Hidden subterranean inspirations of poet Alexander Pope come to light

Alexander Pope's Grotto
Alexander Pope's Grotto

A famous grotto is all that remains of the neo-Palladian villa and gardens built in 1720 on the banks of the Thames at Twickenham by Alexander Pope, great poet, satirist and garden designer.

Now, conservation work has led to “extremely significant” discoveries in this subterranean “classical nymphaeum” that inspired his poetry, revealing that his surviving rough sketches were not some “fanciful conceit” but designs that were actually constructed.

In removing a later concrete floor and cement repairs, experts have found an original underlying brick floor and part of a rill or conduit that appears to run from a hidden water feature – known from sketches and a letter, and a key part of Pope’s vision for the grotto.

Alexander Pope - Alamy
Alexander Pope - Alamy

The removals have also exposed structural details of the grotto’s decorative layers, such as original plasterwork and vaulted brick cellars of his villa, including a blocked-up arched opening.

Between 1720 and 1742, Pope had created a “subterraneous way” in the villa’s cellars, an 80ft-long tunnel with chambers beneath a public road that took Pope and his visitors directly from their boats as they came up the Thames, underneath his house to his garden.

He turned it into a seemingly natural cavern, encrusted with rocks and minerals with mirrors and reflective surfaces that played with light from the river that it once overlooked. In 1725, he wrote that, when the grotto is lit up with lamps, “a thousand pointed rays glitter” off glass and mirrors in the walls. It has been described as “a seminal event in the 18th-century search to establish man’s relationship with nature”.

Alexander Pope's grotto entrance - Chris Howes/Wild Places Photography /Alamy
Alexander Pope's grotto entrance - Chris Howes/Wild Places Photography /Alamy

Judith Hawley, professor of 18th-century literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, and a trustee of the Pope’s Grotto Preservation Trust, told The Telegraph that the new discoveries are “vitally important”: “You’re getting an insight into the mind of the poet, but also techniques of 18th-century building.”

She said: “Alexander Pope is our most important poet between Milton and Wordsworth. He exerted a huge influence on English poetry and also on garden design for at least a hundred years. The grotto was integral to his conception of himself as a poet and as a garden designer. The grotto was part of his villa that represented a kind of classical ideal of sociable retreat. The idea was that Twickenham becomes an Arcadia, a place outside the city, independent of politics, morally and practically self-sufficient…

“Pope used to gather together his friends, some of whom were politicians, part of the opposition to the corrupt government of Robert Walpole. They would meet, eat and drink with him the fruits of his garden and fish from the Thames. They would sit in his grotto and discuss the ways of the world.

“Some people describe the grotto as a man cave. But it’s much more than that because it was initially modelled on a classical conceit: the idea of a home of the muses that the ancient poets believed in. Crucial to that was the presence of water. We have some crude little sketches done by Pope himself. It wasn’t entirely clear whether this was a sketch of the grotto as it was. Or a plan for how he wanted it to be.”

She added that the latest discoveries bring this to life: “We’ve discovered the rill and, for the first time, we’ve seen some water, which really makes it obvious that this wasn’t just a fanciful conceit.”

Quoting from Pope’s poem, titled An Essay on Criticism – “A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring” – she added that water rising in his grotto was a literal evocation of a classical idea of inspiration: “He would sit in this beautiful place, taking inspiration from the water and the light from the Thames that would come into the grotto. It would have been really beautiful and a lot of his poetry is very interested in the effects of light and dark.”

Alexander Pope's Villa - Alamy
Alexander Pope's Villa - Alamy

After Pope’s death in 1744, his villa was demolished in 1808 by its then owner, Baroness Howe, who had been irritated by members of the public wanting to visit the building. Prof Hawley said: “It’s a shocking act of destruction.”

Although the Baroness kept the grotto, it now looks out onto a brick wall. The area is today dominated by utilitarian 19th and 20th buildings, which house schools.

His gardens no longer survive, having been overlaid by housing and a car park.

But Pope’s “lost landscape” has been recreated through the latest digital technology by Prof Paul Richens, an architect and academic.

Prof Hawley paid tribute to the National Lottery Heritage Fund and donors who have supported the grotto conservation project, which has cost about £500,000.

The grotto reopens to the public next year.