Kilmorey Mausoleum

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I think I may have found a mausoleum that tops even Richard Burton’s in its uniqueness: the Kilmorey Mausoleum in Twickenham’s St Margarets. This £30,000 tomb – a fortune when built in 1854 – was a memorial for the mistress of the 2nd Earl of Kilmorey, Priscilla Hoste, who just also happened to be his ward. Today, the tomb lies in a small garden, no longer connected to the house to which it was originally attached, and on rare occasions you can visit and inspect the contents – including the coffins – for yourself.

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Originally erected in Brompton Cemetery, the Egyptian-style tomb – which thanks to Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign was very on-trend at the time – was actually re-located twice as the Earl moved around various properties in London. The Earl never allowed either of his two wives to be buried in the tomb, and finally joined his lover in 1880 at the grand age of 92.

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Its final site here was attached to nearby Gordon House, where a tunnel was built under the road to connect the mausoleum to the house. The Earl was said to use this tunnel is his later years, when he would get his servants to wheel him through it – wrapped in a shroud, lying in his coffin – to his tomb, in what some believe was a bizarre practice ritual for his own funeral.

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The mausoleum’s design is impressive – created by Henry Edward Kendall Jr in the Egyptian Revival style, it features cast bronze doors and pink Scottish granite. It is covered with Egyptian motifs, including the the winged sun disc of the god Ra. The skylight stars in the ceiling of the mausoleum allow the sun to project these stars across the coffins at certain times of the day. A large white marble relief carved by Lawrence MacDonald hangs  on one wall, showing Priscilla on her death bed with the Earl at her feet and their son Charles at her side.

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The coffins of the Earl and Priscilla are still very much present on either side of the mausoleum – son Charles refused to take up his allocated shelf. It seems amazing that you can actually enter this small space and stand right next to them. Unlike the rest of the mausoleum, the coffins are very much in Victorian funerary style, with both covered in red velvet. This has very much faded over time, but I was surprised to learn that they had been preserved in a near-perfect state until 1987, when a storm resulted in water damage.

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The Kilmorey Mausoleum is only able to be visited on special open days; it is next open as part of the Open House Weekend on Sunday 22nd September 2013. Openings, events and location details are listed on their website.

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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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Eel Pie Island

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Just twice a year Twickenham’s Eel Pie Island opens its doors to the general public when the normally private island holds open studio weekends for its artists. I availed myself of the the opportunity to visit last weekend for the pre-Christmas opening and crossed the bridge to this most exclusive island, which boasts 26 artists’ studios, only 50 or so houses and around 120 residents.

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It’s thought that the island was originally in three parts and may have once been connected to Twickenham by a prehistoric causeway. The footbridge which now connects the island to the mainland was only built in 1957. Once across and on dry land again, one main walkway (pictured above) runs much of the length of this very narrow island, with houses, studios and boathouses along either side. Housing styles vary immensely – from the cute and rustic to the surprisingly modern – and there was even a new house in the process of construction and one to let in case you’re tempted to move in. Despite its extremely narrow nature, views were only available back across the Twickenham side of the river (see below) during the open studios as private houses line the other side.

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Eel Pie Island has a long history as a place of leisure and entertainment – its name derives from the pies once served there to visiting boating parties and day trippers. Sadly this taste sensation died out on the island along with its eel population. The Eel Pie Island Hotel was long a top musical destination – particularly for jazz and blues – and also saw one David Jones play there before metamorphosing into David Bowie. The hotel closed in 1967 when the owner was unable to afford necessary repairs – squatters moved in and it has been claimed that by 1970 it had become the largest hippie commune in the UK. The hotel burnt down in mysterious circumstances in 1971 while it was being demolished.

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The island is also home to both the Richmond Yacht Club and the Twickenham Rowing Club as well as working boatyards. In keeping with this boating theme, several of the artists studios are housed in old boats, including one with a fantastic roof terrace composed of the old ship’s deck. There are nature reserves at both ends of the island, including a bird sanctuary, but these are not accessible to the public.

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Open Studios events are held twice a year, generally once in summer and in the lead up to Christmas. Keep an eye on the Eel Pie Island Artists website for future events. They’re free but do bring some cash as the artists don’t have credit/debit card facilities.

For more historical detail and images see Twickenham Museum’s Eel Pie Island page.

2013 update: another open weekend will be held on Saturday 22nd & Sunday 23rd June from 11am until 6pm.

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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.