Saturday, 25 June 2011

Dear Designer...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it was Samuel Johnson who said, "A grotto is a very pleasant place - for a frog", or something very like it. I came across this little pile of 'Grot-Stone' in a small garden centre which specialises in second-hand tools etc, and came very close to buying it for £150, bearing in mind that to someone who really wants it, I could probably sell it on for up to £800. It only looks like a little heap, but there is around one ton there, and grot-stone in it's heyday was selling for £800 per ton.

When was it's heyday? The first one was the period between the late 17th century and the end of the eighteenth, and the last one was about 25 years ago, when I was working for a well-known sculptor who somehow became famous for either building new ones (like the one in Leeds Castle, Kent), or restoring old ones (like the one in Hampton House, at Hampton Court). Do you think that it is a coincidence that my small collection of early base-metal candlesticks covers the first period almost to the decade?

By my association with Simon Verity, the master grotto-builder, I was asked to restore one fabulous one made from rocks, shells and crystals that used to belong to the late Lord Weinstock at Lacock, as well as making various components for new ones - River-God heads that spout water, etc.

There were quite a few of us working away at Hampton House, and we all benefited from from the job. A lady from Marlborough (whose name I have forgotten - sorry) went on to spend years restoring the amazing and labyrinthine grotto at Painshill, using ton upon ton of lime plaster and shards of gypsum. A young and beautiful red-headed girl (whose name I have also forgotten - sorry), went on to form her own company which specialised in the smaller grottoes, but I daresay has now disbanded it through lack of clients - they were incredibly expensive to make, and still are.

The landscape designer or 'gardener', Julian Bannerman (whose name I can remember - sorry), was working at Hampton House, cobbling up a funny little hut made from bent twigs - well away from the main action in the dark and damp recesses of the actual grotto. All I can recall about him was that he spent most of his time swigging Diet Coke and cadging cigarettes from me, but Simon spoke very highly of his tenacity when bouncing back from a series of misfortunes which culminated in losing a lucrative restaurant in Edinburgh, due to the skulduggery of an erstwhile partner. He went on to win a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show and, 0n the strength of that, spent a few years tarting up the garden of Highgrove for Prince Charles. During this time, he bought the fabulous but run-down Hanham Court from another friend of mine, tarted that up and it is now on the market again if you fancy buying it. Price on application. It has the oldest, stone-built dog kennels in the country. They are even older than my latest candle-stick - but only just! The last I saw of the former owner of Hanham Court was finding her working on the till in the check-out of a local supermarket. Some people are just not very good with money.

I don't think that it is the credit-squeeze that has temporarily put an end to the fad for grottoes - if you can afford to build or own one, you do not need credit. 20 years ago, every glossy magazine had a monthly article on them, and my one was featured in the American 'Architectural Digest' magazine, in what they called 'The London Issue'.

For about 9 months afterwards, I would excitedly open a letter all the way from the U.S.A. to find yet another supplier trying to sell me cast bronze door handles, etc. They all began, "Dear Designer..." I saved them for a while, and had a stack about 6 inches high. Oh well, it was worth a try.


  1. Hello Tom:
    Did you ever visit the Grotto made by Gervase Jackson-Stops at The Menagerie at Horton in Northamptonshire before his death? We always thought it rather spooky but it too employed a great many shells [and skeletal remains] too.

    What fun [but most likely hard work] to have been involved with such restoration projects if for no other reason than to finance further purchases of candlesticks [the value of which intrigues us all but we are all too polite to express an interest!].

  2. No, I have never been there, but there is a curious coincidence about your mentioning it. When I first went into Simon Verity's workshop, he was somewhat obsessed with the stone which comes from Horton - a soft, dark green and rust-red limestone. He had just finished carving the only sculpture ever to be commissioned by Princess Diana - a fountain depicting three whales intertwined ('Prince of WHALES' - GEDDIT???) and made from Horton stone (It is now in the garden of Hanham Court), and had received a royal appointment 'three feathers' sticker to put over his door, like every other shop in Tetbury has. This made us laugh!

    I'll look this up - thank you.

  3. I have never had a taste for grottos Tom - I don't particularly like the colour of the stone, or the texture and have never really understood their attraction.

  4. Fair enough, Weaver. You are in good company. Dr Johnson hated them too.