Osterley Park is a mansion set in a large park of the same name. It is in the borough of Hounslow, in the western suburbs of London. When the house was built it was surrounded by rural countryside. It was one of a group of large houses close to London which served as country retreats for wealthy families, but were not true country houses on large agricultural estates. Other surviving country retreats of this type near London include Syon House and Chiswick House. The park is one of the largest open spaces in west London, though it is marred by the presence of the M4, which cuts across the middle of it.
Sir Thomas Gresham, commercial agent and financial adviser to Elizabeth I, bought the manor of Osterley in 1562 and by 1576 replaced the existing farmhouse with 'a faire and stateley brick house'.
For a man of the city, Osterley not only represented somewhere green and tranquil, but also a source of income. Described as 'a most fertyle place for wheate' the estate had ample resources. Gresham established one of the first paper mills in England here.
Nicholas Barbon acquired Osterley in 1683. An opportunist, he used Osterley as security to raise a large sum of money. He died in debt and in 1713 Osterley went to Sir Francis Child in payment of his loan.
Apprenticed to a London goldsmith at the age of fourteen, by a judicious marriage Sir Francis found himself the partner and then sole owner of the firm. By 1698 he was Lord Mayor of London and had expanded his business into banking with the creation of Child's Bank.
Over the next two generations, the family's wealth and position grew. In 1761 Robert Adam, the most fashionable architect of the day, was commissioned by Sir Francis's grandson, another Francis, to modernise the house. He transformed it into what you see today, remodelling the outside and designing the interiors and a great deal of the furnishings. His vast portico makes a particularly grand statement of classical refinement.
The house is of red brick with white stone details and is approximately square, with turrets in the four corners. Adam's design, which incorporates some of the earlier structure, is highly unusual, and differs greatly in style from the original construction. One side is left almost open and is spanned by an Ionic pedimented screen which is approached by a broad flight of steps and leads to a central courtyard, which is at the piano nobile level.
Above: Robert Adam
The unity of design was carried through into the park by Francis and, on his death in 1763, by his brother Robert Child. They redirected rivers to form a chain of sinuous lakes through the Park, and created a drive which brought people in a tantalising loop before finally arriving at the House.
Not active as an MP or in running the bank, Robert Child spent a great deal of time at, and money on, Osterley. His wife was equally involved and she lived on at Osterley for 10 years after his death.
By the beginning of the 19th century, Osterley was no longer a main residence and, apart from a few brief periods of occupation, would not be so again. In 1923, the 9th Earl of Jersey inherited Osterley at the age of 13. He opened the house to the public in 1939 because he said, 'he did not live in it and …many others wished to see it'. In July 1939, the Georgian Group held a great ball at Osterley.
Adam's neoclassical interiors are among his most notable sequences of rooms. Horace Walpole sarcastically described the drawing room as "worthy of Eve before the fall." The rooms are characterised by elaborate but restrained plasterwork, rich, highly varied colour schemes, and a degree of coordination between decor and furnishings unusual in English neoclassical interiors.
Above and Below: Examples of the colourful interiors and rich plaster work
Above: The Etruscan Dressing Room
Notable rooms include the entrance hall, which has large semi-circular alcoves at each end, and the Etruscan dressing room, which Adam said was inspired by the Etruscan vases in Sir William Hamilton's collection, illustrations of which had recently been published. Adam also designed some of the furniture, including the opulent domed state bed, still in the house (below)