An early seventeenth-century
house in south-west London
, or at least these days in London; in its heyday it was in the village of Ham
just east of the town of Richmond
, on the River Thames
. At its height in the 1670s it was the home of the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale
, political and social leaders of the day. Its importance today is that both house and garden have been preserved largely intact since that period. It now belongs to the National Trust
and is undergoing careful long-term restoration to that state.
The gardens are curious and unfamiliar to the present-day eye, because few such gardens survived the following centuries without being turned into vast sweeps of grass and grand avenues, or subsequent romantic wild grottos, or both. Ham House has the rather stilted look that comes from being composed mostly of geometrical portions, marked by tubs and urns and topiary. In its own day the emphasis was as much on smell as on sight in the choice of flowers.
Beyond the south facade of the house the main part is platts, or flat plots of grass divided by paths and marked by statues at each corner. The statuary is one of the victims of its slow decline in previous years, as the Duchess needed to pay her debts, and only now are the National Trust planning to restore as much of it as they can. It still has many statues in niches in the courtyard at its northern entrance, approached by spacious lime avenues.
The platts lead to a "wilderness", so called, a peculiar conceit borrowed from French fashionable gardens of the time. Splayed segments radiate from a centre, each segment surrounded by a low hedge, and filled with flowers and grass running wild, symbolising the taming of the wilderness. To the west is a cherry garden, named from its main tree inhabitants, and to the east are vegetable gardens and the orangery, one of the earliest surviving orangeries, except that it's now the inevitable National Trust tea-room.
Nearby, just across the river, is another fine house at Marble Hill Park, also open to the public.