed. They were their own little unit and I was a reminder of the lives my parents led before their significant others. Through their words and actions, I knew that both of my parents’ partners wanted me gone. The feelings of being unwanted still haunt me and play a role in my relationships with others.
During the years 1892–1929, the property was leased to the Tuke family to be used as a private asylum.
Walking around the Chiswick property, learning of all its history and seeing everything from the crystal chandeliers to the Ionic Temple in the gardens, I’m taken back in time. I think about the forgotten history of Chiswick House. Not many people are aware that Chiswick was an asylum, mainly because the wings where the patients lived were demolished in the 1950s by the Ministry of Works. But that isn’t all that was forgotten. One of the wings that was added during one of the property’s many renovations was destroyed by a V2 rocket in 1944, during WWII, and much of the ’50s were spent restoring the property to its former glory.
I think about this physical loss of land and history at this time and can’t help but think about all the destruction and losses around the world. WWII was a time of great suffering and fear. People were trying to escape the inescapable war. My grandmother, who was one of the only people who I was close to and has since passed away, was in Germany during WWII. She sought refuge at a convent, seeking asylum from all the devastation raining down on the world around her. My grandmother lost her home in Ukraine, found herself in Germany, and made her way to America, where she had no choice but to make a new home for herself, a new life.
During the years my mother was with my father, we moved from place to place. After my mother left my sister’s father, we were once again without a home. We lived in a safe house for half a year, fearing my stepfather would take my sister away. I envy the residents of the Chiswick House, who probably never had to worry about where they were going to live. To me, life just seemed simpler then, even though it was probably just as complicated, if not more so than it is now.
In 1929 the grounds were sold to the Middlesex County Council by the 9th Duke of Devonshire and the property became a public park. The property has remained a public place, despite the change in ownership and care for the property in the last 80 years or so. The property and its history are preserved and maintained today by English Heritage, a charity that overlooks England’s historical buildings and landmarks.
As I make my exit from Chiswick House, I pass by other visitors taking pictures and taking in the vast landscape and architecture. Parents take numerous pictures of everything they see and have their children pose with big cheesy smiles. They came to see the beautiful and quiet Chiswick House in London that is a piece of the past preserved for the present and future. Children run around and play while their parents chase after them, trying to get them to listen and behave, but they pay no mind to the historical significance of the property. They are young and full of life — completely carefree. They are away from home at a “castle” with a big “backyard”’ and front yard for them to run around and play to their heart’s content. I remember being that young and carefree, unaware of the significance of where I was. I miss that innocence. Now I travel with the goal to learn about the different places I go. I travel with the goal to learn about the past and how it affects the present and our future. I take in the beauty, but I also take in the history. The history of a place where the good and the bad have played into the beauty of its evolution and coming future.
“History of the House.” Chiswick House Friends, chfriends.org.uk/history/.
Rabon, John, et al. “Great London Buildings – Chiswick House.” Londontopia, 6 Oct. 2016, londontopia.net/culture/buildings/great-london-buildings-chiswick-house/.
“The History of the House and Gardens.” Chiswick House & Gardens, chiswickhouseandgardens.org.uk/house-gardens/the-house/history-of-the-house/.
“Timeline of Historic Maps; Chiswick through the Centuries.” Chiswick Timeline, chiswicktimeline.org/1939-bomb-damage-map/.