Sunday, August 9, 2015

Marble Hill House

by Laura Purcell

By the side of the Thames, in sixty-six acres of land, sits the beautiful snow-white villa of Marble Hill. This exquisite house is not simply a triumph of Palladian architecture. Behind its pure stucco walls lurk the stories of two very different Georgian ladies, whose hearts were entangled with future kings.

The first and most important of these ladies is Henrietta Howard. Although she was born into privileged circumstances, the untimely death of Henrietta’s parents kicked off a downward spiral that would eventually see her married to an abusive drunk of a husband, so poor that she contemplated selling her own hair. With astounding skill and bravery, she managed to win herself a place at the royal court and repair her fortunes – but at a price.

Henrietta had two roles: bedchamber woman to the princess and mistress to the prince. Her life became a delicate balancing act of pleasing both her royal employers and eluding the husband who hounded her for money.

In a fit of uncharacteristic generosity Henrietta’s lover, the future George II, provided her with the means to obtain a little of the independence she craved. He awarded her the then colossal sum of £11,500 along with gilt plate, various jewellery, furniture and a supply of mahogany. Most importantly, he specified in the terms of the settlement that the dastardly Mr Howard had no claim upon the money, or what Henrietta spent it on.

It was this gift that prompted Henrietta to begin building Marble Hill house in 1724. Her plans proceeded in secret at first. She feared discovery not only from her husband, who would make life difficult, but from the princess. Presumably, the princess would not be pleased by either the gift or her servant’s tentative reach toward independence.

However, as Henrietta’s place at court became more and more insufferable, serving a condescending princess and a short-tempered prince, she began to yearn for the freedom of her new home. Marble Hill became a symbol of the liberty she had never possessed. Year by year, despite various money troubles and pressures at court, Henrietta managed to complete her dream house in 1729. She would not succeed in escaping her life of servitude and taking up residence until 1734 – a long decade after she had first purchased the land.

The design of Marble Hill gives little hints about the unconventional character lurking behind Henrietta’s neutral façade. The Palladian style was considered a logical, mathematical, and thereby male province, but she used it to stunning effect on the ground floor. Not to let things get too masculine, she also threw in a ‘China Room’ to display her favourite porcelain.

Upstairs on the piano nobile, things get more radical. Despite serving the Hanoverian court for over 20 years, Henrietta chose to feature portraits of the dethroned Stuart Kings they had replaced! In another act of what seems to be wry humour, she decorated her ‘Great Room’ with marble-topped peacock tables. At the time, peacocks were known to symbolise the goddess of love and marriage. Henrietta, as one of the very few woman of the era who successfully separated from her husband, was probably the last person you would expect to have these tables!

My favourite room in Marble Hill is the stunning ‘India paper’ room. Decorated with the encouragement of Horace Walpole in the 1750s, it displays breath-taking hand-painted paper imported from China. It cost a whopping £42 2s at the time and has recently been restored by English Heritage using traditional methods – for a considerably larger sum!

Henrietta lived at Marble Hill until her death in July 1767. She passed away after a long decline in her beautiful bedroom with its Ionic columns and green hangings. But the story of Marble Hill and the Georgian court did not end there. For another lady of interest rented the house in 1795. Her name was Maria Fitzherbert.

Maria, secret wife to the future George IV, revelled in the finer things in life. It is no surprise that she selected the gorgeous Marble Hill to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the capital. However, Maria’s time at Marble Hill was not to be a happy one. It was while she was living there that she received a letter from her royal lover, informing her he would never enter her house again.

Far from being a beacon of independence for Maria, Marble Hill became her place of refuge. She hid there while preparations took place for the royal wedding of the decade. The man she considered to be her husband was marrying Princess Caroline of Brunswick and abandoning her.

Before his second marriage, the prince was torn with indecision. The night prior to the wedding he allegedly rode up and down outside Maria’s house as if debating whether he should go in. But he stuck by his decision – and Maria was still at Marble Hill when she received the news he had actually gone ahead with the marriage. Once more the house was centre stage in a royal ménage a trois – seventy years after its first tentative bricks were placed.

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Laura Purcell is a former bookseller with a passion for history. Her 'Georgian Queens' series explores the lives of women at the Hanoverian court. The latest release, Mistress of the Court, is available to order now. For more details please visit www.laurapurcell.com



8 comments:

  1. How interesting, Laura! Do you know how the house came to be available to Maria? Who did Henrietta leave it to, and how did it pass down from there?

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  2. How interesting, Laura! Do you know how the house came to be available to Maria? Who did Henrietta leave it to, and how did it pass down from there?

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  3. On my list to visit next month, if I can fit it in! Thank you!

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  4. Hi Debbie, sorry for the delay in replying! Henrietta left Marble Hill to her great-niece in trust for life. The great-niece rented it out for extra income and Maria was one of the first tenants.

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  5. That's fantastic Susan! If you tell them your visit was inspired by my writing, maybe they'll be kind and stock Mistress of the Court in the giftshop ;)

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  6. Fascinating post, thank you! ! Is it known designed the house? The façade seems a classic one for its time

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  7. Henrietta herself was heavily involved with the design. She was an admirer of Palladian style, as you can see! Colen Campbell drew up the initial designs and Roger Morris was the architect.

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