TO REACH the grotto at Painshill, first you must cross the Chinese bridge (Chinese Chippendale, sneered one visitor) on to Grotto Island where the path weaves between laurel and outcrops of pitted limestone. Holey stone, they called it, pierre antediluvienne.
After several twists through the landscape (take in the views: each is carefully planned), a line of steps leads you down to the mouth of a cave (a bridge, really). The entire surface drips with crystals, tiny slivers of gypsum, fluorspar and orange calcite (and amethyst, topaz and amber according to the fanciful gloss of the Princess Ekaterina Dashkova on her visit to Painshill in October 1770). Eddies of watery light play across the walls above your head, locating you in an underwater world between reality and illusion, between nature and art: Full fathom five . . . .
Leonardo da Vinci understood a grotto's peculiar thrill. 'And after having remained at the entry some time, two contrary emotions arose in me, fear and desire - fear of the threatening dark grotto, desire to see whether there were any marvellous thing in it.'
Today, the marvel of the Painshill grotto lies not just in its original creation - probably by Joseph Lane of Tisbury (his son Josiah, also a grotto-builder, ended his days in the workhouse) - but in the painstaking restoration by Diana Reynell and Roger Capps, a jeweller and builder respectively who work together as Grottoes and Castles.
Over the past 15 years, Reynell has acquired a formidable reputation in the rarefied world of grotto building and restoring: Goldney Hall, Bristol; the Duchess of Richmond's shell pavilion at Goodwood House; Mrs Delany's bath house at Walton Hall for the Landmark Trust; grottoes at Leeds Castle and Hampton Court House (both with the sculptor Simon Verity, whose very contemporary Venus at Hampton would look quite at home in California's Madonna Inn) - these are just some of the projects that have taken her from evocations of Rome in villas in Italy.
For Diana Reynell, it all began at Marlborough College, where she taught jewellery design and found her first grotto to restore: a room dug into the side of a ziggurat mound for Lady Hartford, lady-in-waiting to Queen Caroline. The boys used it as a bicycle shed. Research for the Marlborough grotto took her to Italy and France, tracking the grotto's origins back to the sacred caves of antiquity, and also to Painshill at Cobham in Surrey, where Janie Burford and the Painshill Park Trust had embarked on the ambitious restoration of Charles Hamilton's 18th- century Elysium.
Youngest son of the sixth Earl of Abercorn, Hamilton had used borrowed money to turn the barren heath into a complex series of mood-invoking 'scenes' that stretched to a real-life hermit hired at the outrageous salary of pounds 100 a year to be paid at the end of a seven-year stretch (he didn't stay the course). Then, as now, the park exerted a very special spell, its grotto reputedly the finest of its kind.
'Grottoes are my passion,' Reynell had written to me before we met, 'and I love to talk about them. I have just returned from making one in Provence which is all about architecture (order) versus organic forces (chaos). Painshill is sweetness and light; there we work with water, crystals, rocks and space - of an eccentric architectural kind which gives sound some importance, too.'
Why did the grotto so excite the Renaissance mind? What materials did they use? What are grottoes for? These questions interweave our conversation as we sit on the grass of Grotto Island, surrounded by books and visual evidence of the grotto's splendours and of its decay. The roof collapsed some time after 1946, helped on its way by soldiers quartered there during the war - a kinder fate than the official vandalism suffered by the grotto at nearby Oatlands Park (equally breathtaking and by the same taciturn Lanes of Tisbury), blown up by the Ministry of Works.
Reynell talks of the grotto's two lines of development: one, the rustic cave that can be traced back to the Greeks, a place of retreat and meditation carved from stone and often with water ('an excellent habitation for a toad,' snapped the more prosaic Dr Johnson).
From the Romans and the Italian Renaissance extends a second line: the architectural nymphaeum dedicated to nymphs and muses and enlivened with fountains - grotto as theatre, as baroque spectacle, perfect setting for courtly masques and playful water jokes, fountains that spurt water at unwary spectators. (I have seen one in action, at Rosendael in the Netherlands: the joke still raises a laugh.)
Grottoes came late to Britain, doubtless delayed by the dreary climate. Our earliest surviving examples are indoor rooms fantastically decorated with shells, like the grotto room at Woburn Abbey and the ticket office of Skipton Castle. Alexander Pope built himself a subterranean grotto beneath the Hampton Road at his villa in Twickenham, decorated with magpie geological pickings from as far afield as Wookey Hole and Vesuvius - a fraction remains today. William Kent joined the craze and the grotto burst into the landscape park of the 18th century, most obviously at Stourhead where the 'Nymph of the Grot' lies sleeping in the sombre tavern and a white marble river god glistens at the end of a tunnel.
The contemporary visitor, versed in the classics, would have 'read' this Virgilian landscape like a child's primer. Diana Reynell seems equally at home with the myths and meanings of ancient Rome. Just when I fear the gaps in my classical education might swallow me whole I look at her hands and feel secure. Chapped and lined, these are the hands of someone who thinks through her fingers.
Roger Capps, responsible for all exterior rockwork, wanders over and asks us to inspect the limestone pinnacles that will hide the grotto's spanking new roof. I am shown the architect's drawings, which skilfully marry contemporary photography, a site plan and a painted 18th-century view (owned by the current Duke of Abercorn) in which the grotto appears to levitate over the lake.
The three are reproduced to the same scale: their correlation is al-most exact.
Capps underlines the central problem of restoration. 'You can look at some restored buildings and they're dead, dead, dead, often because someone has tried to use modern materials - plastic paint instead of limewash, for instance. When limewash dries, it isn't uniform. You get light, you get patina and subtle changes of colour.'
Reynell has a name for it: 'gritty luminosity'. What they seek, she explains, is an echo from the past - to be authentic and yet to keep a spark of the original excitement. I ask how they achieve this balance. Roger Capps laughs: 'Angst,' is the short answer. 'A lot of the time you don't. You get it wrong and then you have to go back to the beginning.'
'And who can say if it's right?' adds Reynell. 'In 10, 20 years' time, in the next generation, there will be enormous criticism, without doubt. All you can do is never let your standards slide. Never say: 'This will just about do'.'
Part of the secret, I am told, is to use traditional techniques as well as materials: pulleys and hoists instead of cranes; wooden wheelbarrows covered in sacks; riven oak lathes to hold the crystal stalactites, techniques that must nevertheless submit to the red tape of Health and Safety legislation. When I next see Diana Reynell, at the Inchbald School of Garden Design, she shows the students a slide of a restoration in progress. Red ribbons flutter from the ceiling of a cave - to protect a stalactite, I believe; people can watch out for themselves.
Before we enter the grotto, Diana Reynell shows me copies of Elias Martin's exquisite wash drawings of the grotto's interior executed in the 1770s. Today the main chamber looks just like any building site: dark, dirty, incredibly noisy. I am introduced to the skilled restoration team: all young and art-school trained. This is no place for volunteers. With infinite patience, two are sticking needles of crystal into lime- mortared walls like overlapping teeth. No one can tell me how many crystals the space requires: 'But seven years, a thousand shells, and ten thousand pounds are all mystic qualities that recur perpetually,' writes Barbara Jones in her classic Follies and Grottoes. The same elements of mythology apply here. There's a madness to the enterprise that defies budgets and statistics, though I do come away with one hard fact: chipping the individual crystals took 9,000 man hours.
Work proceeds in concentrated bursts that drain emotions and available funds. Restoration of the grotto, which should be completed in 1997, is grant-aided by English Heritage but only for 40 per cent of 'eligible work'. That leaves a lot of money to be found: the trust is lucky to attract sponsors like Rio Tinto Zinc and the Mitsubishi Estate Company and grant-making bodies like the Leche Trust. Others are always sought.
It is hard to make the imaginative leap from this building site to the shimmering beauty of the finished chamber. One of the best descriptions was recorded in the 1770s by Frederik Magnus Piper, garden designer to King Gustav III of Sweden. 'It consists of several vaults resting on pillars,' he wrote, 'and is on the inside ornamented with spar and stalactites, baldachins and chandeliers of all possible forms and shapes hanging from the vaults.'
Reynell shows me the branchy hands of coral that will once more reach out from the walls - just as Piper described - and explains how the water will again trickle 'like gentle rain' into alcoves before cascading away through a series of pools into the lake.
Mavis Collier, the archivist at Painshill, tells me how you would have visited the grotto in Charles Hamilton's day. Following Hamilton's own instructions, your guide would abandon you at the entrance, leaving you to find your own way into the darkness. The first part is easy: a chink of natural light draws you inside, making the tunnel seem longer than it is. The wall to your left opens into a shimmering view of the bridge; an oeil de boeuf admits light from above, heightening the tension between earth and air, black slag below, crystals above.
The gardener, meanwhile, has galloped round the outside to switch on the taps so that when you finally stumble into the main chamber, blinded by sunbeams, you see the water gushing down the walls. And like the distinguished visitors before you - like Frederik Piper and the Princess Dashkova - you remain in this enchanted place until you become fully sensitised. Only then do you emerge blinking into the daylight, startled by the sight of a Gothic temple on the opposite hill, ready to throw yourself into the next scene of delight, the mournful humour of the mausoleum at the far side of the lake.
This process of transformation, of sensitisation, is what a grotto 'means', for me. I turn to Naomi Miller, author of Heavenly Caves: 'To enter is the significant act; for to enter is to acknowledge the distance between outside and inside, between reality and illusion, between nature and art. Like the theatre, the grotto is a gateway to wonder and to knowledge . . . But like the labyrinth, the story has no end.'-
GOOD GROTTOES GUIDE
Many National Trust and other gardens open to the public have small grottoes: Claremont, Cliveden, Stowe, and so on. Here are some of most exciting. (For reasons of security, some of the very best remain obstinately closed).
GOLDNEY HALL Lower Clifton Hill, Bristol BS8 1HH. One of the best surviving shell grottoes displaying 'a wonderfully rococo exuberance'. Destroyed by vandals and since faithfully restored by Simon Verity and Diana Reynell. For details of occasional opening days, write to the Warden, enclosing SAE.
GOODWOOD HOUSE Chichester, West Sussex PO18 0PX. Only 12ft square, an enchanting shell-work pavilion created over seven years by the second Duchess of Richmond and her daughters, c 1739. Not generally open to the public but special requests in writing to the Trustees may be considered.
THE SHELL GROTTO Hampton Court House, Campbell Road, Hampton Court Green. Completed c 1769 by the second Earl of Halifax for his mistress, Mrs Donaldson, and attributed to Thomas Wright of Durham, astronomer, architect and garden designer. Restored by Verity and Reynell in 1986 in the spirit of Wright, with a very modern Venus. To arrange visits, phone or write to the Assistant Curator, Orleans House Gallery, Riverside, Twickenham, Middlesex (081-892 0221). Free, but donations to the Museum of Twickenham appreciated.
LEEDS CASTLE Maidstone, Kent, ME17 1PL (0622 765400). An extravagant late 20th-century grotto by Simon Verity, Diana Reynell, Vernon Gibberd and the rustic artist Julian Bannerman, inspired by ideas of change and Ovid's Metamorphoses. Dominating the main chamber is the giant face of the monster Typhoeus, over which water cascades at 50 gallons a minute, then flows down to the 'Styx'. Open March-Oct, 10am-5pm. Entry to grounds (including grotto), adults pounds 5.50, concessions pounds 3.30.
PAINSHILL PARK Portsmouth Road, Cobham, Surrey KT11 1JE (0932 864674). Grotto undergoing restoration - you can't go inside, though the bridge should be visible. Open Sundays until 16 October, 11am-5pm (gates close 6pm). Adults pounds 3, concessions pounds 2.50, children under 14 free. Phone for details of private group tours on other days.
STOURHEAD Estate Office, Stourton, Warminster, Wilts BA12 6QD (0747 841152). A classic, constructed c 1748, possibly with help from Joseph Lane. Sombre, watery cavern, home to nymphs and water gods. Garden open 8am-7pm. Adults pounds 4.10, concessions pounds 2.10, National Trust members free.
WOBURN ABBEY Woburn, Beds, MK43 0TP (0525 290666). Shell grotto room (1619-1641) in superb condition, possibly by Isaac de Caus, protege of Inigo Jones. Stone work carved to resemble seaweed and stalactites inlaid with ormer shells and mussels. Open 11am-4pm daily until October, adults pounds 6.50, OAPs pounds 5.50, children over 12 pounds 3.
BEST BOOKS: Follies and Grottoes by Barbara Jones (Constable, pounds 25); Naomi Miller, Heavenly Caves: Reflections on the Garden Grotto (Allen & Unwin); Michael Symes, The English Rococo Garden (Shire Garden History, pounds 4.95).
The article on the gardening page of the Sunday Review on 24 July about the restoration of the grotto at Painshill was wrongly attributed. It was, in fact, written by the novelist Jennifer Potter, whose third book, After Breathless, will be published by Bloomsbury Publishing next year. We apologise for the mistake.
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