Possibly the most surprising event I’ve come across all year, I wasn’t expecting the Magical Lantern Festival at Chiswick house to be anything more than a pleasant wander through the historic grounds at night to the tune of a few fairylights in trees.
And to be honest, I’d have been quite pleased with that. Even when I saw some of the preview shots, I assumed that the giant set pieces such as a 66 metre dragon, a 10 metre high model of Beijing’s Temple of Heaven, larger-than-life terracotta warriors and an extraordinary Imperial Palace lantern, I assumed they’d be the highlights and everything else would be a bit sparse.
Even as I walked through the high-hedge pathway to the main entrance I wasn’t prepared for the sheer size and quality of this festival.
Memories of the appallingly-signposted route from the tube (ie. none at all, so I ended up walking a good twice as far as I needed to) faded as spectacular sights for sore eyes (and feet) kept appearing with ever corner turned. Chiswick’s circular pool, edged by a classical temple and complete with stone obelisk, turned into what I can only describe as a colourful noodle soup of lotus flowers, goldfish and flowers.
A veritable Serengeti of animals plod across an Elysian plain of grass. Flamingos nuzzle along the banks of the river; next to them goldfish, lotus leaves and the odd toad seem to inhabit an underwater world.
Ants play on a see-saw, accompanied by ants in skirts playing trumpets. Spring flowers nod and glow, while peacocks, elephants and pandas play. Every single character is a character – not one of them looks in the slightest bit ‘manufactured’. They have been crafted lovingly, over what I can only imagine was months of extraordinary work.
Near the house, two giant illuminated sphinx stand sentinel, while an outburst of flowers glow like silk. Perhaps they are. Nearby, a Ming Vase looks almost simple given the clamour of two enormous fans, some champagne glasses and said terracotta army.
The path twists and turns, revealing new wonders with every corner, and showing other marvels you’ve just enjoyed from another angle – no ugly backsides here. Birds, pumpkins, vases and even the Monkey King take their time to shine, and continue to thrill, even from a distance.
This all sounds a bit kitsch. Amazingly, it’s not. It’s gorgeous, colourful and thrusting, but it is not tacky in any way. It has a cartoon beauty almost impossible not to like. It’s something you can take your gran, your toddler and your hipster friend to and they’ll all find something to love.
By the last couple of turns amazement has almost – almost, mark you, not completely – turned to lantern-fatigue, but you are slowly let down from this extraordinary ride. The lanterns continue even to the very end, leaving you with a million memories. This is one heck of a show. Don’t miss it.
The festival runs to 6th March, 2016. Book tickets here