‘A Palace of Palaces’: When Osterley Park, a gift of Lord Jersey, was accepted for the nation.
In the 1940s, the future of Osterley Park, near Isleworth, was the cause of frustration for George Child Villiers, 9th Earl of Jersey.
The Manor of Osterley had been bought by Sir Thomas Gresham, Chancellor of the Exchequer to Queen Elizabeth, in 1562, who erected an ‘agreeable edifice’ built of brick and described as ‘large, convenient and thoroughly finished’.
In 1711 the house was bought by Sir Francis Child, a banker and city magnate, and it was one of his descendants, Francis Child, who employed the fashionable young architect Robert Adam, who in 20 years transformed Osterley into a palace.
Two years after Adams’ engagement Francis Child died, but his brother and heir, Robert (1739-1782), saw to the completion of the operations. Robert Child had one daughter, Sarah, who in 1782, eloped to Gretna Green with John, 10th Earl of Westmorland. The couple were soon forgiven, and their eldest daughter, Lady Sarah Fane, eventually inherited Osterley. She married in 1804 Viscount Villiers, who succeeded as 5th Earl of Jersey, and it was his heir who wanted rid of the property.
There had been long drawn-out negotiations with the National Trust. James Lees-Milne had been negotiating the transfer of the property for years, and in his 1944 diaries wrote:
“What a decline since 1939! Now total disorder and disarray. Bombs have fallen in the park, blowing out many windows; the Adam orangery has been burnt out, and the garden beds are totally overgrown. We did not go round the house which is taken over by Glyn Mills Bank, but round the confines of the estate. There are still 600 acres as yet unsold, Smith and I both deprecated the breezy way in which the Osterley agent advocated further slices to the south-east of the house being sold for building development, in order to raise an endowment. It is going to be a difficult problem how to estimate figures where so much is problematic, the outgoings associated with the museum, the number of visitors and the potential building value of the land itself.”
Lord Jersey had first offered his estate to the National Trust in 1946, but in 1948 withdrew the offer because the Middlesex County Council failed to agree on the management scheme. Afterwards Lord Jersey made new proposals which resulted in the final transfer of the property.
In December 1949, the National Trust announced that Lord Jersey’s gift of the house and 140 acres of land had been accepted.
The Victoria and Albert Museum bought from Lord Jersey the furniture and furnishings specially designed for the State rooms by Robert Adam. The arrangement and showing of the house was in the hands of the V&A, to whom the Trust lent four panels of Beauvais tapestry to hang in the gallery. The Trust had let the property on a long lease from the Ministry of Works and it was intended that after necessary alterations the house would be opened as a public museum. ( ‘The Sphere’ said at the time that the Government had actually handed over £120,500 for the contents of the house).
Lord Jersey moved to the island of Jersey, taking many pictures (including works by Rubens, Van Dyck and Claude) with him. Sadly, many of these were destroyed in a fire while en route to his new home.
The National Trust took full ownership in 1991, but has been accused by critics that Osterley was being ‘increasingly despoiled and dumbed-down’. Last year ‘The Spectator’ scoffed at plans by the Trust ‘to spend £356,000 and turn it into a ‘child-friendly leisure centre’.