Orleans House, Twickenham

Photograph: Fete Champetre at Orleans House in June 1864.

Orleans House was a Palladian Villa built in 1710 by the architect John James, one of Wren’s chief assistants, near the Thames at Twickenham, for the politician and diplomat James Johnston. He settled there at the end of his diplomatic career, in the latter part of which he worked in Germany to secure the Hanoverian succession. George I became a regular casual visitor to the house.

Johnston was one of the first to construct a home on the Thames in Twickenham in the 18th Century. He commissioned architect John James to plan and erect a mansion, a project which spanned thirty five years. In 1720-1 John James employed his fellow Scots architect, James Gibbs, to design a baroque octagonal room for the garden. It was planned as a setting in which to receive Caroline of Ansbach, George II’s future Queen Consort, who regarded Gibbs with great favour. In 1729 she dined in the Octagon Room with her children and Mrs Johnston, on such dishes as venison, vermicelli soup, chine of lamb, chicken with peaches, and capons with oysters.

Louis Philippe (1773-1850), son of the Duc d’Orleans, was King of the French from 1830-1848. He came to England during the “Hundred Days” – the period leading up to Napoleon I’s defeat at Waterloo in June 1815 – and had left again by 1818. His time at this house on the Twickenham Riverside led to its later being named after him.

Louis Philippe’s daughter, Princesse Francoise, was born on March 28th, 1816 and was baptised in St Mary’s parish church (which had been rebuilt in 1713 by John James). The life of Francoise was short; she died two years later in Neuilly sur Seine.

From 1827-45, Orleans House was the residence of Alexander Murray, MP. He had a vestibule built to connect the Octagon Room to the main house. In October 1844, Louis Philippe made a one day visit to the house as the French king, accompanied by Queen Victoria.

The 1848 Revolution in France led to the creation of the Second French Republic.

Two years after Louis Philippe’s death at Claremont in 1850, his widow Marie Amelie de Bourbon Sicile purchased Orleans House from the Earl of Kilmorey (1787-1880). From 1855 – 1877, the House was held by Marie Amelie’s son Henri, Duc d’Alumale, who built a gallery and library (since demolished) and a stables block (still stands) next to the house, bringing his extensive collection of masterpieces to site by river. Henri’s wife died in the house in 1869.

In March 1877, the house was bought by Sir John Dugdale Astley, who had the idea of creating a luxurious sports and social club there. The Orleans Club was not a great success, and in 1882 Astley sold the estate to William Cunard, the shipping magnate.

The Orleans family had its final link with the house when it provided the setting for the wedding breakfast of Princesse Helene d’Orleans, daughter of the Comte de Paris and great granddaughter of Louis Philippe, and the 2nd Duke of Aosta. They married at St Raphael’s Church, Kingston, on 25th June, 1895. The Princess’s hand in marriage had previously been sought by the respective heirs to the thrones of the United Kingdom and of the Russian Empire.

Fifty members of European royalty attended, and crowds lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the carriage procession from Orleans House to Kingston. Streets were decked with bunting in the colours of the different royal houses and three triumphal arches with “Welcome” on them were erected for the occasion at Kingston and Clattern Bridges and along Portsmouth Road. The Coronation Stone in Kingston was festooned with flowers. The railways ran extra trains from London to accommodate sightseers.

In 1899, the Duc de Guise married Isabelle Marie Laure d’Orleans at St Raphael’s.

Following William Cunard’s death in 1906, his widow lived in the house for another nine years. After World War I, the house stood empty for several years.

There was a sale of furniture and fitments at Orleans House in March 1926. The estate had been sold to the Crane River Sand and Ballast Company, who immediately set about the demolition of the house. Over 200 000 tons of sand and gravel was excavated from the site.

In 1927, the Hon Nellie Samuel, widow of Walter Henry Levy, purchased what remained of Orleans House, comprising the Octagon and adjacent wings, and the extensive stableblock to the rear. Three years later she married the architect Basil Ionides. They had one child, Adam, who died at the age of nine.

Nellie went on to purchase the adjacent Riverside House, becoming the joint occupier of both properties. Basil died in 1950, and Nelly in 1962. She bequeathed her riverside properties and her collection of paintings to Twickenham Borough Council, on condition that Orleans House should be used solely as a public art gallery.

In 1972, the Orleans House Gallery was opened. It is the venue for varied exhibitions, including displays of paintings from the Ionides collection.

Today there is a children’s party in the new stable block, the Stables Cafe is closed until they find a new supplier, and it’s “change over day in the Gallery – nothing to see.”

C’est la vie.

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