Orleans House Gallery

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If you’ve ever thought about visiting Twickenham’s Orleans House Gallery, now is a great time to go while it is hosting Arcadian Vistas: Richmond’s Landscape Gardens. Given that the English landscape garden movement was first nurtured here along the banks of the Thames, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting locale for this exhibition.

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Neatly divided into sections focusing on some of the more influential gardens, gardeners and garden designers of the movement – including Alexander Pope, Horace Walpole, William Kent, Kew Gardens and Chiswick House – the exhibition features mostly illustrations and paintings from the Richmond Borough Art Collections, nicely supplemented by some loans. A smaller collection of objects is also on show, including John Serles’ guide to Alexander Pope’s garden and grotto, alongside A Description of the Villa of Horace Walpole (describing nearby Strawberry Hill).

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Two large paintings depicting Arcadian Thames – Leonard Knyff’s A View of Hampton Court and Peter Tilleman’s The Thames at Twickenham – are also highlights. Don’t miss the gallery upstairs, where slightly more esoteric topics – follies, Chinoiserie, orangeries, water features and grottos – are featured, accompanied by some lovely examples of blue and white porcelain.

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Sadly, Orleans House’s beautiful Octagon Room, a few adjoining buildings and the Stable block out the back are all that remains of what was once an extensive estate built in the early eighteenth century for James Johnston, Secretary of State for Scotland. The Octagon Room was actually a later addition, designed by James Gibbs (who also designed St Martin-in-the-Fields church) as a separate garden entertainment space for Johnston. The house acquired its name after it was rented to Louis Philippe, Duc d’Orleans, during his exile from France.

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After passing through a number of hands, the main house was finally demolished in the 1920s by a firm of gravel merchants. They failed to find any gravel on the site. Today, Orleans House Gallery and its Octagon Room are worth a visit – their interesting program of exhibitions is free and open to the public on most afternoons except Mondays (check online here, as times vary throughout the year). Marble Hill House and Grotto are just next door, and Ham House is but a scenic ferry ride across the Thames.

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Twickenham’s Grottoes Part 2

Marble Hill Park Grotto

Having explored Alexander Pope’s once magnificent grotto in Part One of this series, we now turn to another grotto in Twickenham with connections to Pope. The grotto located in the grounds of English Heritage’s Marble Hill property – and this one is open to the public – was not only inspired by Pope, but the poet himself helped with the design (and indeed with that of the entire grounds) – ‘assisting’ landscape shaper Charles Bridgeman.

Marble Hill was built between 1724-29 for Henrietta Howard, the mistress of King George II. The Countess of Suffolk, as she was later to become, had visited Pope’s grotto and determined to have one of her very own built in the grounds of her nearby Palladian villa. In fact, it is believed that there were originally two grottoes built in the grounds, and it seems likely that the one you can see today is the smaller of the two. It was first rediscovered after a fallen tree revealed a secret chamber in 1941. It was refilled at this time but in 1983 subsidence on the lawn lead to excavations which saw it uncovered yet again and finally restored.

Like Pope’s own grotto, the Countess’s would have originally been more colourful, containing shells, coral and blue glass. Sadly these decorations were too fragile to be conserved so it is now a much plainer proposition altogether. The small ‘cave’ itself is behind bars, and composed mostly of rather barren stone and brick. A stone table can still be seen, though not in the best condition. The exterior top part of the grotto is not original but has been reconstructed as it is thought to have originally appeared. Today the grotto is approached down a set of stairs – another feature thought to be faithful to its original appearance.

As I approached the grotto from the Thames, it looked like nothing more than a hedge. Shrubbery has been planted around the grotto and its stairs creating this effect (earlier photos show the grotto after its restoration with no shrubbery). Actually this oval ‘hedge’ is in keeping with a description of the larger grotto as containing ‘an Ally of flowering shrubs’. The location of this second, larger grotto remains a mystery.

You can view the Marble Hill grotto during Marble Hill Park’s opening hours, which are standard dawn to dusk times. If you’re considering combining your trip with a visit to the house make sure you check its separate opening hours as these are very limited and it’s usually closed throughout the colder months.

Twickenham’s Grottoes

Part One: Pope’s Grotto

‘I am endeavouring to raise up around me a painted scene of woods and forests in verdure and beauty…I am wandering through bowers and grottoes in conceit’.

Imagine an Arcadian villa along the Thames, owned by a poet, which sits atop a grotto containing a natural spring, and decorated with mirrors, shells, stalactites, crystals, diamonds and marble. Sadly the villa is now long gone but Alexander Pope’s grotto – in which he once worked and held court – remains, if badly denuded of its unique materials.

Pope moved to Twickenham in 1719 and built a grand Palladian villa along the banks of the Thames in 1720. The grotto – which was actually constructed in the cellars of the house and allowed Pope easy access to his gardens on the other side of the road – was built in stages between 1720 and 1744. Initially, when the grotto was primarily a tunnel  – or ‘subterraneous way’ – beneath the house, Pope decorated it with shells, glass and pieces of mirror, inspired by the imagery of Homer’s grotto. He also created a camera obscura that reflected on the grotto walls ‘all the objects of the River, Hills, Woods, and Boats…forming a moving picture’ (later buildings have since blocked the grotto’s view to the river). From 1733 visitors arriving by boat would be led into the villa through Pope’s picturesque grotto.

Inspired by a visit he took to Hotwells Spa in the Avon Gorge in 1739, Pope later determined to redesign the grotto as a veritable museum of mineralogy and mining, containing samples of stalactites, spars, crystals, diamonds, marble and alabaster, to name but a few. Donors – both friends of Pope and people completely unknown to him – had long sent samples from around the globe, sometimes voluntarily but often at Pope’s (sometimes insistent) request. These now continued apace, including pieces from the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, one of which can still be seen embedded in the wall today.

The grotto was still a work in progress when Pope died in 1744 as he was forever adding to it. Fortunately his gardener, John Serle, drew a plan of the grotto as it was at this stage, which is how we know that it once had an extra chamber on the northern side and had by this time expanded to fill the surrounding cellar rooms (it was widened further after Pope’s death). Sadly over the years many of the mineral samples and decorative touches were ‘souvenired’ by pilgrims who came to visit Pope’s grotto from around the world and wanted to take home a little piece of it for themselves. The natural spring dried up some time ago, so today visitors can no longer enjoy the sound of water coursing around the grotto.

The excavated willow tree.

Recently a willow tree – believed to be one of the willows Pope famously planted along the river, which was moved at some later point into the grotto – was excavated. A table of finds is on show in one of the chambers, displaying numerous materials found amongst the dirt which had covered the tree. Today the buildings surrounding the grotto are owned by Radnor House, an independent school (rows of children’s art smocks line the walls outside the grotto’s entrance). The grotto is generally only open to the public once a year as part of the Twickenham Festival, normally held in June, which is how the Londonphile made it inside what was once Pope’s magical underground world. Meanwhile, Pope’s Grotto Preservation Trust is working to preserve and to hopefully restore the grotto to its former glory at some point in the future.

Alexander Pope was also instrumental in the design of the grotto that is featured in Part Two of this series – the Marble Hill Park Grotto.

2013 update: The grotto will be open to visitors on two days during the Twickenham Festival: Saturday 8th June at 10:30 and 11:30am, and Saturday 15th June at 10:30 and 11:30am. Further information is available on the Twickenham The Town site.

Entrance will be by pre-paid ticket only and will cost £5 per person, £4 for concessions, free for under 11s.

The finds table.

At risk: Severndroog Castle

Wanderers new to Shooters Hill Woodlands may be surprised to find signs pointing them ‘to the castle’. But Severndroog Castle is in fact not a castle at all but a folly. Nor is it a sham castle but rather another popular form of folly – a triangular tower, a fashionable style for ambitious follies of its day. The 60-foot gothic brick tower designed by Richard Jupp – featuring a hexagonal turret at each corner – is found in Castle Wood, atop South London’s highest point. Built in 1784 by his widow to commemorate Commodore Sir William James and his capture in 1755 of the Indian island fortress of Suvarnadurg (rendered in English as Severndroog) – a castle seems a most appropriate form for his memorial to take.

Plaque commemorating Sir William James.

Although classified as a folly – which is generally held to be a structure without a purpose – Severndroog Castle has actually given itself over to a number of uses throughout the years. This is mainly owing to its great height – the roof of its tower is 50-feet higher than St Paul’s Cathedral cross. Its vantage point across seven counties has been put to good use in linking up England and France trigonometrically (in 1797), in the surveying of London by the Royal Engineers (1848) and during World War Two as an observation post. Some of this view has now been lost as the trees have grown up around the castle.

Now sadly boarded up, the castle once boasted a cafe on the ground floor and, according to Hilary Peters from the Folly Fellowship who visited the site in the 1970s, ‘a perfect eighteenth-century interior: original flower paintings on the original green walls, original plasterwork, original shutters’. She also reveals that one of the towers encloses a staircase, while the others are cabinets off the main room; the first and second floor rooms were kept locked – though Barbara Jones described ‘a hexagonal room with a fine plaster ceiling’ on the first – but visitors could ascend the stairs to the platform on the roof and take in the views.

Unfortunately the interior has been seriously vandalised, while Peters believes that the Georgian flowers were painted over by ‘official vandals’ some time ago. This Grade II* listed structure currently finds itself on English Heritage’s Buildings At Risk register. The Severndroog Castle Building Preservation Trust is now working to restore and re-open the castle, having almost secured an agreement to lease it from Greenwich Council. They have secured Heritage Lottery Funding of £595,000 but this covers only 70% of the full cost – more funds are needed for the Trust to meet its full target of £840,000. You can donate or ‘buy a brick’ for just £5 through Just Giving. Hopefully Severndroog Castle can lose its ‘at risk’ status – a sad fate for a building that folly hunter Gwyn Headley once described as the earliest and best folly tower in London.

What you can do: you can donate/buy a brick to support the castle here

For further information & advice on how to get to the site (the postcode is SE18 3RT): Severndroog Castle Building Preservation Trust

Sydenham Hill Wood and Folly

‘A folly might be defined as a useless building erected for ornament on a gentleman’s estate’ – Barbara Jones.

‘The mark of a true folly is that it was erected to satisfy and give pleasure to the builder, and greatly to surprise the stranger’ – Sir Hugh Casson.

While there is much debate about how exactly to define a folly, there’s little doubt that many visitors must be fooled by this folly in Sydenham Hill Wood. These ‘ruins’ actually only date back to the Victorian era, and were built as an impressive garden feature in the grounds of a large house once on the site – Fairwood, which was built around 1864. Its owner, Alderman David Henry Stone (later a Lord Mayor of London), contracted the firm of James Pulham & Son (inventor of the artificial Pulhamite rock) to construct these sham ruins. Ruins had been a popular type of folly since the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when wealthy landowners inspired by their Grand Tours of Europe wanted to re-create some of the classical sights in their own gardens.

The folly and rockery

The Sydenham folly depicts a ruined church or monastery – apparently remains of stained glass were still present in the windows back in the 1950s and early 1960s. It’s thought that the arch would once have been complete – although it’s hard to be precise when you’re talking about ruins, and fake ones at that! There are also the remains of a rockery leading down to what was once an ornamental stream. Previously a group of six or seven large houses, including Fairwood, had been built on this 9-hectare site, but these were demolished by the end of the 1970s and the area returned to a woodland state (with a few Victorian era plants thrown in for good measure). It has been managed by the London Wildlife Trust since 1982.

Although it was the folly that drew me to Sydenham Hill Wood, this little slice of woodland also has several other points of interest. As difficult as it is to believe given its rather pristine current state, a railway line once ran right through this area – and not just any line, but the Crystal Palace line transporting people from Nunhead to the Crystal Palace. Camille Pissarro painted the view from the Cox’s Walk Footbridge in the wood in 1871 (see picture below left), which looks remarkably different today (below right). You can also see the 1865 tunnel mouth that the railway once passed through – now home to a colony of bats. Much like the story in Vauxhall, this is an open space that has reverted to type, in this case with the wood and its inhabitants reclaiming the space.

Sydenham Hill Wood is located in SE26 – there are entry points on Crescent Wood Road and Sydenham Hill. Forest Hill and Sydenham Overground are the closest stations, while the buses that will get you here are the 363 and 356. It even has its own Twitter account: @SydenhamWoodLWT

London Wildlife Trust Sydenham Hill Wood page

If you’d like to see more photos of the folly you can visit the Londonphile’s Flickr set.