“There is now a larger court at Marble Hill than at Kensington,” wrote the poet Alexander Pope in 1735. Now the historic Georgian mansion of Henrietta Howard, Countess of Sussex, is set to reopen after decades of ruin.
Although Howard was best known as the mistress of King George II, she was a remarkable woman who overcame personal adversity to become a rising figure in Georgian court society and a member of a dynamic circle of writers and intellectuals.
Her house is one of the last surviving 18th-century mansions and gardens that once stood on the River Thames in what was known as the ‘Hamptons’ of the day around Richmond and Twickenham. It is a rare example of a house built by and for a woman in Georgian England.
The Neo-Palladian villa was set in an “Arcadian” landscape, inspired by idealized depictions of the gardens of ancient Greece and Rome. Howard helped design it with the advice of fashion connoisseurs of the time, including Pope and Charles Bridgeman, later royal gardener to King George II. Once built, it became an idyllic retreat for her friends, including Horace Walpole, John Gay and Jonathan Swift.
English Heritage’s great reformation, aided by funding from the National Lottery, has reversed decades of decay. The charity has restored the interior painting at Marble Hill from Howard’s lifetime and preserved the fine collection of early Georgian paintings, including portraits of Howard’s circle.
It has also restored and redesigned some of the house’s furnishings, including crimson silk tapestries and an intricately carved table with a peacock motif (peacocks were the symbol of the ancient Roman goddess Juno, protector of women). Also on display are a number of Howard’s personal belongings, including a Chinese lacquered parasol bearing her family’s coat of arms and her valuable collection of paintings by Italian artist Giovanni Paolo Panini.
On the other side of the garden and 27 hectares of riverside parkland, the villa’s grotto has been restored to its 18th-century appearance, and previously inaccessible wooded areas have also been developed.
English Heritage re-laid the switchback paths and replanted the tree-lined avenues from the house to the river “to restore the views enjoyed by the owner and her guests” and established wildflower meadows in the wider park. A bowling alley was also restored after its excavation.
“The restoration of Marble Hill did justice not only to the house and gardens but also to its owner, the remarkable Henrietta Howard,” said Kate Mavor, Managing Director of English Heritage. “This summer we invite locals, Londoners and everyone to discover – and enjoy – one of the forgotten gems of Georgian London.”
Howard, who lost both parents at age 12 and grew up in debt, did not have an easy life. Her first marriage to Charles Howard, youngest son of the fifth Earl of Suffolk, was marred by his drinking, gambling and abusive behaviour.
In 1714 she was made bedchamber to Caroline, Princess of Wales, and soon became mistress to the Prince of Wales – later George II.
English Heritage said it would transform Howard’s story into much more than just the king’s mistress, exploring her background and rising in Georgian society.
“Her ability to navigate life’s vicissitudes is a testament to her tenacity, intelligence and resourcefulness,” the charity said.
Stuart McLeod of the National Lottery Heritage Fund said £5million had been donated to help with the restoration of the villa and gardens, on top of a £3million investment from English Heritage. “This ambitious renovation ensures that the Marble Hill home and park will be enjoyed by visitors and the local community for many years to come,” he said.