History

The Landscape and the Thames

Edmund John Niemann, View from Richmond Hill, 1830, Oil on canvas, Richmond Borough Art Collection
Edmund John Niemann, View from Richmond Hill, 1830, Oil on canvas, Richmond Borough Art Collection

Orleans House overlooks the River Thames and sits within the famous view from Richmond Hill. This is the only view to be legally protected by an Act of Parliament – the Richmond, Ham and Petersham Open Spaces Act of 1902.

This ‘Arcadian’ vista has remained virtually unchanged for centuries, and attracted artists such as Turner and Reynolds who immortalised it in paint. Writer Sir Walter Scott described it as “an unrivalled landscape”, and Horace Walpole likened it to the finest views in Italy.

The vast majority of scenes of the building later known as Orleans House show it from the river, although its main entrance was from Richmond Road. This reflects how important the river view was to convey status and also promote the concept of a country idyll.

The original sixteenth-century estate, built on Crown land, gradually expanded so that by the eighteenth century it encompassed the area as far as the river to the south (now the riverside lawn and playground) and the Richmond Road to the north (now the area occupied by Orleans Park School).

The original garden, which adjoined the first building “planted with rare and Choyce Flowers and divers small trees”, was arranged into formalised compartments, terraced and surrounded by a wall. When Johnston moved here in 1702, “he amused himself with planting and gardening, in which he was reckoned to have very good taste”.

William Marlow, Orleans House, c. 1800, Oil on canvas, Richmond Borough Art Collection

Under subsequent owners, the grounds and gardens continued to change. By 1808, the entrance was from Riverside rather than across the grounds. Of the two canals, only one remained, altered into a slightly more naturalistic shape and surrounded by a wooded path with a grotto in the south east corner. By the mid nineteenth century, a new drive swept across the park. The remaining pond had reverted to a more formal oval shape, with a central fountain, while a new Italian Walk had appeared in the south east corner. The planting of trees was more naturalistic, with the kitchen garden much reduced and replaced with a wooded area criss-crossed with paths.

In the twentieth century, the sale of the site to gravel merchants and subsequent demolition of the house transformed the grounds forever. The original building was replaced by gravel excavations which characterised the site throughout the nineteen thirties. These were superseded by the woodlands, which now provide a haven for wildlife. The lawns are now used for recreational activities. In recent years, a team of dedicated volunteers have started to plant flowerbeds to enhance the site.

To find out more about the history of Orleans House Gallery and the people who made, lived in and saved it join a free heritage tour.