Lady Hertford’s other grotto


In 1739, Lady Hertford and her husband bought Richings, a famous estate three miles from Windsor Castle, which belonged to Lord Bathurst, an important figure at the court of George II, and, also a key figure in the literary world. Among his visitors were Joseph Addison, editor of the original Spectator, the playwright William Congreve, Jonathan Swift (of Gulliver’s Travels fame), and John Gay, author of The Beggars Opera, the most popular play in eighteenth century England. Above all, Bathurst was a good friend of Alexander Pope, the leading author of the day, and a fellow enthusiast for gardens: their correspondence is often as much about this as about literary or social affairs. Pope, of course, had built a grotto at his house in Twickenham, completed around 1725, when he wrote to a friend:

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 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.

At the same time Lord Bathurst asked Pope about ‘some little baubling works about which you shall direct as you will’. Pope had already advised him about creating an ornamental garden in the French style, with walks lined by trees, shrubs and hedges.

Lady Hertford, who believed that her grotto was superior to Pope’s, was delighted with her new acquisition, writing to her great friend Lady Luxborough:

We have just now taken a house by Colnbrook. It belongs to Lord Bathurst, and is what Mr. Pope called his ‘Extravagant Bergerie’. The environs perfectly answer that title, and come nearer to my idea of a scene in Arcadia than any place I ever saw…The house is old but convenient, and when you are got within the little paddock it stands in, you would believe yourself one hundred miles from London….

She describes some of its romantic features; ‘a cave overhung with periwinkles’, ‘though little more than a heap of stones’ with a spring gushing out of the back of it; ‘with little arbours interwoven with lilacs, woodbine, syringas and laurels”; ‘an astounding number of nightingales’. In it was ‘a bench with verses inscribed by Addison, Pope, Prior, Congreve, Gay, and … of several fine ladies’.

Richard D. A. Lamont, in his study of Lady Hertford’s within the gardens context of the links between poetry, painting and gardening in the 1720s, shows how Marlborough gradually fell out of favour, and her enthusiasm was transferred to Richings:

In spite of her London commitments and other residences, Marlborough remained close to Lady Hertford’s heart through the 1730s. In an untitled poem addressed to her friend and correspondent Henrietta Knight, Lady Luxborough, in 1731, Lady Hertford implores her friend, following a spell of social disgrace, to pay a visit to ‘Marlborough’s neglected shade’ and to join her in a daily routine of reading, writing and tracing ‘the Mount’s aspiring walk’. In the summer of 1739, Lady Hertford reports in a letter to Lady Pomfret that Lord Hertford has been making alterations by introducing the ruins of an arch with ‘a very Gothic appearance’ and cascades at Marlborough in order to create the sound of ‘a rushing noise, which is heard in every part of the garden, and, in a hot day, sounds peculiarly cool and refreshing’. Although living in houses in London and Berkshire, she clearly held a nostalgic affection for the place, ‘the first habitation I was mistress of, in those cheerful years when every thing assumed a smiling aspect, from the vivacity that attends that season of life’.

But by the early 1740s, Lady Hertford sensed that she was also losing touch both with Marlborough and poetry, with her visits becoming less frequent and Richings increasingly and ‘whimsically infectious’. In a letter to Lady Luxborough, she explains: ‘you will think me grown strangely dull and void of all taste when I confess that I have almost lost that of poetry’. The estate at Marlborough evidently irritates her, as she declares in 1743 that the company there ‘is as bad as none at all’ and the garden ‘too small to allow one a tolerable walk without going the same grounds three of four times over’ and, by 1744, she expresses her horror at the invasion of Londoners and a new ‘Vanity Fair’ emerging in the market town of Marlborough.

After the Duke of Somerset died in 1750, Lady Hertford moved to Richings, and the Marlborough house and garden were let as an inn. She continued her enthusiasm for gardening at her new main residence, and another letter describes ‘some Change in my Rosary, and Openings in other Parts of the Park. I have erected a little Hermitage in one of the Woods near the Canal, whose roof is thatched, and its Walls of Straw.’ Sadly, she only enjoyed the new garden briefly, dying in 1754. Before this, she had built another grotto, shown on a detailed plan of the property which appears on a map of Middlesex dated 1761.

This minute detail on the map might have been all we know about the Richings grotto. However, in 1749 Moses Browne, a local poet, playwright and parson, wrote a panegyric on the joys of the new house, and reissued it in 1764 with a dedication to Lady Hertford’s daughter, the new duchess of Somerset, after her mother’s death. It is a typical, quite engaging, piece of eighteenth century social poetry, and gives us some idea of the grotto, even if more description and less effusion might have been welcome:

When Phœbus from his mounted Team
Pours down direct: the noon-shed Beam,
And splendent with o’er-fervid. Light,.
The Forms, too glaring, pain the Sight,
I seek the Groves that round me rise,
To check the Rage of sultry Skies;
Thro’ whose close Tops, entwining high,
Day’s searching Glance could never pry;
Where, in serpentine Allies green

The Wand’rer sees, who here shall stray,
A thousand Mazes tempt his Way;
His Steps delighting, while they range,
With sweet Perplexity of Change.

Lo ! to A dusky Entrance nigh,
A dancing Faunus strikes the Eye;
Whose antick Mimes, express’d with Grace,
Relieve the Glooms that dress the Place.,

Far in, a lonely Cell is found
On a bare, wilder’d Plat of Ground,
Twixt two tall Elms that Tempest-proof,
Rise stately o’er the craggy Roof:

And a torn Arch above it’s Height,
Shews·rudely-graceful to the Sight.
While, up its buttress’d, stone-cleft Sides,
His Foot a clamb’ring Ivy guides,
And Hollies pale, and dark’ning Yew
The Portal keep with solemn View.

So look’d the-dread Cumæan Cave,
Where Oracles the SYBIL gave.

Within, an ample Concave swells
Of Pummice wrought,·and shining Shells;
Where, near a Seat of native Stone,
A Fountain keeps its bubbling Moan ,
And from beneath die craggy Wall
Creeps slow, with tinkling-trilling-Fall.

Here the sweet LADY OF THE GROVE
In lonely Walk delights to rove,
And sooth with Thought her Mind serene,
Charm’d with the solitary scene.

What Thoughts her happy Mind possess!
Those Hours, what rais’d Reflections bless!
What Tastes she gains of Heav’nly Love!
What Visits wait her from above!
To those bright Forms are only known,
Whose Natures are so like her own.
By a strange Influence seiz’d – imprest –
I enter, struck – an awe-p1eas’d Guest.
Some Genius, some celestial Grace
Sure fills, invisible, the Place !

Moses Browne then allows himself to imagine Lady Hertford’s pious thoughts in this retreat. What is interesting for present purposes is the glimpses he gives us of the grotto. The gothic arch he encounters at the beginning of his visit is a direct parallel of that described by Lady Hertford in her letter about Marlborough in 1739. It seems to have been a structure encircled by a wood, as the landscape at Richings is relatively flat. The interior does sound very like that at Marlborough, with shells set into a kind of cement. The presence of a fountain is noted, and the assumption must be that the layout was also similar to that at the Mound. This recreation of the first grotto underlines her sentimental attachment to it; her objections to Marlborough were the dull company and the small size of the gardens – she had after all been brought up at Longleat, a far larger space.

But at least we now know something of the Richings grotto and its relationship to the Mound grotto.

The main sources of information for these notes are:

Understanding Historic Parks & Gardens in Buckinghamshire Richings, Iver

The Buckinghamshire Gardens Trust Research & Recording Project, March 2016

R.D.A. Lamont, Poetry, Painting and Gardening, or the Science of Landscape, will forever by men of taste be deemed Three Sisters, or the Three Graces who dress and Adorn Nature’ [Horace Walpole].  Discuss the significance of Lady Hertford’s grotto at Marlborough within the context of developments between poetry, painting and gardening in the 1720s – with Lady Hertford as patroness, muse and innovator. Unpublished submission for Oxford MSt degree, 2013.

Moses Browne, Sunday Thoughts … Together with an Essay on the Universe … To which is now added … Percy Lodge, a poem… The second edition, carefully revised and improved, London 1764

Alexander Pope’s grotto at Twickenham website