Tuesday 4 March 2014

Chiswick House, Camellia Festival

The gardens at Chiswick House are pretty close to the top of my hit-parade. I love just about every aspect of the place from the wonderfully formal statuary and topiary, to the lake with its little classical bridge, to the funky, modern cafe where they serve tip-top cappuccinos.

They were originally laid out by Lord Burlington and William Kent in 1729, marking the inception of the English Landscape movement and are believed to have been the inspiration behind other spectacular landscapes such New York's Central Park.

And, right now, if you should venture over in that direction you will also have the wonderful Camellia Festival to enjoy. It runs throughout the month of March.

As it happens Chiswick House has one of the oldest collections of camellias in the western world. They are housed in a splendid conservatory that was built back in 1813 by the Sixth Duke of Devonshire.

Chiswick House Conservatory, London

His first idea had been to grow exotic fruits there. He tried his hand at figs, peaches and grapes.

Interior, Chiswick House Conservatory, London

Different rooms within the huge building were kept at different temperatures to suit the Duke's delicate fruit, and to make them crop at a rate that would feed consumption over a stretch, rather than all ripening together and having to be made into jam! They think that he may even have had a stab at growing pineapples, the absolute height of decadence, in the end pavilions.

By 1828, however, the Duke had been seduced by another exotic newcomer: the Camellia, newly discovered from China, and regarded as the ultimate in garden chic. Sea captains were bringing them over, no doubt with cargos of Camellia Sensis leaves (that'll be tea to you and me) to sell to the nurserymen, who then sold them on to the gardeners of the aristocracy.  Before long the Duke had amassed a stunning collection, some of which, including the famous Middlemist's Red, still survive there today.

Middlemist's Red, Chiswick House Conservatory, London
Middlemist's Red, Chiswick House Conservatory, London
200 year-old camellia

Middlemist's Red, Chiswick House Conservatory, London

Yes, I know - Middlemist's Red is pink! But let's not be sectarian about our reds versus our pinks. It is, after all, a lovely, deep, dusty, thoroughly well-bred sort of a pink.

Middlemist's Red Camellia, Chiswick House Conservatory, London

John Middlemist, who cultivated collectible plants at his nursery in Shepherd's Bush, is believed to have imported this beauty from China in 1804. It was originally planted at Kew, but in the 1820's the Sixth Duke acquired it, and brought it over to live at Chiswick. There is only one other known example of this variety, which is growing in New Zealand.

Can you just imagine what sort of a tale it would tell, if only it could talk?

I spent a very happy hour pottering around in this magnificent conservatory, enjoying the perfect beauty of the camellias, inhaling the sweet smell of narcissi and hyacinths, which have been artfully arranged throughout, and savouring the tentative warmth of the sun, whose rays were amplified through the glass windows so that they almost persuaded me to shed my coat. It was sublime.

 I loved the stripy flowers, the deep red flowers, the delicate pink flowers and the impossibly perfect white flowers.  They made me think of Coco Chanel, who's probably the most famous camellia-devotee of them all. The story goes that her lover, Arthur "Boy" Capel presented her with a beautiful bouquet of camellias in 1912, whereupon they immediately became her favourite flower.

And, as I'm very happy to take my style lessons from Coco Chanel, all I've got to say on the subject is, "Vive la Camellia!'

The flowers are open for viewing until 30th March from 10:30 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. every day except Monday. Admission is £5. You can find out all about them here: Camellia Festival


Bonny x

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