11 June 2013

Alexander Pope's Grotto in Twickenham

Alexander Pope (1688–1844), whose father died in October 1717, moved from Chiswick to Twickenham with his mother Edith (née Turner), his childhood nurse Mary Beach and a dog called Bounce in spring 1919. After translating Homer's Iliad, Pope had a considerable amount of money. He leased property from Thomas Vernon by the Thames in Cross Deep in Twickenham, and soon began building a house there. The villa was built close to the road, and the land across from it – which belonged to several people – Pope leased for a garden, his head man being John Serle. Pope constructed a tunnel under the road to provide access directly from the house to the garden, and began work on a grotto in the cellars, which he continued working on until shortly before his death. The tunnel was originally 22ft long, but was later extended on two occasions due to road widening.
Anthony Beckles Willson has done a large amount of research on the local history of Twickenham, and refers to Pope's second stage, which which began towards the end of 1739, as 'mining and geology'. Pope was a friend of Ralph Allen of Bath, who was building a mansion in Prior Park near his mines and quarries, and some of Pope's inspiration came from him, although the driving force came when he visited Hotwell Spa in the Avon Gorge, Bristol, in 1739 and was greatly impressed by the rock formations. He had ores, spars, crystals, marble, mundic, alabaster and freestone – among other materials – sent to him, and the grotto very much reflects this new interest. Many people contributed to Pope's hobby, such as Sir Hans Sloane supplying stones from the Giant's Causeway, Ireland. Not only stone, but wood, glass, coral, birds' nests, etc, went into furnishing the brickwork of the grotto, which has to some extent been altered over time (and particularly been the victim of pilfering), although much of it has remained intact.
The sign at the front of Radnor House School, the owners of the grotto.
The entrance to the grotto showing the tunnel that led to the garden.
Figures of heads above the entrance, although they were probably added after Pope's death.
A lion's head at the entrance.
Through the entrance is a lateral chamber, the left side of which has part of a dead tree said to be of a willow that Pope planted.
On each side of the tunnel is a chamber bearing an ammonite cast at the centre of the entrance arch. After Pope's death Serle published a tourist guide to the garden and the grotto, although these casts aren't mentioned in it.
The right chamber, flamboyantly covered in stones and shells.
At the rear of the chamber is a statue of St James of Compostella, the patron saint of Spain, with scallop emblem at the front of his hat.
The statue at the rear of the left chamber is perhaps of the Virgin Mary, which dates from after that of St James. A plan of the grotto drawn in 1785 by Samuel Lewis features both of the statues, although they were perhaps installed by Sir William Stanhope, who bought the property after Pope's death.
Apart from the statue, another central feature of the left chamber is the table with its various stone exhibits, of which this shows a section.
The white card contains a quotation by Pope: 'When you have a mind to light it up, it affords you a very different Scene: it is finished with Shells interspersed with Pieces of Looking-glass in angular Forms ... at which when a Lamp is hung in the Middle ..., a thousand pointed Rays glitter and are reflected over the place.'
A closer shot of the tunnel.
Pope didn't own the property: it still belonged to the Vernon family. Stanhope bought it the year after Pope's death in 1745, had wings fitted to the villa and later bought the garden, then bought more garden land at the top of Pope's garden and constructed his own tunnel, which was known as 'Stanhope's Cave'. This is the entrance to it.
The tablet at the centre of the arch reads:
'The Humble Roof, the Garden’s Scanty Line,
Ill suits the Genius of the Bard Divine,
But fancy now Displays a Fairer Scope,
And STANHOPE’S Plans Unfold the Soul of POPE.'

With not a little arrogance, then, Stanhope thought he had improved on Pope's manual work, although Horace Walpole didn't. In 1807 – when Walpole had been dead for ten years – Sophie Charlotte, Baroness Howe of Langar, Nottinghamshire demolished it.

Taking Pope's Dunciad as an influence behind her satire, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had some rather unkind (but admittedly clever and very funny) words to say of Pope and his grotto, of which this is more than a fragment of the fragment:
'The Court of Dulness: A Fragment:
Her palace plac'd beneath a muddy road,
And such the influence of the dull abode,
The carrier's horse above can scarcely drag his load.
Here chose the goddess her belov'd retreat,
Which Phoebus tries in vain to penetrate;
Adorn'd within with shells of small expense,
(Emblems of tinsel rhyme and trifling sense),
Perpetual fogs enclose the sacred cave,
The neighbouring sinks their fragrant odours gave;
In contemplation here she pass'd her hours,
Closely attended by subservient powers:
Bold Profanation with a brazen brow,–
Much to this great ally does Dulness owe:
But still more near the goddess you attend,
Naked Obscenity! her darling friend.
To thee for shelter all the dull still fly,
Pert double meanings e'en at school we try.
What numerous writers owe their praise to thee,
No sex – no age – is from thy influence free;
By thee how bright appears the senseless song,
By thee the book is sold, the lines are strong.
The heaviest poet, by thy pow'rful aid,
Warms the brisk youth and charms the sprightly maid;
Where breathes the mortal who's not prov'd thy force
In well-bred pun, or waiting-room discourse?'
However, Pope's friend Robert Dodsley came up with this tribute:

'The Cave of Pope
When dark Oblivion in her sable cloak 
Shall wrap the names of heroes and of kings; 
And their high deeds, submitting to the stroke 
Of time, shall fall amongst forgotten things:
Then (for the Muse that distant day can see)
On Thames’s bank the stranger shall arrive,
With curious wish thy sacred grott to see,
Thy sacred grott shall with thy name survive.

Grateful posterity, from age to age, 
With pious hand the ruin shall repair:
Some good old man, to each inquiring sage 
Pointing the place, shall cry, “The bard lived there 
“Whose song was music to the listening ear, 
Yet taught audacious vice and folly shame:
Easy his manners, but his life severe;
His word alone gave infamy or fame. 

“Sequestered from the fool and coxcomb-wit, 
Beneath this silent roof the Muse he found; 
’Twas here he slept inspired, or sat and writ
Here with his friends the social glass went round.”

With awful veneration shall they trace 
The steps which thou so long before hast trod; 
With reverent wonder view the solemn place 
From whence thy genius soared to nature’s God. 
Then, some small gem, or moss, or shining ore,
Departing, each shall pilfer, in fond hope
To please their friends on every distant shore,
Boasting a relic from the cave of Pope.'
Further photos of the grotto:
Outside, but still on Cross Deep, is the Alexander Pope pub and hotel.
ADDENDUM: When I returned to Twickenham in August 2013, I noticed for the first time this inscription on the school wall:
 My other Pope posts:

Alexander Pope in St Marys Church, Twickenham
Alexander Pope in Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire
Anthony Beckles Willson: Mr Pope & others at Cross Deep
Alexander Pope in Chiswick

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