Rowland G. M. Baker, 1989
'Hampton we pass, where Davy Garrick came
With histrionic triumphs all aflame;
His loved and honoured spirit long hath flown,
But still this spot his memory doth own.
|E. Derry, Four Days on the Thames (1899)|
There is no doubt that the best view of Hampton is obtained from this side of the river, and (as every topographer of the Thames emphasises) the most dominant feature of the landscape is Garrick's Villa. When viewed across the water, the old mansion seems to preside over the whole scene, like a massive squatting hen, viewing with pride her scattered brood. Originally known as Hampton House, it was acquired by Garrick, perhaps the most famous actor ever to tread the boards of any stage, in 1754. Here he resided, entertained the famous, and acted the life of a country gentleman, until his death in 1779. His widow continued to occupy the house until 1822, when she too died.
Garrick's first concern was to turn the house, which was then a much meaner affair, into a residence grand enough for the most eminent actor in Britain. He asked Robert Adam, to whom he was already well-known, to make some additions and improvements. The result was that the house was given a classical facade, with a Corinthian arcade surmounted by a portico and pediment, and on either side pilasters and a cornice. It was supposed to have been based on the palace of the emperor Diocletian at Split in Dalmatia, which Adam had surveyed in 1757. Capability Brown was employed to lay out the gardens and build the orangery. The Adam brothers and Chippendale designed the interior and furniture.
It was probably Capability also who planned what undoubtedly is the pleasantest feature of the scene — the little octagonal Grecian temple, with its Ionic porch, which nestles on the lawn not far from the water's edge. It was intended as a summer house and home for the statue of Shakespeare which Roubiliac had executed for Garrick at a cost of 300 guineas.
The lawn on which the temple stands was all part of the Villa's grounds, but it presented Garrick with somewhat of a dilemma. The ground between the temple and the house was transversed by the Staines to Kingston road. Garrick wanted to cross over privately between the two. He had seen the ornamental bridge which had been built over the Portsmouth Road at Painshill, Cobham, and rather fancied a similar structure. But the two situations were entirely different; Painshill is built on a hillside, with the road low down, and Hampton is on the flat. The engineering problems really ruled out a bridge, and it was Dr Johnson, who was visiting Garrick at the time, who finally settled the matter, with a famous retort: 'Davy! Davy! what can't be overdone, may be underdone', and a tunnel was decided on.
But what a tunnel it turned out to be, all ornamental with fantastic stonework and coral in the form of a grotto. The arched entrance into the 'fairy-footed passage' as it was called in 1797, can be seen from our towpath, just to the left of Astoria. The lawn is not part of a public garden, but the tunnel is stopped up by a grille to prevent access.
Johnson's other well-known remark about the house which has survived, is supposed to have been uttered when the great lexicographer was first shown over the house and its beauties: 'Ah, David, it is the leaving of such a place that makes a death-bed terrible'. When Garrick did leave the house and this earth, he was worth £100,000, and he was buried near to Shakespeare's monument in Westminster Abbey. Roubiliac's Shakespearean statue he bequeathed to the British Museum, where it may still be seen. But so that the temple could still fulfil the function for which it was created, its place was taken by a stone replica.
In 1774, so the Gentleman's Magazine tells us, Garrick gave a splendid night entertainment, or 'Fete Champêtre', to which all the celebrities of the day were invited. There were fireworks and a concert of music. The Temple of Shakespeare' and gardens were illuminated with 6,000 lamps. What a magnificent sight and sound it must have presented from where we now stand on the Molesey bank.
At the beginning of this century, when the tramway was being laid between Hammersmith and Hampton Court, the highway needed to be widened to take the tracks, but the owner of Garrick's Villa refused to sell just a strip wide enough to expand the road, and insisted that the company purchase the whole property. Thereupon the chairman of the tramways, Sir Clifton Rohinson, annexed the property as his own residence. Sir Clifton had a personal tram for his sole use, so that he could travel around the system, and had points fitted on the lines outside the house, so that his tram could be driven directly into a private 'garage' by the side of his residence. This entrance could still be seen up to a few years ago.
Every year Sir Clifton and Lady Robinson gave a garden party for the wives and children of London United Tramway workers in the grounds of the Villa. From all over the northwest of the metropolis special trains arrived laden with dependants, about 3,000 of them, all eager for the treat. One car carried the band from Hanwell depôt, playing all the way from the top deck. When they arrived at Hampton they found that an enormous marquee had been erected on the lawn by the side of the house, with rows of tables laid out with comestibles of all descriptions. Later a 'farcical regatta', with all sorts of water sports, was arranged for the entertainment of the crowd and, to crown the day, before the weary families returned home, each child was presented by Lady Clifton herself with his or her own box of chocolates. The house has now been turned into a series of Flats, but in such a way as to preserve its eighteenth century character.
Snuggling beneath the shadow of Garrick's Villa and the temple, lies the island which Garrick bought, and which is now named after him. Earlier it was known as Shank's Ait or Higher Ait. It was at one time much lower and covered by willows and osiers, which were haunted by families of otters.
The islets along this reach were used extensively for the cultivation of osiers for the manufacture of basketry and cane furniture. The beds were cut in the summer time, and the withies, some of them as much as twelve feet long, were peeled on special instruments and left to bleach in the sun. Stacks of golden yellow rods, neatly assorted into lengths, could be seen glistening in the sunlight, or when the air was too dry and sultry, laying in the stream of the river to preserve their natural pliance, and to prevent their becoming hard and brittle.
Soon after the end of the Kaiser's war, to its eternal disgrace, the island was let out in small plots for the erection of weekend bungalows, some of which are merely squalid shacks, and give a sense of lasting shame to an otherwise delightful view.
On a fine winter's day in 1796 Joseph Palmer, the man after whom a school in West Molesey used to be named, stood like us on the towpath and surveyed the scene, as we do now; 'Then, turning to the right', he wrote, 'I with reverence met the Temple to Shakespeare — I had then, partly through yew-trees, and over walls separating the high road, bound with rich coats of ivy, a good sight of the retired villa — and well it looks — In this stage I had the satisfaction to recollect the following lines, by Mr Sheridan:
"The Yew-tree and Cypress, for sorrow renowned,
'Then throwing the eye along small but beautiful lawns, and over the stately trees in Bushey Park, whose branches swell with the rising road, and lessen again, until it reposes on Hampton's magnificent palace'.
'A retrograde move of the head gave East Molesey's modest steeple; backed at a distance by a long chain of hill, in which Epsom Downs are particularly distinguished. Immediately dropping the eye; Hampton's white bridge; with the palace, near one extremity, and a white house at the other, from whatever station seen, are happily situated to be admired'.
ISBN 0 86023 414 2
Thameside Molesey was originally published by Barracuda Books, now part of Baron, publishers of heritage volumes - maritime, military, transport, sporting and local. It is made available here with the kind agreement of Radmore Birch Associates.
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