Heston and Isleworth: Osterley Park

A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 3, Shepperton, Staines, Stanwell, Sunbury, Teddington, Heston and Isleworth, Twickenham, Cowley, Cranford, West Drayton, Greenford, Hanwell, Harefield and Harlington. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1962.

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'Heston and Isleworth: Osterley Park', in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 3, Shepperton, Staines, Stanwell, Sunbury, Teddington, Heston and Isleworth, Twickenham, Cowley, Cranford, West Drayton, Greenford, Hanwell, Harefield and Harlington, (London, 1962) pp. 100-103. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol3/pp100-103 [accessed 20 April 2024]


Like Syon, of which it has been described as an architectural miniature, (fn. 1) Osterley (see plate facing p. 101) is in origin a 16thcentury house largely remodelled by Robert Adam. In this case, however, Adam's work extended to the exterior of the house and much less of the old building remains. Despite this, because of the length of time during which he was employed at Osterley, Adam's work here is less of a consistent whole than at Syon. The result has been said to afford 'the best example of his comparative styles side by side under one roof. Above all [the house] is distinguished for fidelity of execution in accordance with the architect's drawings and for its wealth of original furnishings.' (fn. 2)

The house stands on the site of a farm-house which was bought by Sir Thomas Gresham and replaced by a 'house beseeming a prince'. (fn. 3) Gresham's house was completed about 1577, (fn. 4) and he entertained the queen there at least twice. (fn. 5) On one occasion he had the 'court' of the house divided in two by a wall on her suggestion, and this has been taken to confirm that Gresham's house, like the present one, was built round four sides of a court-yard. (fn. 6) Glover's map of 1635, however, seems rather to depict a house built as an H or half-H, with a double court-yard (possibly that referred to in the story mentioned above) in front (i.e. on the north-east). (fn. 7) The four corner-turrets of the present building, with their ogee turrets, almost certainly survive, refaced, from Gresham's house. Virtually nothing more is known of the house, save that it had a private chapel, (fn. 8) and remained largely unchanged until the 18th century. The only one of Gresham's buildings to survive in approximately its original form is the stable block, which consists of a half-H of two stories with semioctagonal stair-turrets in the angles. They are of red brick, with stone and plastered dressings, and retain some original features, though considerable alterations were made to the interior during the 18th century. (fn. 9)

In the house, the south tower and south-west range contain work of the late 17th or early 18th century. (fn. 10) The decoration of the gallery, which runs the whole length of the south-west range on the principal floor, is of the mid-18th century and has been attributed on grounds of style to Sir William Chambers. The Child family, who owned the house in the 18th century, are known to have employed him elsewhere. The rococo breakfast-room at the far end of the north-west range also dates from about the middle of the century. (fn. 11)

In 1761 Francis Child commissioned Robert Adam to alter the house. Samuel Child continued to employ him after Francis's death in 1763, and the last of Adam's designs for Osterley was dated 1780. Adam rebuilt the house round a courtyard of which the centre of the north-west side was left open and spanned by a great Ionic portico (see plate facing p. 101). (fn. 12) The portico was inspired by Wood's engravings of the Temple of the Sun at Palmyra, though at Osterley Adam used this feature as a colonnaded screen rather than as an entrance. It gives access to the courtyard, which Adam raised to firstfloor level, and across which lies the principal entrance to the house. Apart from the portico Adam left the exterior very plain, casing it with red brick and rearranging the windows in three regular ranges beneath a balustraded parapet.

Inside, a series of state apartments was made on the first floor, where only the gallery and breakfastroom were retained from the previous house. The seven other state rooms were all, with much of their furniture, designed by Adam, and provide a wide range of his style. They occupy one story rather than two, as at Syon, and consequently give an impression of breadth instead of height. The earliest rooms are the library (designs dated 1766), entrance hall (designs 1767), eating-room, and drawing-room, all of which were completed by 1773. The library is in Adam's earlier manner, with substantial whitepainted Ionic bookcases, though the ceiling is characteristically in very low relief. The ceiling of the eating-room is bolder, and the panels of the walls are embellished with typical 'grotesque' plasterwork. The hall, like its more robust counterpart at Syon, is formal and classical in style, with apses at either end. To off-set the length and lack of height, Adam in this case left the apses open, without his usual screen of columns. As at Syon, groups of arms and armour in relief ornament the panels between the pilasters which divide the walls into bays. The drawing-room, with its ceiling design of pink, blue, and gold ostrich feathers set in an oval among octagonal coffers, was described by Horace Walpole as 'worthy of Eve before the fall'. Thomas Moore, who made carpets for Syon, made that in this room (and in other rooms at Osterley) to Adam's designs. Of the three remaining rooms, all in the south-east range, the first to be completed was the tapestry-room: one of the Boucher-Neilson Gobelins tapestries which give it its name is dated 1775. Walpole called this room 'the most superb and beautiful than can be conceived', though he noted Adam's increasing obsession with minute details of design by adding that it was 'enriched by Adam in his best taste, except that he has stuck diminutive heads in bronze, no bigger than a half-crown, into the chimney-piece's hair'. The bed-chamber, dominated by the elaborate domed bed, of which every detail was designed by Adam, and the Etruscan room were both completed by 1778. The Etruscan room, as Walpole said, is 'painted all over like Wedgwood's ware, with black and yellow small grotesques'. Though Walpole regarded it as 'a tumble into the Bathos', the room remains of special interest as the only surviving example by Adam himself of a style which he initiated and which was widely copied. Four Etruscan rooms designed by him elsewhere have disappeared.

The house has been very little changed since Adam finished his work, and much of his furniture remains though most of the pictures were removed when the house was given to the National Trust. (fn. 13) The very fine collection of books had been dispersed in 1885. (fn. 14)

The park was inclosed by Sir Thomas Gresham under a licence granted to him in 1565 to impark 600 acres. (fn. 15) Subsequently trespasses suggest that this was unpopular locally, (fn. 16) but, although Gresham was allowed to include up to 140 acres of tilled lands in the park, all of it was probably already inclosed, if not also used as pasture. Some at least had probably been inclosed assart from the beginning. The greater part of the land which Gresham imparked was Osterley farm, which he already held and which comprised some 200 acres stretching westwards from the house in Osterley Lane nearly to Heston village. At this time Osterley Lane seems to have run from Wyke Green north-westwards close by the house and then to have approximately followed its present course west to Norwood Green. (fn. 17) In the same grant as contained his licence to impark, Gresham also received the freehold of Osterley Lane itself and of Fawkener's fields (about 30-40 a.) lying on its east side. It was probably after this that Osterley Lane began to take something like its present course farther east, away from the house though still through the park: in 1635 Glover marked both lines of road, though the exact course of the newer in his map is not clear at all points. (fn. 18) In 1959 the road was closed to motor vehicles. A few months after his first grant, Gresham secured from the Crown more land called Allcotts, which enabled him to extend his park to the Norwood boundary, (fn. 19) and in 1567 he was allowed, for a fine, to inclose 10 acres of Wyke Green. (fn. 20) In 1635 the park pale seems to have included all these lands, though except for 20 acres inclosed in a wall or fence round the house and for some 60 to the east, most of it was divided into fields. A line of five ponds ran north-eastwards from the house to the Brent, along the course of a stream which had formerly marked the Heston-Isleworth and Norwood-Isleworth boundaries. There were more ponds along the stream which divided Heston and Norwood just before it ran into the former one. (fn. 21) These ponds were doubtless made by Gresham, who also built mills beside them and established a heronry: neither mills nor heronry survived long after his death. (fn. 22) Some of the trees he planted were felled during the Civil War (fn. 23) and the western and southern part of the park was sold in 1663: (fn. 24) though it later reverted to the same ownership as the rest of the park most of it was not reinclosed. (fn. 25)

Before 1746 the park had been laid out, perhaps by Sir Francis Child (d. 1740), with straight avenues converging on the same 20-acre inclosure round the house, in which formal gardens had been planted. The two ponds nearest the house had been filled in and the two northern ones combined into one. (fn. 26) A small circular temple near the house also dates from this period, and has traditionally been ascribed to John James. (fn. 27) In 1780 Adam designed the Doric orangery and semicircular conservatory nearby. (fn. 28) These were both damaged during the Second World War but have since been repaired. He also designed a bridge which is now in ruins and may never have been used. (fn. 29) It was no doubt while Adam was working on the house that the grounds were laid out again in the style then fashionable. (fn. 30) The ponds were made into long lakes or canals, stretching round the south of the house, and the approach along the old Osterley Lane was replaced by a more circuitous one along the newer Osterley Lane and then south to the house: it was apparently as part of a proposed shorter road towards London that Adam's bridge was designed. (fn. 31) The park was also extended into Norwood, where Robert Child had acquired adjoining land. This new area (104 a. in 1832) was used in the late 18th century as a menagerie 'full of birds come from a thousand islands which Mr. Banks has not yet discovered'. (fn. 32) Though he admired this and the kitchen-garden, which he said cost £1,400 a year, Walpole in 1773 considered the rest of the park 'the ugliest spot of ground in the whole universe'. It had probably not been laid out on its present plan by this time: a good many of the trees near the house are in any case said to have been planted afterwards. (fn. 33) Another later change was the making of a new drive to the house from Scrattage Lane (now Jersey Road), about when the Metropolitan and District Railway was built. (fn. 34) During the 19th century a good deal of the park was leased to farmers, and the kitchen-garden was let as a market-garden. In 1905 192 acres were retained as pleasure grounds, and about 140 acres were included in the gift to the National Trust in 1949. (fn. 35)

Except between 1870 and 1883, when it was leased to the Dowager Duchess of Cleveland, (fn. 36) Osterley was used by its owners until 1939. During the late 19th century it was the scene of much entertaining, notably at 'the Osterley Saturday-to-Monday parties' started by the Earl and Countess of Jersey in the eighties. These were largely attended by prominent Conservatives and also by several writers who have left descriptions of Osterley in their works. Among these was Henry James, who depicted it as 'Summer soft' in The Lesson of the Master. (fn. 37) During the First World War part of the park was used as a motorinstruction camp and the whole property became a Home Guard school in the Second. (fn. 38) The house was opened to the public for a few weeks in the summer of 1939, and in 1951, after it had been transferred to the National Trust, the grounds were opened. The house itself was opened in 1953. (fn. 39)


  • 1. A. T. Bolton, Archit. of R. and J. Adam, i. 282.
  • 2. J. Lees-Milne, Age of Adam, 107.
  • 3. J. Norden, Speculum Brit. pt. 1, p. 37 and additions printed in Camd. Soc. ix, p. xiii. For the owners of the ho., see p. 108-9.
  • 4. Speculum Brit. pt. 1, p. 37.
  • 5. Mdx. Cty. Recs. i. 99; Hist. MSS. Com. Salisbury, xiii. 465; cf. J. Nichols, Progresses of Queen Eliz. ii. 279.
  • 6. Fuller, Worthies of Eng. ed. Nuttall (1840), ii. 313.
  • 7. Map of Isleworth Hundred; see also Lysons, Environs of Lond. iii. 28, and Sir John Soane's Mus., Adam drawings, vol. xliv, plans of 1761: these, however, can only be accurate if the parts described as proposed additions were in fact at least partly in existence and were to be altered rather than built. See also A. T. Bolton, Archit. of R. and J. Adam, i. 288.
  • 8. A. Heales, 'Heston Ch.' T.L.M.A.S. ii. 217.
  • 9. See full description in Hist. Mon. Com. Mdx. 74.
  • 10. Hist. Mon Com. Mdx. 74.
  • 11. P. Ward-Jackson, Osterley Park: A Guide (H.M.S.O., 1954).
  • 12. The fullest acct. of Adam's work is that in A. T. Bolton, Archit. of R. and J. Adam, i. 282-302. It is not included in Works of R. and J. Adam (1788; reprint 1900). P. Ward-Jackson, op. cit., quotes in extenso Horace Walpole's descriptions of the house.
  • 13. For the pictures, see earlier descriptions of the house, cited above.
  • 14. Sale catalogue in Hounslow Libr. Further books, &c. were sold in 1949: ibid. For the library, see T. Morell, Catalogus Librorum in Bibliotheca Osterleiensi (1771).
  • 15. C 66/1013, m. 19.
  • 16. Mdx. Cty. Recs. i. 98-99.
  • 17. Syon Ho., MS. A. xv. 1. b; B.M. Harl. MS. 606, f. 75b.
  • 18. Map of Isleworth Hundred; cf. Rocque, Map of 10 miles round Lond. (1746), and Map of Mdx. (1754): these disagree on several points, especially about the course of the later Osterley Lane. Glover, however, combined with later maps. (e.g. O.S. Maps 1/2,500 Mdx. xv. 15; xx. 3 (1st edn.), suggests that it did in fact run approximately as now.
  • 19. C 66/1028, m. 5; see p. 109.
  • 20. Syon Ho., MS. K. ii. 1. p, m. 22; there may also have been another grant of waste: cf. C 66/1063, m. 31 and E 123/10, f. 147b.
  • 21. Glover, op. cit.
  • 22. Norden, Speculum Brit. pt. 1, p. 37.
  • 23. Hist. MSS. Com. 5th Rep. App. 111.
  • 24. See p. 109.
  • 25. Cf. Rocque, Map of 10 miles round Lond. (1746) and, e.g. O.S. maps.
  • 26. Rocque, Map of 10 miles round Lond.
  • 27. P. Ward-Jackson, Osterley Park: A Guide, 18.
  • 28. Bolton, Archit. of R. and J. Adam, i. 300.
  • 29. Margaret Villiers, Countess of Jersey, Osterley Park and its memories (priv. print 1920; copy in M.R.O.).
  • 30. For the date cf. Rocque, Map of 10 miles round Lond. (1746), and B.M. Maps K. 30. 33. a (view, 1785).
  • 31. Countess of Jersey, op. cit.
  • 32. For the menagerie, see W. Hayes, Portraits of rare and curious birds from menagerie at Osterley Park (1794), and D.N.B. xxv. 293-4. It had been dispersed by 1795: Lysons, Environs of Lond. iii. 28.
  • 33. Countess of Jersey, op. cit.
  • 34. O.S. Maps 1/2,500 Mdx. xx. 3 (1st and 2nd edns.).
  • 35. See pp. 109-10.
  • 36. M.R.O., Acc. 405/bundles 12, 16; Margaret Villiers, Countess of Jersey, 51 Years of Victorian Life, 82-83.
  • 37. See 51 Years of Victorian Life, 92, 237, et passim.
  • 38. Countess of Jersey, Osterley Park and its Memories; The Times, 21 Feb. 1946.
  • 39. Ibid. and 28 Nov. 1949; R. L. Sawyer, 'Osterley Park' (London Univ. Inst. of Educ. thesis, 1959).