Let’s face it, England’s historic houses tend to be too big. They look nice in photographs, but they sprawl impractically. They are virtually impossible to heat, let alone maintain. Their wings are as unused as an ostrich’s. Their aristocratic owners are reduced to project managers.
Marble Hill is much better. Sitting by the river Thames in Richmond, it is the kind of size that wouldn’t quite satisfy a modern banker moving to the Cotswolds. It is a grand property that you can actually imagine feeling like a home.
And that is precisely the point. Marble Hill was built in the 1720s by Henrietta Howard, mistress of the future George II, as the then Prince of Wales started planning for her retirement. This was Howard’s country retreat from court intrigue. “She had a hand in the design” of the Palladian villa, says Wendy Monkhouse, senior curator at English Heritage. “This was exactly what she wanted.”
The house has now reopened to the public, free of charge for the first time, and with longer hours. A three-year, £8mn restoration project has sought to cast the light on Howard while making her story newly accessible. English Heritage now refers to her less as a “mistress” — not (we’re told) because they are prudes, but because they want to focus on her in her own right, rather than as George’s adjunct.
Howard’s story is about overcoming adversity. Her father was killed in a duel. She lost her mother aged 12. Trying to escape family debts, she married a man who turned out to be brutally abusive. But she worked her way up through the court at Hanover with charm and wisdom, returned to England as a courtier, eventually won her independence and, after her husband’s death, remarried.
Howard was a woman of letters who cultivated writers. After stepping back from the royal court, she was friends with Jonathan Swift, who wanted to marry her, and Alexander Pope, who lived nearby and helped to design the gardens. Charles Jervas’s portrait of her, which hangs in the downstairs hall, makes her seem serene and curious.
Howard’s story is a jumping-off point for Marble Hill’s relevance. Her experience of domestic abuse has led English Heritage to work with survivors, who have planted a tree of hope in the gardens. The charity has also worked with disability groups, because Howard started to lose her hearing in her late twenties or early thirties (precisely why is not clear, but it was common at the time, says Monkhouse — “George went deaf as well. People went deaf”).
But the house was also built off the suffering of the slave trade. Howard was given £11,500 (approximately £3mn in today’s money) of shares by the Prince of Wales, which almost certainly financed the construction. Two-thirds of the shares were in the South Sea Company, which was becoming more involved in the slave trade.
She was also given other items, including mahogany. Marble Hill’s mahogany staircases and floors are of wood thought to have been harvested by enslaved Africans in Central America, possibly modern-day Belize. Mahogany is native to the Americas, but its name may derive from a word in Yoruba, a west African language. “Everybody knows about sugar but we haven’t focused on mahogany. Every 18th-century house has mahogany furniture,” says Monkhouse.
The slavery links are especially notable, given that historians see the classical style of buildings such as Marble Hill as part of a deliberate attempt by the English elite to imagine themselves as an oligarchy of “civic virtue”. But the educational message is lighter touch than I was expecting. Fragments of a poem by modern-day British writer Malika Booker are carved on a table: “O Speak of Mahogany . . . Think genocide visited here and men laboured in the art of such.”
There is also a section in the guidebook and volunteers on hand to add context. Some may say the light touch is a missed opportunity and others may say it is fair enough, given that Howard was not directly involved with slavery herself. A 63-page PDF of English Heritage’s research about the links of Marble Hill, and its subsequent residents, to the slave trade is available online.
The house has been refurbished with the help of an inventory taken four days after Howard’s death in 1767, aged 78. It includes a breakfast room on the ground floor; Howard bought masses of Chinese porcelain, in line with the fashion. The Great Room on the second floor has had its 19th-century “white, gold and more gold” decor painted over with a tasteful off-white that is closer to Howard’s original aesthetic. It is surrounded by three bedrooms, one for Howard, one for her second husband, member of parliament George Berkeley, and one for her great-niece. The third floor includes a long gallery, where people would have exercised. It would have been a manageable property, even with the service wing (now demolished).
The surrounding 66.5-acre site is well used, and, when English Heritage looked to restore it, there were objections from many locals who feared losing access. Instead the restoration includes improvements to the surrounding sports pitches and facilities. The gardens are a relatively rare example of 18th-century attempts to reimagine ancient Roman gardens.
There is now a games area, featuring nine-pin bowling, which was played at the time, and a wild-flower meadow. Bees were kept here, but visitors will have to make do with a slightly ridiculous replica of a beehive. More importantly, young trees now frame the house’s view down to the Thames. (In Howard’s time, most visitors would have come by river, a couple of hours from London, and there was no embankment to separate the gardens from the water.)
All this was funded by £5mn from the National Lottery, and £3mn from English Heritage. But keeping the house open is only possible thanks to a new army of volunteers, currently 240. As always, the grandeur relies on goodwill.
English Heritage’s chair is Sir Tim Laurence, a former naval officer who happens to be married to Princess Anne. Laurence is a non-fusty, patrician figure. “Most people call me Tim. Even the gardeners call me Tim,” he tells me, over coffee at the Marble Hill café. In royal terms, he has a low enough profile that he even travels by Tube. (Don’t expect to see his wife: “I don’t think she’s been on an Underground for a long time, if at all. She has security issues which I don’t. I’m expendable.”)
While some English people feel threatened by the new historical narratives, particularly around slavery and empire, Laurence — sitting near the top of the Establishment — is not.
“History is what happened,” he says, upper lip duly stiffened. “Telling the story of Marble Hill without making the link to the slave trade and to mahogany would be wrong, in my view. We’re telling it like it is [ . . .] The transatlantic slave trade was one of the most appalling things in British history,” he adds.
“But there’s another important side of it, which is: it shouldn’t dominate. This place is all about how you build a beautiful house, what was going on at the time, the design of that wonderful garden, and making all of that available to the local community.”
The National Trust has been lambasted by some rightwing commentators for its approach; a recent article tried to depict English Heritage as a non-woke competitor. Laurence closes ranks: “We’re very close to the National Trust. I’ve been a National Trust member practically since I left school.” Like many British people, he tempers his revulsion at the slave trade by pointing to Britain’s role in ending it. “I’m extremely proud that my background is in the Royal Navy, and the Royal Navy battled for 60 years to try and stop it.” Some of the backlash to historical research “has become too extreme”.
English Heritage’s underlying challenge is financial. Since 2015, it has been an independent charity; it no longer receives a block government grant. Only about 20 of its sites — led by Stonehenge and also including Tintagel Castle in Cornwall — make a profit. The other 400 or so are either free to access or tickets don’t cover their cost. So it relies on its 1.2mn members, its cafés and gift shops, and grants from the lottery and others.
Covid has been “a really tough time”. Visitor numbers are expected to be near 5mn this year, down from 6.2mn pre-pandemic. “We need people to come back,” says Laurence. Foreign tourists in particular. “We do make quite a lot out of inbound tourism, so that’s a worry.” The charity has missed its target of breaking even in 2022, and is now aiming for 2025.
Despite financial constraints, he wants English Heritage to expand. “We’re not very strong on the industrial revolution, and we’ve got a couple of cold war bunkers. I would hope my successor would look to acquire more sites, probably more contemporary sites.”
For the moment, many English Heritage properties are either in ruins or threatening to become so soon. Last year part of Hurst Castle, an English Heritage property built in the 1540s on a shingle spit in Hampshire, collapsed into the sea after years of erosion.
“We haven’t absolutely got a long-term plan,” says Laurence. “Part of the problem is because the shingle from the spit comes from the shoreline along Christchurch Bay, and gradually over the decades Christchurch Bay has been concreted in with more and more habitation, so the shingle supply is not coming in at the same rate. So we’re fighting against the tide there. But we will go on trying to protect it as long as we can.”
Critics say that English Heritage is itself eroding its greatest asset, Stonehenge, by backing a motorway tunnel. Unesco has threatened that the site will lose its world heritage status if the project goes ahead. “I very much hope when Unesco look at it, when it’s finished, they say, ‘Actually, from a heritage point of view, this is a vast improvement on what was there before,’” says Laurence. But losing the status would probably be only symbolic: “Would it really make a difference to the people wanting to go there?”
In general, Laurence argues that the focus on heritage should not impede developments: “People are very anxious about change,” but “you’ve got to modernise.” He thinks people are “a bit over-precious” about the transformation of Liverpool’s docks for Everton’s new football stadium. (The docks have lost their Unesco heritage status.)
At Marble Hill, there were objections — ranging from “those who felt we shouldn’t be talking about Henrietta at all, because she was a harlot” to those who wanted a smaller café and assurance that there would not be
Such resistance is part of England’s history. When the land for Marble Hill was acquired piecemeal in the 1720s, some locals initially refused to sell “because they were frightened of this incomer”. The lesson of our heritage is that conservation works, but it’s also that someone had to work to create these sites in the first place.
Book your visit to Marble Hill at english-heritage.org.uk
Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer