below Marble Hill in Twickenham is one of the last survivors of a grand neighbourhood of Georgian villas that once stood beside the Thames.

Restoring Marble Hill: how archaeology helped to revive a Georgian gem

When Henrietta Howard (née Hobart) built her Thames-side country house in Twickenham in the 1720s, it represented so much more than a fashionable escape from the bustle of court life: it was a refuge from her abusive marriage, and a sign of hard-won independence. With the house and its grounds now restored to their Georgian glory, and the site reopening to the public, Carly Hilts visited to find out more.


As a young child, Henrietta Hobart would have anticipated a comfortable life to come. The daughter of a baronet, she spent her early years at her family’s grand country estate, Blickling Hall in Norfolk – but by the age of 12 she was an orphan, her father having been mortally wounded in an illegal duel in 1698, and her mother succumbing to consumption three years later. To secure her future, Henrietta became the ward of Henry Howard, 5th Earl of Suffolk, and married his son Charles (later the 9th Earl) when she was 16. The match was a deeply unhappy one. Charles was violent and unfaithful, and his drinking and gambling soon reduced the pair to poverty.

Marble Hill in Twickenham is one of the last survivors of a grand neighbourhood of Georgian villas that once stood beside the Thames.

It was Henrietta’s initiative that revived their fortunes once more. In the early 18th century, the ruling Stuart dynasty was staring extinction in the face, as Queen Anne – despite 17 pregnancies – had no surviving children. Restrictions on Catholics ascending the throne meant that Anne’s first cousin once removed, Sophia Electress of Hanover, was set to succeed her, and Henrietta managed to secure entry for herself and Charles into the Hanoverian court, where she hoped to curry favour with the incoming monarch. Although Sophia ultimately died first, less than two months before Anne, Henrietta had forged firm friendships with her grandson, the future George II, and his wife Caroline of Ansbach, and when George I ascended the throne in 1714, the new Prince and Princess of Wales did not forget Henrietta. She was made a Woman of the Bedchamber, and soon became a popular figure at court, renowned for her wit and vivacity. Not long afterwards, she also became the Prince of Wales’ mistress.

Royal mistresses were an established and expected part of court life, and this role helped to shield Henrietta from her abusive husband, as well as giving her some financial support – not least when the Prince of Wales made Henrietta a gift of some £11,500-worth of investments, jewellery, furniture, and other items. Crucially, it was specified as a trust for Henrietta’s use alone, meaning that Charles could not access it. Divorce was not easily obtained at the time, requiring an Act of Parliament, but this gift meant that she was at least – at last – able to separate from her husband once and for all.

Henrietta Howard, painted by Charles Jervas c.1724, which was the year work began on Marble Hill.

Building Marble Hill

Henrietta quickly put her new-found financial independence to use, buying land in fashionable Twickenham, to which the great and good were flocking to build riverside country houses – peaceful refuges from the whirl of court gossip that were nonetheless conveniently located for journeys by boat to the royal palace at Hampton Court. Henrietta’s addition to this grand neighbourhood was Marble Hill, a grand Neo-Palladian villa that was completed in 1729. Both house and grounds were inspired by 18th-century ideals of ancient Roman and Greek architecture, with a particular emphasis on proportion and symmetry. In these comfortable surroundings, Henrietta cultivated a collection of Chinese porcelain and entertained friends including the writers Jonathan Swift, John Gay, and Alexander Pope (the latter was a key influence in the design of Marble Hill), as well as literary patrons like Catherine (‘Kitty’) Hyde, Duchess of Queensbury. So popular was her hospitality that in 1735 Pope wrote: ‘There is a greater court now at Marble Hill than at Kensington’.

After Henrietta retired from court life in 1734, Marble Hill became the family home she had never known – her own son had been kept from her by Charles Howard – when first her niece and nephew, and then her great-niece, came to live with her. The villa must have felt like a second chance at happiness, especially when, two years after the death of her estranged husband, she married the politician George Berkeley. This time it was a love match – the couple’s devotion to each other shines through the letters they wrote every time they were apart. In one, George describes her as ‘My life! My soul! My joy!’.

Excavating Marble Hill’s ice house.

Following Henrietta’s death in 1767, the house passed down through her family, and was later sold to Jonathan Peel, brother of the Prime Minister Robert Peel, in 1825, and then to the Cunard family in 1898. At the turn of the 20th century, plans to turn the site into a housing estate were announced, but the ensuing outcry saw it protected by an Act of Parliament, and its grounds became a public park. The house itself has been in the care of English Heritage since 1986, but Marble Hill and its surroundings had begun to deteriorate, with damp threatening the house’s interior, and its gardens becoming neglected and overgrown, obscuring the detailed designs inspired by ancient Rome that Henrietta had known.

Now, however, Marble Hill has been restored to its 18th-century splendour. Supported by a grant from the National Heritage Lottery Fund, and aided by an army of more than 240 volunteers and members of various apprenticeship schemes, English Heritage has completely restored the house and gardens, and the site is once more open to the public (see ‘Further information’). Detailed documentary, topographical, and archaeological investigations have been a key part of this process, allowing the site to be returned to a condition that Henrietta would have recognised.

Excavating the grounds

A key aim of the Marble Hill Revived project was to restore house and grounds to their intended harmony, emphasising that each aspect had been carefully designed to complement the other. To that end, restoring the ivy-swamped gardens to their original layout was crucial. Careful analysis of contours in the landscape, LiDAR data from the Environment Agency, and the results of geophysical surveys allowed the team to pinpoint the locations of arbours, lawns, and woodland quarters, greatly assisted by a c.1749 plan of the house and its grounds, which is held by the Norfolk Record Office. Helpfully labelled with a detailed key, the estate plan shows the house standing before an oval lawn bracketed with a curved covered walkway (a fashionable ‘living arcade’ for strolling and private conversations), as well as carefully planted areas of woodland, flowers, and an avenue of trees.

Design details: the walls of the grotto (above) were once decorated with shells and coral, while the floor surface (right) was made up of patterns of flint and pebbles edged with cattle bone.

The flower gardens have now been replanted using an early 18th-century ‘sunburst’ design, with gardeners’ paths winding through the colourful blooms. Areas of trees have been redefined, though with careful compromises to ensure their longevity; the terrace is spanned by a different species of elm tree to those that Henrietta would have known, in order to ensure resistance to Dutch elm disease, while groves of similarly disease-resistant Indian horse chestnut have been selected in place of English varieties. A shady hornbeam arcade surrounds the oval lawn once more, and Henrietta’s avenue of black poplars strides proudly across the landscape – including within its ranks one dubbed the ‘Henrietta Tree of Hope’, which was planted with the help of local groups working with survivors of domestic violence.

The 18th-century plan depicts a number of structures within the landscape: an ice house (an underground brick structure that stored ice to help preserve fresh produce and create fashionable sorbets and other cold treats), an alley for playing ninepins, and a grotto. This latter feature was a hugely fashionable part of 18th-century garden design, intended to evoke the caves of Greek and Roman legend, and the Classical sights from then-popular Grand Tours of Europe. Henrietta’s example had been covered over, however, during 19th-century landscaping works, leaving a depression that soon became overgrown.

The grotto remains have now been re-excavated by Historic England archaeologists, but they have in fact been ‘rediscovered’ twice before. The first brief investigation came in 1941, after a tree fell into the grotto ‘bowl’, smashing through the vaulting of its inner brick chamber. Then, when infill from this episode began to subside in the 1980s, it was dug out once more by the Greater London Council and Richmond Archaeological Society, who substantially repaired and reconstructed its stonework (with an eye on public display) but did not explore its full extent. Now, Historic England have uncovered the remains once more – there are no plans to reconstruct the grotto itself, but they have learned more about its appearance and its setting. Taken together, this trio of investigations has shed vivid light on what Henrietta’s grotto looked like.

Paint samples taken within Marble Hill revealed up to 30 different layers of accumulated colour.

Grotto design was deemed a suitably genteel activity for high-status ladies, and we know from letters exchanged with other female grotto-owners that Henrietta was personally involved in decorating the Marble Hill example, together with her great-niece of the same name. (She was known as ‘Little Henrietta’, and the letters she wrote to her parents evoke a boisterous, sunny child who prided herself on her talent for embroidery and animal impressions.) Following the fashion of the day, they adorned the grotto’s central chamber with shells and coral brought back from the Caribbean by ships engaged in the ‘Triangular Trade’, transporting goods and enslaved people between Britain, Africa, and the West Indies. Traces of these decorations can still be seen, in the form of small, circular impressions on the mortared walls, while quantities of the shells themselves were recovered during the 1980s excavations.

Henrietta also used fragments of furnace waste from glassmaking, which could be polished to a reflective shine, and the chamber’s corners had been filled with chunks of rubble, flint, and coral to make them look more irregular, like the inside of a cave. As for the floor, archaeologists have found the patchy remains of an intricate surface made up of blue-grey flints and waterworn pebbles – both brought from elsewhere – which had been set in mortar to create patterns of dark and light stones. This was edged with a line of cattle bones, a common decorative element in 18th-century gardens.

On the other side of Marble Hill’s sweeping lawn, the c.1749 plan shows a hedge-bound rectangle used for playing ninepins. Like the grotto, this feature had been swept away when the middle terrace was landscaped in the 19th century, but recent investigations have managed to pinpoint its location once more, uncovering the layer of gravel and clay that would have underlain the playing surface. This is now preserved in situ beneath a hardier protective layer, on which modern visitors are encouraged to play the skittles-like game.

Henrietta Howard’s Great Hall. In the background stand two peacock-decorated tables; the one on the left is an original that she owned; the one on the right is a replica.

Transforming the interior

Inside the house, visitors can explore the rooms that Henrietta once frequented, from the Classically inspired Tetrastyle Hall where she played cards with friends, to her personal bedchamber, grandly decorated with green silk and tall white columns. (This latter space also features a special soundscape developed with local members of the deaf community, to reflect how Henrietta lost some of her hearing in her 30s.) Like the gardens, Marble Hill’s interior has been carefully restored to its original design, analysing up to 30 layers of paint on its walls to determine how each room should be decorated. As a result, the glitzy gilding that had been added to some spaces has been returned to a surprisingly subdued palette, featuring stone-coloured walls and chocolate-brown doors and skirting. Henrietta’s dining parlour is a more vibrant space, adorned with Chinese wallpaper of the style that she loved, and her great-niece’s bedchamber is now painted in a historically accurate ‘peach blossom’ shade.

Although Henrietta’s furnishings were dispersed after her death, seven pieces from her personal collection have been recovered for display at Marble Hill, including a grand ‘pier’ table decorated with peacocks – originally one of a set of four – which has been repatriated from Australia and carefully restored to its original colour scheme. Visitors can also see a lacquer Chinese screen decorated with Henrietta’s family coat of arms, and some of her once-extensive library of books. These items are complemented by careful substitutions, all dating to the 18th century, based on a detailed inventory of the house’s contents that was drawn up in the days after her death. Visiting the house on the eve of its public reopening, with its Georgian-style décor clean and new, it was easy to imagine the pride Henrietta must have felt when welcoming her first guests through its doors – as well as the quiet satisfaction that she could at last enjoy a life of peace and independence.

Further information
Marble Hill is open Wednesday-Sunday and Bank Holidays. Entry is free. For more details, see
All images: English Heritage, unless otherwise stated.