Purveyor of Bollocks to the Crowned Heads of Europe
Tuesday, 18 October 2016
Fantasy architecture and cat-shit
I spent one whole Summer restoring this late 18th century shell and crystal grotto in Wiltshire (near Lacock Abbey) for the late Lord Weinstock. I never met him in person, because he would be in London when I was at his house, and everyone had to leave by the weekend when he came home.
He was an avid note-leaver. He would walk around the grounds at weekends, finding things to leave notes about. One memorable note: "I have noticed cat-shit on the path between the rose gardens. Please clear it up immediately."
This grotto cost around £15,000 when it was built - a colossal sum in those days. Only the rich could afford to display all their minerals, fossils and shells - collected from Grand Tours - in this way, before what we now think of as modern museums were conceived.
The ceiling with the stalagtites was somewhat fucked-up by an amateur restorer in the 1960s, but I think the stalagtites themselves are original. They are made from shards of gypsum crystal, built-up like chandeliers against wooden staves and lime-plaster. Gypsum is easily available and easy to split, so restoring those was no problem.
The real stalagtites and mites which are set into the walls are not so easy to acquire. The original bits were obtained by going down into the Cheddar Gorge caves with a black-powder gun, and shooting them off the roof. They take a dim view of this practice these days.
Many of the missing shells were brought back from the now protected sea-beds of the West Indies and similar places (along with sugar, spice, slaves and all things nice) and cannot be bought legally unless you know a registered dealer with a licence. I found a registered dealer with a licence, in Bristol - where all the sugar, spice and slaves arrived in the 18th century. Licences to deal in slaves are no longer issued, but I am told you can still get one under the counter if you know the wrong person.
Just as with rebuilding car-engines, when you rebuild a few square yards of this sort of wall, you are always left with quite a few bits and pieces for which you could find no home - you simply run out of space. So I have a couple of boxes of rare and irreplaceable (legally) minerals and crystals, sitting around in my workshop, waiting to find a home in a different grotto.
These grottoes are rare, and their restoration is becoming rarer due to the huge costs. Maybe I have technically stolen the bits and pieces?