Directorio Deco by Gloria Gonzalez

Shell Grottos

There’s something very appealing and quite fascinating about a shell grotto (at least for me!) These follies were a popular feature of British country house in the 17th and 18th centuries. It suited the Baroque and Rococo styles (which used swirling motifs similar to sea shells) and often represented the mimicry of architectural features from the Italian Renaissance (themselves copies from Classical times).

The idea of a grotto was originally a means to enhance a dank undercroft, or provide an antechamber before a piano nobile, but later it became a garden feature independent of the house, sometimes on the edge of a lake, with water flowing through it.

The grotto of Linderhof CastleThe grotto of Linderhof Castle

Early grottos were mainly of the shell grotto type, mimicking a sea-cave, or in the form of a nymphaeum. The shells were often laid out in strict patterns in contemporary decorative styles used for plasterwork and the like. Later there was a move towards more naturalistic cave-like grottoes, sometimes showing the early influence of the Romantic movement.

shell grotto in Pontypool, WalesShell grotto in Pontypool, Wales

The first recorded shell grotto in England was at Whitehall Palace; James I had it built in the undercroft of the Banqueting House in 1624, but it hasn’t survived. Two years later the Duke of Bedford had a shell room built at Woburn Abbey, featuring shell mosaics and carved stone. This, and another at Skipton Castle, built in 1627, are the only surviving examples from the 17th century.

The ornate ceiling of Woburn Abbey's shell grotto The ornate ceiling of Woburn Abbey's shell grottoWoburn Abbey’s shell grotto (Images via The English Home Magazine)

grotto goodwoodThe Grotto or Shell House, Goodwood House, Goodwood, Chichester. Nestling in the grounds of Goodwood House, is a glorious Shell House, the product of 7 years work, c.1738-1748, by Sarah Lennox, 2nd Duchess of Richmond (1705-1751), and her daughters, Caroline Fox (1723-1774) and Emily Kildare (1731-1814). It is likely that they had the help of specialist craftsmen and panels may have been worked on in the house. In total there are over 500,000 shells collected worldwide.

Shell grottoes were an expensive luxury: The grotto at Oatlands Park cost £25,000 in 1781 and took 11 years to build; and at Fisherwick Park the Marquess of Donegall spent £10,000 on shells alone in 1789. The Grotto at Margate has 2000 square feet of mosaic, using some 4.6 million shells.

shell grotto margate

shell grotto margateMargate’s Shell Grotto was  discovered in 1835, but its age and purpose remain unknown

By the end of the 18th century, fashion had moved on to more naturalistic cave-like structures, like the weathered rock and crystal “Crystal Grotto” at Painshill in Surrey, before falling out of favour altogether. Many were demolished or have fallen into disrepair, but some 200 grottos of all types are known to have survived in some form in the UK.

Hampton Court House Shell GrottoThe Shell Grotto at Hampton Court Palace. It was described by David Garrick in a poem entitled “Upon a certain Grotto near Hampton” by a Tenant of the Manor, dated 22 July 1769:
A Grotto this, by Mortal Hand!
O no – we tread in fairy Land,
‘Tis raised by Mab’s enchanted Wand,
So rare, so elegant, so bright,
It dazzles, while it charms the sight.

Sea shell thatched cottage at Rambouillet 1773 Sea shell thatched cottage at Rambouillet 1773

Sea shell thatched cottage at Rambouillet 1773Shell Thatched Cottage at the Château de Rambouillet (Found on Andrew Hopkins Art Blog)

Follies and Grottoes Barbara JonesFollies & Grottoes, Barbara Jones, 1953

george oakes grotto George Oakes Grotto in his Kent house. Clive Boursnell/©Country Life Picture Library.

cildenweg shell house

The Cilwendeg Shell House Hermitage a remarkable ornamental grotto, and a rare survival in West Wales. It was built in the late 1820s by Morgan Jones the Younger, who inherited the Cilwendeg estate upon the death of his uncle and created the Shell House in his uncle’s honour. This extraordinary woodland retreat was conceived in the picturesque taste of the era, and in addition to serving as a grateful tribute to the elder Jones, it was used by his family as a cool amusement in the summer months and a contemplative reading room in the depths of the winter.

Blott Kerr Wilson, photographed while restoring the hermitage at Cilwendeg Shell HouseBlott Kerr Wilson, photographed while restoring the hermitage at Cilwendeg Shell House

More images of Cilwendeg Shell House and other projects by shell artist Blott Kerr Wilson found on her website.

cilwendeg shell house

cilwendeg shell house

cilwendeg shell housecilwendeg shell house

blott kerr wilson shell artist

blott kerr wilson shell artist

blott kerr wilson shell artistBlott Kerr Wilson

Another shell artist I love is Linda Fenwick, I featured Linda’s work on my blog a few years ago (you can read the post here)

linda fenwick

Linda Fenwick shell design

Linda FenwickLinda Fenwick

Tess Morley is another great shell artist with unique pieces.

tess morley shell art tess morley shell art tess morley shell art tess morley shell art

Tess Morley

Sharing below a few more shell favourites beyond Grottos.

 

lorenzo castillo menorca homeLorenzo Castillo Menorca home featured in AD Spain. Ricardo Labougle photography

 

Shell Grotto Garden Chair, 20th Century

Shell Grotto Garden Chair, 20th Century, 1st Dibs

Shell Grotto Fabric by Fermoie

From the pages of Paula Deen’s Savannah style book.

David Hicks' garden. Photo by Jane SchulakDavid Hicks’ garden. Photo by Jane Schulak

Lecons élémentaires sur l'histoire naturelle des animaux. Paris J.J. Dubochet, Le Chevalier et Ce, Éditeurs,1847

Lecons élémentaires sur l’histoire naturelle des animaux. Paris J.J. Dubochet, Le Chevalier et Ce, Éditeurs,1847

John Taner The Vine House Gunton ParkBathroom at the Vine House, Gunton Park, designed by John Tanner. Picture by Christopher Horwood.

 

In Conversation: Alfred Newall

After training at the Building Crafts College and working for Plain English Design Ltd, Alfred Newall established his Cabinet Making workshop in London and Sussex. Designing and making furniture inspired by historic pieces using traditional methods of joinery, his focus has always been on the qualities of simple design and proportion. Each piece is approached with a sensitivity towards the natural qualities of the wood, combining functionality, longevity and sustainably sourced materials.

Discover  Alfred’s inspiration, dream projects and what a day in the life of a modern craftsman looks like in today’s conversation.

Dear Alfred, first of all, I would like to know when did your love affair with wooden furniture start?

I always loved making things as a child. Furniture making then came whilst I was at school. I made friends with a technician who taught me to turn wooden bowls on a lathe from lumps found in local woodland. This then went on to become furniture making. I remember the excitement this gave me, being fully engrossed in a project and not able to think of much else during my other lessons!

alfred newall workshop with bobbin tables

Can you describe to us what a day in the life of a modern craftsman looks like?

A year ago my wife and I moved to Sussex where I set up a studio and workshop at the foot of the South Downs. We live 2 miles away and I bicycle along an ancient coach road each morning. I meet with my team at 8am and we have coffee and talk through what each maker has planned for the day. It’s great working with others and seeing multiple pieces of furniture come alive. We work on individual pieces but often help each other along the way. I spend the first couple of hours at my desk working on drawings and emails but try to get down to my work bench as soon as I can as that’s what I enjoy most. The days whizz past fast – making furniture occupies me mentally and physically in a lovely way. I aim to be back home with my wife and two little children at about 5.30pm, very dusty and ready for bath time.

What are the pieces you enjoy the most working on? What are the one or ones that have challenged you the most?

The variety of my work is refreshing. Bespoke pieces often bring challenges and overcoming them is satisfying and gives a sense of achievement. I also love developing new furniture and products. For the last couple of months I have been developing and prototyping a rush seated chair, working with a local rush weaver. I especially enjoy the collaboration element.

alfred newall collaboration with the new craftsmen

alfred newall collaboration with the new craftsmenAlfred Newall collection for The New Craftsmen

Alfred Newall Bobbin tableMy Bobbin table by Alfred Newall – one of my favourite pieces at home!

Where do you find inspiration?

Inspiration for me is in good supply. I am always seeing things I like and admire. It can be in local sale rooms, antique dealers‘ websites, historic furniture and design books or just catching a glimpse of something in the background in a film. In fact, I made a large oak table for a private dining room based on a table I’d seen in a set from The Crown.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

For me the reward is in seeing the furniture come together and look great. There is research and preparation before the method. The material has to be treated with respect and carefully handled. Quite often many components come together to make one piece and they need to be worked independently. It really is exciting when it comes together as one. It is also of course great when your client is happy and gets pleasure from the work.

alfred newall bobbin shelves octavia dickinson
Alfred Newall’s bobbin shelf in Octavia Dickinson London Flat featured in House & Garden. Rachel Whiting photography. 
Beata Heuman utility room
Utility room by Beata Heuman with cupboards by Alfred Newall. House & Garden. Paul Massey photography.

 

Alfred Newall Bobbin mirrorAlfred Newall’s new bobbin mirror  (available in any size or finish.)

What would be your ultimate dream project?

I really love ancient buildings. I feel my furniture looks best as a sum of parts in an environment or space. Whether it be the architecture of a building or works of art on a wall or other furniture in the room, if it all works together it’s a wonderful thing. My wife and I bought a 16th Century timber framed cottage and we plan on decorating it together with my vernacular furniture and her beautiful decorative painting – I’m really looking forward to that!

Tess NewallAlfred’s wife, Tess Newall hand-painting the medieval beams of their cottage. Tess is a wonderful decorative artist. Talk about a talented couple!

tess newall lampshades and alfred newall bobbin lampBobbin lamp by Alfred Newall and hand-painted lampshade by  Tess Newall.

Primula Auricula

A couple weeks ago I found myself going down the Pinterest rabbit hole again. This time was with flowers, more specifically with Auriculas. I have always found these flowers mesmerising: their symmetry, colours, shape…they almost look too perfect to be natural! Like many of the things that catch my eye, I decided to delve into these fascinating flowers.

Georg Dionysius Ehret Auricula with butterflyGeorg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770), A Blue auricula and Butterfly

Auriculas first appeared in European and English gardens around the mid-sixteenth century.  There are two schools of thought as to how auriculas reached England. One is that they were introduced by Huguenot Flemish weavers fleeing religious persecution in the 1570s. However, at that time, these plants were still novelties and were grown only by the rich. The second school of thought which seems more plausible is that they arrived, as did most other flowers, by the interchange between leading Continental and English plantsmen. Whichever it was, the auricula became a major craze and was grown by the rich and famous, as well as humbler folk, in great numbers and varieties during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries becoming also popular with artists.

Coloured engraved plate depicting Auriculas from the 1820 publication 'The Beauties of Flora' by Samuel Curtis (1779-1860).Coloured engraved plate depicting Auriculas from the 1820 publication ‘The Beauties of Flora’ by Samuel Curtis (1779-1860). 

The auricula was one of the great Florist’s flowers, some of the others being anemone, ranunculi, tulips and carnations. The term ˜Florist” was originally applied in the 1600s to a person who grew plants for the sake of their decorative flowers rather than for any useful property the plant might have. The modern meaning of florist only came into being towards the end of the 19th century. The florists formed groups with like-minded people to meet and hold ‘feasts’.

By the 19th century the florists groups were very popular with working-class people in the industrial North and Midlands of England. They met in public houses to show off their tulips, auriculas, primulas and carnations and to weigh their giant gooseberries. Prizes at their shows were frequently copper kettles & the public houses would often hang a copper kettle outside on show days.

Towards the end of the 19th century, a movement developed against what were termed “artificial flowers” and florists flowers lost popularity, some disappearing completely. The auricula, however, retained a loyal following especially in the north of England, although Stripes vanished and Doubles became rare. Then a further blow was struck with the advent of the First World War when many of the named varieties vanished. Between the wars, the auricula was kept in being by the auricula societies, and then after the second world war a recovery began that continues to this day. A large number of new varieties of both edged and self-coloured auriculas have been raised by the modern successors to the old florists. Striped auriculas have been re-introduced and more new doubles are exhibited each year, their current magnificence owes much to the dedicated breeders in the United Kingdom (this information was found on The National Auricula and Primula Society (Kent Group) website)

Augusta Innes Withers 1793-1864 An Auricula in a PotAugusta Innes Withers (1793-1864) An Auricula in a Pot

Reading about these fascinating flowers I’ve learnt that they require very particular care and growing conditions. For the flowers to be at their best, it’s important that the plants are kept in a sheltered spot, away from wet and windy weather. Rain will ruin the perfection of the flowers, washing away the farina. What’s more, they need to be shaded in hot, summer weather, as strong sun will scorch them. So, auricula growers keep their plants under glass over winter, and only display them when they begin flowering in spring, in an auricula theatre. (This information came from The Small Gardner Blog where I found   a brilliant article about how to make an Auricula theatre. I had seen these displays of Auriculas before here in the UK but I didn’t know they were called theatres!

Auricula Theatre illustration by John FarleighAuricula Theatre illustration by John Farleigh. Image found on Janet Haigh Blog.

 auricula theathre calke abbey  auricula theathre calke abbey

In large country houses, it was the fad in the 18th century to have auricula theatres to display these flowers at their best. As tastes changed they fell out of fashion and houses removed the theatres. Calke Abbey has the only original auricula theatre in England.

Calke Abbey Auricula Calke Abbey Auricula@carmypeach

Auriculas Bunny WilliamsBunny Williams

Auricula garden Auricula garden Auricula garden

@derletztewolf

auricula theatre@ewgardens

Auricula Theatre@flowersonlawn

One of my favourite discoveries while researching for this blog post was finding the work of Corinne Young and her fantastic embroidered Auriculas.

corinne-young embroidered auricula

corinne-young embroidered auricula

And this blog post by Janet Haigh en the making of her divine embroidered Auricula Theatre!

jane haigh embroidered auricula theatre

jane haigh embroidered auricula theatre