Of late, though fhrewsday hath not fpake, fhe hath learnt much.
Here’s what’s in her head today.
Pope. That’s who: not the Holy Father with the little purple cap and an air of infallibility, but the poet who lived and died an invalid some 270ish years ago.
Alexander Pope. The man who is the second most quoted writer in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, just behind Shakespeare, yet who chose to eschew glory at his death and be buried beneath a small paving slab with ‘P’ inscribed in a tiny font in a church in Twickenham.
Pope: the man who set the tongues of Thames landowners, up and down a-wagging about Greek Revival Gardens; Pope, son of Pope the linen merchant and his wife Edith; Pope the catholic in an anti-Catholic world; Pope the wordsmith, Pope the collector of curiosities. Pope the brooding, Pope the moody, Pope the infirm, Pope the friend.
Pope the willow tree planter.
In 1719, just a few years shy of 300 years ago, Alexander Pope decided to move to Twickenham. The great and the good were realising that the Thames and local road network meant you could live in a rural idyll yet still be close to London. They were settling in a well ordered fashion along the Thames.
Pope bought land there. He began to build a Palladian mansion. This needs a grand garden; but the house had a ‘grassplot’ only, overlooked by a tannery, a bricklayers yard, a malthouse and more.
Pope planted a small willow sapling there.
And then he bought land across the road and began to plan a beautiful Palladian garden.
Pope was not a well man: he suffered from a kind of tuberculosis, Potts disease, and he had other problems too. Crossing a road was quite a challenge; and so a year after he arrived he began to build a tunnel beneath the road. He could enter it from his villa and emerge in the garden a short while later.
The gardens at Pope’s Villa became famous and admired. The tunnel was decorated, but it was not until a little later that a chance visit to Avon Gorge (to the hot spa there) kindled in him a keen interest in minerals, and he decorated the tunnel and grotto with them.
The poet enlisted a friend, Dr William Borlase, and other well wishers and friends to send him minerals and curiosities, their litany like a roll-call: ores, spars, mundic, stalactites, crystals, diamonds, marbles, alabaster, snakestones and spongestone.
Even bits of Wookey Hole and the Giant’s Causeway.
This was art imitating nature, and local celebrities imitated art imitating nature. Grottos sprang up along the Thames, including the one I pass every day: belonging to Marble HIll House, and the creation of Pope’s good friend Henrietta Howard, subtle and skillful former king’s mistress.
Not much survives of the sumptuous coral and shell perfection she created in her grotto; but though Pope’s villa was demolished, yet his grotto survives and is undergoing refurbishment.
I walked there lately. Where Pope used to sit and write, listening to the trickle of an especially diverted stream and watching the Thames reflected into his grotto by camera obscura.
“I have put the last hand to my works… happily finishing the subterraneous Way and Grotto: I then found a spring of the clearest water, which falls in a perpetual Rill, that echoes thru’ the Cavern day and night. …When you shut the Doors of this Grotto, it becomes on the instant, from a luminous Room, a Camera Obscura, on the walls of which all the objects of the River, Hills, Woods, and Boats, are forming a moving Picture… And 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.”
With thanks for Twickenham Museum for their ever encyclopaedic knowledge and the wonderful resource that is their site. You can find them here