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Alexander Pope’s Grotto

Restoration of gates and central chamber

Alexander Pope's Grotto is the only surviving element of the poet's villa and gardens on the banks of the Thames at Twickenham. Pope was the foremost poet of the early eighteenth century, a satirist and translator of the Greek classics. A Catholic in pre-emancipated times, he was banned from attending public school or university and was largely self-educated, learning French, Italian, Latin and Greek by himself. He suffered with health problems all his life, had tuberculosis of the spine and grew to only 4 ft 6.

Pope began his Twickenham villa in 1719. Between 1720 and 1742 he worked on a 'subterraneous way' in the villa’s cellars, joining his house to his garden beneath a public road. The grotto was conceived as a classical nymphaeum, a decorated imitation of a natural cavern. As Pope’s gardens and villa developed, the grotto became a museum of geology and a place of contemplation, encrusted with rocks and minerals and enlivened by a rill of water, mirrors, reflective surfaces and views of the river. It has been described as 'A seminal event in the eighteenth-century search to establish man's relationship with nature'.

Towards the end of 1739 Pope visited the banks of the Avon at Bristol and became entranced by the geology of the gorge. Friends and contacts contributed stones and minerals from England and abroad: Peru, Egypt, Italy, Germany, Norway and the West Indies. Two small "joints" of basalt from the Giants' Causeway in Ireland were given by Sir Hans Sloane. These were placed along the central chamber, where he was believed to have sat and worked.

Restoration of the gates

The restoration of the wrought iron gates at the entrance to Pope’s Grotto was supported by HOLT in 2016.

Restoration of the Central Chamber

This major project has extended the conservation work throughout the Grotto. The programme included dry brushing, steam cleaning and poulticing to remove sulphation build up, the treatment of iron fixings, the consolidation and refixing of loose minerals, the removal of cement mortar and its replacement with lime-based mortar and the addition of donated minerals where there had been losses.

Replacement minerals were supplied by mineralogist Roy Starkey. Some areas of brick vaulting will be left revealed to show the structure of Pope's Villa. A non-invasive LED lighting system has been installed replicating as closely as possible the candle-light and river reflections of Pope's era. This project was completed in 2023 and HOLT's funding was supported by Knight Frank.

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