The Grotto in Wanstead Park & its National Context

By Michael G. Cousins

The earliest surviving ornamental grotto in this country is that at Woburn Abbey, which dates from the late 1620s. In form, these grottoes largely followed the style of those to be found in European gardens, particularly Italy, although there were notable exceptions such Thomas Bushell’s grotto at Enstone in Oxfordshire.

When George I came to the throne in 1714, the number of grottoes in England could be counted on one’s fingers, and it was really the shift – albeit slow at first – away from formal garden layouts to a more natural style, that brought with it new ideas for garden buildings. Ultimately this change culminated in what is generally termed the English landscape garden, whose chief advocate in the second half of the eighteenth century was ‘Capability’ Brown.

At that time, of course, Wanstead was rooted in Essex, and whilst that county has some important estates besides Wanstead Park, such as Thorndon, Audley End, to say that it is even sparsely populated with grottoes would be over-stating the case. It has three shell-houses, numerous temples, but its only significant grotto is at Wanstead, and that is what makes its survival so important.

Whilst grottoes were built in the early Georgian period, the middle of the eighteenth century really marked their golden age, and the best examples were constructed from this time. And they were very much a part of the changing taste in gardening, forming one genre of building that started to populate landscaped scenes, with others such as classical temples, sham ruins, hermitages, and Chinoiserie.

Such buildings were seen as a means of demonstrating one’s wealth, and being a follower of the prevailing fashion; but they also showed that the owner was learned, having an appreciation of the classics and antiquarian past. The most famous estates and parks of the day followed these trends, and fortunately many still survive, either in private hands, or open to the public under the ownership of responsible bodies.

We can date the grotto at Wanstead to 1761, when Lord Tylney was acquiring materials, notably from the antiquarian William Borlase, amongst others. But it is important to put Wanstead’s grotto in context, and so it is worth looking at some other examples of that period, and noting the different styles, situations, and imagining just how glorious the grotto at Wanstead once was.

The Grotto at Wanstead - about 1900 (ruin)

One of the most celebrated grottoes was that of the poet Alexander Pope at Twickenham; Thomas Goldney’s grotto in Bristol is contemporary, but its lengthy construction – from 1737 to the early 1760s demonstrates how their creators continually developed, added to, and refined their designs.

There is an important distinction to should be made, for these grottoes are man-made: a case of art copying nature. Being artificial, very few grottoes were cut out of solid ground, but Scott’s grotto in Ware (1761–64) is one such example. Only in the final chamber does the ornamentation fill out, with shell-worked niches and seats. Most grottoes involved only partial excavation, with the ground built up around once construction was complete (cut and cover); or they were free-standing structures as at Goodwood or Pontypool.

It was almost de rigueur for the leading parks of the time to have the full gamut of follies and grottoes – there are examples at Stowe (1739–46; c.1786) and Stourhead (1744–48). The owners of such landed estates – some of the wealthiest men in the country – could certainly afford to commission such works from professional architects or craftsmen. Yet equally several owners were sufficiently competent to realise their own schemes.

For those less capable, designs started to appear in what are termed pattern-books, although some engravings are more caprice than practical! Charles Hamilton was one such gifted amateur owner, and his estate at Painshill in Surrey is one of the most important in the country. His grotto (1763–71?), which is still being painstakingly restored, was the first of any note to engage the talents of father and son grotto builders, Joseph and Josiah Lane. They re-used their distinctive pattern of decoration in grottoes at Oatlands (1761–67; 1774–78), and Ascot (1789–91?).

But to return to Wanstead’s grotto … visitors today see very little of the original splendour, or, indeed, have a concept of the grotto’s original structure. The principal chamber, with its dome and octagonal lantern, was an eclectic array of materials: a floor made up of coloured pebbles laid out in patterns and figures, and the roof and walls were covered with coral, seaweed, stalactites, elegant sea-shells, and petrifactions. The furnishings were equally as mixed, ranging from a wooden coffin to three ostrich eggs. But the grotto served another purpose, because directly below the main room was a boathouse, which opened directly onto the water.

In 1824 the grotto escaped the fate of the house, and even survived plans for its demolition in 1835. It is tragic; therefore, that just two years after Wanstead Park was opened to the public in 1882, most of the grotto was destroyed by an accidental fire. Such wonder and magic lost to the flames – recreation is probably not viable, but one can always dream.