Last summer, Yannick and I visited Chiswick House, a neo-Palladian villa built by the third Earl of Burlington in 1729. The gardens, restored in a two year, twelve million pound project and reopened in 2010, were glorious, but there was one thing we missed seeing – the camellias, which bloom in February/March. I vowed then to come back for the annual camellia festival in the amazing two hundred year old conservatory, so last week saw us on the train to Chiswick once again.
The three hundred foot long conservatory, which houses the camellia collection, is a Grade I listed building designed by the architect Samuel Ware, who later designed the Burlington Arcade, Piccadilly. It was completed in 1813.
It was one of the earliest large glass houses to be built, predating Decimus Burton’s glass house at Kew and Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace. It fell into disrepair in the late twentieth century, but has now been completely restored, conserving and reinstalling all the historic metalwork of the building.
When the conservatory decayed, so did the camellia collection, planted in 1828 and believed to be the oldest collection under glass in the Western world.
Fortunately three local members of the International Camellia Society stepped in to look after them, ensuring their survival.
The original collection was ordered by William Lindsay, the 6th Duke’s Head Gardener, from Alfred Chandler’s Vauxhall nursery. Today the collection of thirty three different varieties includes many of the earliest varieties introduced to Britain, and many of them are descended from the original planting.
The camellias at Chiswick are all camellia japonica, the most popular ornamental camellia in the UK. Another camellia strain, camellia sinensis, is popular for another reason – it’s the plant from which we make tea.
The camellia festival is free and is on until 13th March. It’s open Tuesday to Sunday 10 am to 4 pm. Last entry to the conservatory is at 3:30 pm.