“Here let us trace the matchless vales of Thames, Far winding up top where the muses haunt, To Twitnam’s bowers.”
In the 17th century the walk along the river from Old Isleworth to Twickenham was regarded as one of the most beautiful in Britain. Even as late as 1948 local historian G.E Bate was still generally complimentary. “Although much of it is still beautiful it has lost some of the freshness and rural aspect that it then bore.”
In the 17th century the river and the beautiful parkland surrounding it were popular resorts of the rich and the royal. A favourite attraction was the new home of James Johnston, who between 1692 and 1696 had been Secretary of State for Scotland…
“a vast deal of company dayly, hear is hardly a day that he has not a coach and six horsis at his doar, and some timse twoe or three more. Sure he must have a vast esteat to entertain soe many, and he has aboandenc of men at work in the grownd before his hous…”
On Johnston’s retirement in 1702 he acquired a lease on “Queen’s Farm”, a Crown Estate on the river by Marble Hill, and commissioned architect John James to design and build a new house on the site “after the model of country seats in Lombardy.” This project took 35 years to complete. The gardens surrounding the house were extensive and included two canals, an icehouse, a kitchen garden, a pleasure garden, a wilderness, a grotto and a fruit garden…
“Secretary Johnston had the best collection of fruit of most gentlemen in England; that he had slopes for his vines from which he made some hogsheads of wine a year; and that Dr Bradley, in his “Treatise on Gardening”, ranked him amongst the first gardeners in the kingdom.”
MACKAY “Tour through England” - 1720
A baroque room, the Octagon, designed by architect James Gibbs, was added in 1720 for entertaining regular visitor Queen Caroline who often dropped in for brunch.
“Along the river ladies and gentlemen passed in boats on visits to their neighbours who lived on the river banks. Queen Caroline, wife of George 2nd, would come down from Hampton Court to visit Mr. Johnston, and partake of a late breakfast in his garden.”
G.E. BATE “And So Make a City Here”
Although James Johnston was a popular man there were some who disliked him intensely. Amongst these was the acid tongued poet and satirist Alexander Pope who lived just up the river in Twickenham. He was obliged to pass Johnston’s house every time he visited his friend Lady Suffolk who lived next door in Marble Hill. Johnston’s lawn was bounded by two walls, one topped by a stone figure of a dog, the other by a stone figure of a bitch. Both attracted a dose of vitriol from Pope…
And Twickenham such, which fairer scenes enrich, Grots, statues, urns, and Johnston's dog and bitch.
Pope had other reasons for disliking Johnston. As a former Secretary of State Johnston enjoyed a handsome government pension which gave him some importance and worth… both irresistible targets for Pope’s pen…
Strike off his pension, by the setting sun, And Britain, if not Europe, is undone.
In later years another resident of Johnston’s house was former King of France, Louis-Phillippe, Duc D’Orleans. He lived there in exile between 1813 and 1815 and the place was later named Orleans House after him. Louis-Philippe was very fond of Twickenham which he often referred to as “Old Twick” or “Dear quiet Twick”…
“I can say with truth that I am attached to England not only by gratitude but by taste and inclination. In sincerity of my heart I do pray that I may never leave this hospitable soil.”
In 1926 a firm of ballast and gravel merchants bought Orleans House and demolished it but their attempts to extract gravel from the site were not successful. To save the Octagon and the adjoining stable block from demolition they were purchased by the Hon Mrs Levy, later the Hon Mrs Nellie Ionides. On her death in 1962 she left the property and her picture collection to the Borough. In 1972 the Octagon was converted into an art gallery.
James Johnston, Esquire, envoy extraordinary to Prussia 1690-92, Secretary of State, Scotland, 1692-96 and Lord Clerk Register 1704-5 died at Bath in May 1737 at the age of eighty-three and was buried at St. Mary’s Church, Twickenham on the 11th of May of the same year. A few years later, in 1744, his former acid-tongued neighbour, Alexander Pope, was buried in the same place. There is no record of what either of these two illustrious gentlemen thought of that cosy arrangement.
– from Martyn Day
CREDITS: The monochrome print of Orleans House is from Twickenham Museum. The coloured print of Orleans House is by Pingret. It shows Louis-Phillippe, King of France and Queen Victoria at his former Twickenham home.