This month I visited Stourhead, and it sent me off on grottoes. In a country whose default climate is one of damp frigidity, building a deliberately damp and frigid area just in case it turns nice seems wantonly pointless. We get four weekends of sun a year; I’m sure not even the famously perverted aristocracy want to spend them all underground (an exchange between Dr Johnson and a proud Lincolnshire heiress sums it up nicely. ‘Would it not be a pretty cool habitation in summer, Dr Johnson?’ ‘Yes Madam I think it would – for a toad’).
Stourhead in the sun, to the grotto everyone!
But I’m a garden blogger, pointlessness naturally appeals to me. I admire the ludicrous nature of the English grotto, they serve no thermo-regulatory purpose, they’re unsuitable for both dinner and drinks parties, and they add far less value to a house than a well kept border (one for the prospective clients here – best borders in London mate). They were built so that land owners could show off, frolic with poetic echoes of the pagan past, and continue the admirably romantic work of ‘making Homer speak good English’. And as a useless display of heretical frivolity, I have always been very fond of them.
But over the weekend I made a worrying discovery. Browsing a reprint of The Spectator’s early years (second hand book shops FTW!) I came across an exchange of letters from Autumn 1714 that hints that the grotto may have had an altogether more utilitarian purpose. Rather than being serene white elephants , they may have been a bizarrely over the top attempt to stop women trying to write poetry – an ever present threat in Early Georgian England.
Garden history may never be the same again! To get to the bottom of this potentially game changing revelation let’s take a trip to October 13th, 1714, Spectator 606, and an exasperated Great Aunt ….
I have under my direction a pair of nieces who so often run gadding abroad that I do not know where to have them…. they go to bed as tired with doing nothing as I am after quilting a whole under petticoat…. I have plied my needle these fifty years, and by my good will would never have it out of my hand…. It grieves my heart to see a couple of proud idle flirts sipping their tea, for a whole afternoon, in a room hung with the industry of their great grandmother.
A fairly unremarkable letter, as all Great Aunts regard their nieces and nephews as idle flirts – it’s the first law of Wodehouse, and what follows is a typical Spectator response….
What a delightful entertainment it must be to the fair sex, to spend their hours in imitating fruits and flowers, and transplanting all the beauties of nature into their own dress… This is, methinks, the most proper way wherein a lady can show a fine genius; and I cannot forbear wishing that several writers of that sex had chosen to apply themselves to tapestry rather than rhyme… It [also] takes them off from scandal, the usual accompaniment of tea-tables…. while they are forming their birds and beasts, their neighbours will be allowed to be the fathers of their own children; and Whig and Tory will be but seldom mentioned when the great dispute is, whether blue or red is the proper colour.’
So there we go. I must say it’s a secure man who is prepared to use knitting as a defence against cuckoldry, and in all fairness Red versus Blue is nowadays a far more relevant political debate than Whig vs Tory. However, I can see how the response could be viewed as more than a trifle misogynistic. Luckily there was one reader that did not tow the weaving line. A anonymous ‘Cleora’ writes:
No. 609 Wednesday, October 20th, 1714
‘The virgins of great Britain are very much obliged to you for putting them upon such tedious drudgeries in needle-work…. I would have you know, that I hope to kill a hundred lovers before the best housewife in England can stitch out a battle. ‘
Must women either silently knit their lives away, or run around slaughtering boyfriends and composing dodgy verse? The next correspondent thinks he has found a middle ground – grottoes!!
No. 632 Monday, December 13, 1714. A man known as A. H. writes
I entirely agree with you… However tapestry may not be suitable for certain ladies of a rather more poetic nature who cannot so readily quit their pen and ink as you imagine. Pray allow them, at least now and then, to indulge themselves in other amusements of fancy when they are tired of stooping to their tapestry. There is a very particular kind of work, which of late several ladies of our kingdom are very fond of, which seems well adapted to a poetical genius, it is the making of grottoes…. I know a lady who has a very beautiful one composed by herself; nor is there one shell in it not stuck on by her own hands… Here I send you a poem to the fair architect which I would not offer to herself until I knew whether this method of a lady’s passing her time were approved of by the British spectator.’
I will copy some of this poem at the end of the post, so readers can judge whether A.H. himself should have stuck to playing with shells.
It seems that women’s role in the building of grottoes has been ignored by garden historians, women do not feature in the text books for this period at all. The spectator was an opinion-former that was read by up to a tenth of London’s population. The grotto for a brief while may have been a fashionable part of many households. It is also interesting that in this context the building of grottoes was regarded as morally fortifying, this links what appears to be the most decedent of classical structures with the later shift in morality and architecture that spawned the gothic revival. There’s a Phd in there for anyone who wants it.
Obviously the moral and conclusion of this post is that poetic talent is a non gender specific attribute. Play them away A.H
‘’A grotto, so complete, with such design,
What hands, Calypso, could have formed but thine?
Each chequered pebble, and each shining shell,
So well proportioned and disposed so well,
The enthusiastic muse believes it true,
Thinks the spot is sacred, and its genius you,”