While in London a year or so ago, we went to Green Park to see a pair of huge blue and gold wrought-iron gates, a Grade II* Listed Building. The gates, which once formed a grand entrance to Green Park, are a reminder that visible traces of history can be much more complex than first impressions. They were originally made for the estate that Lord Heathfield purchased in 1789 to the west of London, at Turnham Green, which was then a small rural village. Heathfield House was demolished in 1837, but the name survives locally as Heathfield Terrace – not much to mark the hero of the Great Siege of Gibraltar, who is better known as George Augustus Eliott.
The Turnham Green gates, now at Green Park
The gates were purchased in 1837 by the Duke of Devonshire for the front of nearby Chiswick House, but in 1897 or 1898 they were moved to the front of Devonshire House in Piccadilly, London. This Palladian-style house had been constructed from 1734 by the architect William Kent for William Cavendish, the 3rd Duke of Devonshire. It was built on the site of Berkeley House that had been destroyed by fire in 1733 while being refurbished. During the time of the 5th Duke, whose wife was the dazzling Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, it became the social and political centre of the Whig supporters of Charles James Fox.
After World War One, with huge death duties to pay, the property was sold and demolished – even then regarded as cultural vandalism. In 1921 the gates were re-erected opposite, on the edge of Green Park, and the house was replaced by a large block, also called Devonshire House. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, published in 1925, is set on a single day in June 1923, and Clarissa Dalloway’s feeling of melancholy at the loss of the pre-war way of life is palpable as she walks down Piccadilly and passes Devonshire House ‘without its gilt leopards’ – a reference to the gilded crouching sphinxes on top of the stone pillars of the gates.
For more on George Augustus Eliott, see our book Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History.