People are surprised that the oft-derided flat, featureless West Middlesex landscape does not extend to Whitton where the gradient level above datum is as high as 60 feet. It is therefore no coincidence that the great and good of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were drawn to this tranquil quarter. Sir John Suckling Senior chose the highest spot on a plateau (now Warren Road) to look across the Thames valley at Richmond Hill. Sir Simon Harvey, whose job it was to organise royal journeys for Charles I, missed a trick in the sale of two cottages at a slightly lesser elevation but nonetheless quite the best view of the countryside towards the Surrey Hills. The shrewd purchaser, one Edmund Cooke, immediately set about demolishing the cottages in order to build himself the largest house in Twickenham parish by a single hearth; Suckling’s mansion boasting but 19 hearths coming a close second.
Cooke died in 1627 and the mansion passed through several hands before attracting the attention of the preeminent portraiturist of the day, Sir Godfrey Kneller, who by 1709 had accrued sufficient wealth to purchase this country seat far enough from the stench and disease of summertime London. Three centuries later and the Ministry of Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) is now formally instructed to market the latest mansion on the same spot along with its extensive grounds as a new residential development opportunity once the army vacate this coming August.
The DIO has been working closely with the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames to formulate an adopted Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) in support of a residential led development with much-needed affordable and market housing as part of the wider London Plan. The mid-Victorian mansion taking the name of Kneller Hall is grade II listed together with the boundary wall, guard house and band practise room. The SPD sets out to ensure these heritage assets are refurbished and enhanced to retain a strong identity reflecting the site’s military legacy. But what of the man whose name the property bears, arguably the greatest master of the English baroque portrait?
This foundation, or corner stone is all that remains of the house that Kneller had built in 1709 to replace Cooke’s mansion. At the time of writing, the stone languishes in the fireplace of the Officers’ Mess, excused duty as a doorstop since its identification by the author of this piece several years ago.
The abbreviated motto inscribed upon it reads: The Building of this ho – –begun by Sir Godfrey K—1709. It survived the third major redevelopment of the building in 1850 when all trace of Kneller’s influence was removed. The stone perhaps went to Thomas Twining III’s Museum of Domestic and Sanitary Economy, otherwise known as The Twickenham Economic Museum, which opened in July 1860 and burnt down in May 1871. It may have formed part of the private collections either of the Duc d’Orleans or Sir Ratan Tata, the Indian industrialist and philanthropist and the last private owner of York House.
Radnor House was purchased by the Borough Council 1904 intending to incorporate a museum but was used primarily as a store for donations awaiting permanent display. After purchasing York House in 1924, the Council opened a small museum there, manned by volunteers. This closed in 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War. The last known whereabouts of this unique Kneller artifact was at Radnor House. Destroyed by a German bomb in 1940, the surviving fragment of stone is believed to have been returned to Kneller Hall but appears never to have made it as an exhibition piece in the subsequent museum of military music there.
At the time of writing, there are one or two oil paintings ascribed to Kneller dotted about the building awaiting return to their rightful owners. The man himself is celebrated as part of the museum collection. Otherwise, he appears to be quite forgotten in all the excitement surrounding the scale and location of the site offering huge opportunities to housebuilders, developers, and registered providers to create a high quality residential led development that integrates with the surrounding area. Or words to that effect.
The open landscape is protected we are assured and there is talk of recognising the site’s proud military music history in the form of a performance area. But what of the court painter to ten reigning sovereigns and innumerable sitters of rank, wealth, and eminence whose faces stare out at us in almost every historic mansion or palace in the kingdom? How can he be best remembered? His name might well attach a proposed public park, but then that overlooks Humphry Repton the last of the English landscape gardeners after Capability Brown. But then that’s another story.
Kneller Hall: Looking Backward Looking Forward by Ed Harris is published by The Borough of Twickenham Local History Society.
Ed Harris is a published author; chair of the Borough of Twickenham Local History Society; Twickenham Museum management committee and Whitton’s local historian.