The Statues at York House
Cascade, pool and Oceanides
The greatest surprise a visitor to Twickenham can have is to come unexpectedly upon the statues of naked female figures, some in highly unusual attitudes, which adorn a cascade and pool in the riverside portion of the gardens. Imported from Italy by a fraudulent financier who took his own life on conviction in 1904, they were acquired by the last private owner of York House, an Indian grandee called Sir Ratan Tata.
When the house was sold and the contents auctioned the statues stayed where they were. Tata's widow may have given them to the local friend who helped her with the sale, but it is not difficult to believe that the task of moving and installing the group at another site daunted prospective purchasers.
Over the years the statues suffered neglect and vandalism, pumps failed and the pool leaked. By the late 1980s there were even people who believed they should be abandoned to their fate.Others disagreed, and raised funds to restore and protect what are known locally as: "the naked ladies".
In the spring of 1989 a large crowd celebrated the re-emergence of clean white marble and the replacement of fingers, hands and feet. The band played and the Mayor congratulated and thanked all concerned. There has been no certain vandalism since, but the statues again cry out for regular attention. Only public funds seem to be lacking, a sad commentary on our times.
In November 2000 the Hon Secretary of The York House Society received a letter from a Mrs Alison M Benton of Uckfield, enclosing some notes dictated by her grandfather, Ernest Cheal, shortly before he died in 1961.
The firm of J Cheal & Sons, which Ernest had joined in 1894 at the age of 16, had designed and created several Italian gardens with statuary. He had accompanied his father Joseph on many site visits to Hever Castle, Edenbridge in 1904-8.
“Sir Ratan Tata .... wrote about doing a lot of interesting work in his garden .... he wanted us to make a good rock garden. He had bought a lot of white marble statuary which lay in a heap at Witley and we had to go down there and see it and arrange to get it to Twickenham.
“I went over to Witley Park not far from Hindhead, and found these statues which had been bought in Italy by Mr Whitaker Wright the great financier who .... had spent fabulous sums of money on the house and garden ....
“These white statues of women, much larger than lifesize, were still in their packing cases which were beginning to rot when I saw them, and as several of the blocks weighed over 5 tons transport was a difficult problem, but we were able to arrange for it.
“The next problem was how to fit these blocks together as we had no plans or sketches, but we found out the name of the Art Professor, out at Carrara near to Pisa, who had designed them and sent them over here.
“So Arthur [Ernest's younger brother] and I arranged to have our holiday that summer at the Italian lakes, and we went down one evening after the waiter at the hotel had sent him a wire in Italian to say we were coming. On arrival at the station he met us with great pomp but he could not speak a word of English. After a while he went off and found someone who knew enough English to get along with so we had a long talk.
“He told us he was the only person who could do this work as it was difficult to fit them together; we were sure that this would not work, but in further talk we just got a clue which enabled us to work things out when we got back.
“Two of these statues represented women, one of whom was reaching down over the rocks to lift up the other woman whose arm was reaching up to her friend, but as one of the arms was carved as part of the other statue we had care in working the great hand derrick crane, which we hired for the job, with the greatest difficulty and neither arm was broken and all went well under Tyrrell's careful supervision.
“The whole work lasted about six months but is still in very good order and the Town Council now have the house as their headquarters.