All Features Great and Small
Why are two mansions standing cheek by jowl in west London? It must be the only park in the capital with a pair of very substantial houses almost touching each other. A complicated history of dual and overlapping ownership is the answer. It all began in the 17th century when lawyer Sir John Maynard commissioned Inigo Jones’s amanuensis John Webb to design a large square house inspired by Palladio’s Villa Badoerin in Venetia. The defining feature of this red brick with white stone highlights building was a five bay double height recessed balcony above a ground floor breakfront and below a massive pediment.
A later owner was Princess Amelia, second daughter of George II. The Temple (reflected in the Round Pond) and the Bathhouse are the two most significant extant works she had carried out. Her Royal Highness bought the house and estate in 1762 and lived there until her death 26 years later. The Doric portico fronted Temple in red brick and white stone to match the house was probably designed by Sir William Chambers in circa 1760. The Bathhouse is another estate folly, later described in 19th century sales particulars as “an ornamental diary in gothic style with a cold bath”. In 1801 the house was demolished and the estate sold in lots. Builder Alexander Morrison accumulated the lion’s share of 31 hectares while timber merchant Stephen Cosser acquired a cub’s share of three hectares.
Fashionably rusted freestanding signs strategically positioned across the park inform visitors of its history. One reads: “The Temple. The magnificent 18th century Temple is thought to have been built for Princess Amelia, daughter of George II. She used it as a place of entertainment, enjoying views that reached as far as the Kew Gardens pagoda and beyond. Alexander Copland, the estate’s next owner, played billiards and ate desserts there.”
Alexander appointed his cousin the well known architect Sir Robert Smirke to design Gunnersbury Park House (now called the Large Mansion). A few metres away from the Large Mansion and sharing the same building line, Alexander’s neighbour Stephen built Gunnersbury House (now called the Small Mansion). This long two storey building has bow windows on either side of a lawn facing verandah trimmed with Chinese bells below the eaves. After banker Nathan Rothschild bought the Large Mansion in 1835, he commissioned Sir Robert’s younger brother Sydney to enlarge his house. The three storey Large Mansion lives up to its current name. An enfilade of lawn facing ritzy reception rooms backs onto a cast iron galleried atrium. Both buildings are stuccoed.
Around the same time as designing the Large Mansion, Sir Robert worked up drawings for the Oxford and Cambridge Club on Pall Mall. The previous decade, he had designed Normanby Hall in Lincolnshire for the Sheffield family. Samantha Cameron, Britain’s former First Lady, was brought up at Normanby Hall and her father Sir Reginald Sheffield is still squire of the manor. Sir Robert is best known for the British Museum. The next generation of the Smirke dynasty would design many of the town mansions in Kensington Palace Gardens.
Pharma fortune maker Thomas Farmer bought the Small Mansion in 1827 and appointed father and son practice William Fuller and William Willner Pocock to extend the house. The Pococks also designed the Gothic Ruins Folly below Princess Amelia’s Bathhouse. In 1889, the Rothschilds bought the Small Mansion and Gunnersbury Park once again fell under single ownership. After the renaissance years of the Rothschilds (their heir Evelyn died fighting in Palestine in 1917) the estate and its buildings were bought by the local councils.
A plaque in the arch between the two mansions states: “Gunnersbury Park. Opened for the use of the public 21 May 1926 by the Right Honourable Neville Chamberlain MP Minister of Health. Purchased by the Town Councils of Action and Ealing one fourth of the cost being contributed by the Middlesex County Council. On 1 April 1927 the Brentwood and Chiswick Urban District Council joined the Action and Ealing Councils in the ownership and management of the park.” The Large and Small Mansions were converted to community use. The former building is restored; the latter, under restoration. Princess Amelia’s Bathhouse, the Temple (exterior only), Orangery, Round Pond, Horseshoe Pond and Gothic Ruins Folly have all roared back to life. Sydney Smirke’s East Stables lurk in the shadows waiting their turn.