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.
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.