Clare O'Brien, Director of Chiswick House and Gardens Trust, talks to London Landscapes' editor Susan Miles

Clare O'Brien
Clare O'Brien
(Photo © Anna Kunst)

Given your long personal association with west London and Chiswick House, this must be a dream job. What does it mean to you?

When I saw the job advertised I was very interested and thrilled for two reasons; one I grew up with a photograph of Chiswick House on the walls at home and secondly, when we moved to London in 1976, we used to come to the gardens for walks. Then in the late 1980s my father became Chairman of Chiswick House Friends, so I heard a lot about developments in the House and the grounds. This was when English Heritage and the London Borough of Hounslow started a lot of restoration work – so I do have a long association. In terms of me, and my career, it was a really wonderful opportunity to join the Trust at a key moment in its history.

The next phase of development is to move Chiswick House and the Grade 1 listed gardens into the cultural foreground by merging them into one operation. Negotiations with English Heritage and Hounslow are currently on-going. With my experience of growing the visitor base and the income at the National Theatre and the Wallace Collection and of promoting those very important cultural sites, I feel I can really offer something to Chiswick House and Gardens.

Chiswick has a long history of opening to the public. Its creator, Richard Boyle, Lord Burlington, was one of the first landowners to open his gardens to visitors on a fee-paying basis and in 1929 it became a public park. What are the prime considerations in caring for a hugely important historic garden, which is also a public open space?

I am delighted that Richard Boyle opened his gardens to the public; it was an enlightened approach and he was clearly very proud that what he had achieved was ground-breaking in terms of starting and being one of the precursors – with William Kent – of the English landscape movement. We have to be incredibly careful to maintain the wonderful restoration that English Heritage oversaw between 2007 and 2010, when the gardens were returned to their eighteenth-century glory. When I take over running the House, I want to attract cultural visitors from further afield to the site. The balancing act will be to ensure that those who come to enjoy and appreciate an historic estate comfortably co-exist alongside local people who love the heritage site and use the park for recreational purposes.

It is often said that gardens need to move forward to survive. Yet some landscapes have a special spirit that needs to be maintained. How do you keep Chiswick's ‘spirit’ alive while at the same time developing it as a visitor attraction?

The gardens have been extensively restored and we have to ensure that they are well maintained. As all your readers will know, no sooner do you get a hedge at exactly the right level for the sight lines, the hedge will grow so you have to bring it back down to what was originally planned. We have the great advantage that there is an exquisite neo-Palladian villa right in the centre of the park: this influences how one looks at the estate. The architecture and the landscape are mutually inclusive: you can't have one without the other. This helps keep the spirit alive.

When the gardens were restored, local consultation was conducted about cutting trees down in the park. Despite opposition, English Heritage knew some trees had to go in order to open up the back of the House and the route down to the lake as well as the wilderness. The same happened in the 1950s when the very bold decision was taken to knock down the large Georgian stable block and the wings that the 5th Duke of Devonshire had built either side of Chiswick House. All that was left was the villa itself. Sometimes you have to be very brave in order to create outstanding results.

There are more commercial events in public spaces and cultural sites than there were 30 years ago and one has to be careful that these don't compromise the spirit of the site, and are brief enough not to upset local people or cultural visitors. One has to keep an eye on the types of events we stage &endash; do they promote the site, do they fit in with what one is trying to do? At the Wallace Collection we were careful to make sure that events related to the collection in the house. It is however a broad collection, so you can go from sword fighting to genteel eighteenth-century dancing or concerts without too much difficulty.

I understand the aim is for English Heritage to hand over the reins of running Chiswick House to the Trust. What changes do you foresee as a result?

Well, no one has an original idea. I am keen to refurbish the House and bring back the opulence and beauty to rooms that are now looking a bit tired because they haven't been touched since the 1950s. However, English Heritage already has those ideas, I want to raise funds to implement them. There is an opportunity to make the downstairs more visually appealing and much livelier to suit the twenty-first century museum visitor. It is essential we improve the visitor experience on arrival. There are a number of gates into the park but we don't have a main entrance, and the car park is not in the most logical place. We need to think about how people arrive to the House; currently access is via a downstairs door, which, of course, wouldn't have been the way eighteenth-century visitors would have entered. It is vital visitors get the wow feeling as soon as they arrive. There is a lot of potential, but to realise it I need to raise some money. I am very lucky that I have an excellent chairman and very supportive trustees who are very willing to get their hands dirty whether it is looking at a balance sheet or helping in the gardens as a volunteer.

How will you ensure Chiswick's future is sustainable in the care of the Trust?

This is the juggling act of generating income and managing core activities. We have a very successful wedding business, but we haven't really exploited the corporate events business and we have a lot of different areas that could suit a number of events. I really hope to double current visitors to the house and that, of course, will generate income. The café is successful, but it could be more successful. Do we put more catering outlets on the estate? The need to raise money is the same situation that every cultural site and every charity faces. And in order to stage our education and community activities we will need to raise funds both from the Heritage Lottery Fund and from charitable trusts and foundations, and individuals.

One of our greatest challenges, which other sites, other London landscapes, will also find difficult is that when you are a public park, for six months of the year it is dark. That is a challenge in terms of how evening activities are managed without having to incur a high degree of costs. Of course, a lot of parks manage. For instance, Kew has a Winter Wonderland and there is Christmas at Waddesdon Manor. You can definitely stage wonderful events at night. However, they come with an increased cost for staffing, security and infrastructure – for instance do the grounds have the right lighting and therefore electrical points in the right place? It is quite a challenge.

One of your aims is to hold more events in the House that will link with the gardens. Could you expand on how you see this developing?

We can develop education programmes that link the interior architectural detail of the house with the eighteenth-century landscape. The villa can't hold huge audiences, but it can accommodate 100 people for a classical concert. It would be wonderful to create tableaux vivants of how it would have been if you had been roaming around the estate in the 1750s. We could stage a day in the eighteenth century with costume characters wandering around the garden. Whether we can restore the menagerie I'm not so sure! There were elephants, emus, deer, llamas, and tropical birds, even giraffes for one party. I think that would be harder to achieve! There are lots of possibilities.

My overriding desire is to bring more people to the estate and to put the House at its centre. To an extent that hasn't occurred up until now because they have been run by two organisations. This is why English Heritage wanted the two to merge so that the House starts to get the attention it deserves. What is unusual about this estate is that everything is Grade 1 listed. It hasn't got the most important art collection compared to say Kenwood House or some of our museums or stately homes, but the actual architecture of the house is critical. It is important to make people aware that, without the house and without the family that built it, we would not have these wonderful historic gardens.

How would you like to see the eighteenth century reflected in Chiswick's twenty-first century educational programmes?

I can't really answer that question fully at the moment. The eighteenth century isn't part of the national curriculum. What I'd be looking at is the kitchen garden, where we already have an educational programme: classes on growing – from seed to food on the table – enabling children to understand where their food comes from. The kitchen garden is based on traditional cultivation methods and I'd like to move that sort of thinking out into the whole estate: exploring how the estate was landscaped, why we have camellias in a conservatory when, of course, camellias can grow perfectly well outside. Other areas might be learning about the decisions involved in creating a landscape. I'm sure schools, indeed everyone, would be interested in the engineering behind the lakes and the creation of the culvert from the Thames. There are lots of practical areas that relate to the national curriculum, whether it is science, food technology or design. It isn't just a matter of let's look at the eighteenth century from a historical perspective.

This year the annual Camellia Show has free entry for the first time. What led to that decision?

The Camellia Festival has run for four years. When they were bidding for Heritage Lottery funding, English Heritage looked very hard at how the Trust could generate income. One suggestion was the Camellia Festival, which was a marvellous opportunity to increase visitor numbers by promoting these fabulous plants in bloom. In reality, one needs to balance the costs and the human resource against the income that is generated. The area that we really make money is through selling camellia plants. I am keen to enable the event to be more inclusive. However, I am putting three donation boxes in and hope that those who can afford will give £5 to help maintain the conservatory, the upkeep and propagation of the camellias. It goes back to what I said earlier, that it is important to divide what is a public programme and what is income generation.

How important are the Chiswick House Friends?

Hugely important: they established themselves at a critical time for the House and have really worked constructively with English Heritage. They helped raise funds to restore the William Kent cascade and the Blue Velvet Room as well as other elements in the House. They have helped buy back paintings and works of art. This year they are funding the restoration of the melon pit, a glass house that used to grow melons, which we will use to propagate for the kitchen garden and estate, as well as camellias, so we can sell some of our historic heritage varieties. Through the annual opera, the dog show and subscriptions, the Friends have given us over £250,000 during the last 15 years, which is very generous. They are crucial to the Trust and are a strong local voice.