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The Grotto

Stowe: The Elysian Fields

When it was built by William Kent in 1739, the Grotto was a free-standing building with an interior decorated with mosaics and and an external appearance similar to the Hermitage, which Kent had built in the Western Garden some eight years earlier. Within a few years the Grotto was flanked just to the south on both sides by small rotundas, one decorated with shells and the other with pebbles, and it overlooked a circular pond separated from the rest of the Alder River. Detail from the 1753 engraving below, by George Bickham, gives a sense of what the Grotto looked like in its first form, seen from the southern end of the Alder River.

Detail of Bickham's 1753 Engraving of the Grotto

Inside the Grotto, in a recess at the back of the central room, is a statue of Venus arising from her bath, and below her water flows into a pair of basins before disappearing under the floor and flowing out into the river. This design has similarities to the grotto at Stourhead, the central chamber of which also houses a statue and pools of water and looks out of a rough arched entrance onto the lake there.

The interior of the Grotto

The Survey underscores the Grotto's similarities to both Pope's Grotto at his villa in Twickenham and the Hermitage at Richmond in plan, elevation, and decoration. During the years 1740-43 the Grotto was decorated, glazed, altered, and planted up, but by 1752 the area behind and beside was filled and graded so that it became a building below ground. In the 1780s, even more soil was added around and atop the building, and tufa was applied to the interior and exterior to provide a rougher, more cave-like appearance. The photograph below of the Grotto, restored during 2010-2011 by the National Trust, reflects this change in the appearance of the building.

A view of the Grotto from the west bank of the Alder River

Below is the description in the Seeley Guidebook from 1788:

The trees which stretch across the water, together with those which back it, and others which hang over the cavern, form a scene singularly perfect in its kind. The front of it is composed of the roughest stones, with no other decoration than that of some few spars and broken flints; from the lower cavern the water flows, and from the opening above this a small stream drops into the river. The inside is finished with a variety of shells, spars, fossils, petrifactions, and broken glass, which reflect the rays of light. At the upper end is a circular recess in which are two basons of white marble: In the upper is placed a fine marble statue of VENUS rising from her bath, and from this water falls into the lower bason, from whence it is conveyed under the floor to the front, where it falls into the river. A tablet of marble contains the following lines from MILTON:

Goddess of the silver wave,
To thy thick embower'd cave,
To arched walks, and twilight groves,
And shadows brown, which Sylvan loves
When the sun begins to fling
His flaring beams, me, Goddess, bring.
The statue of Venus in the Grotto The inscription in the Grotto

Though completed almost a hundred years later, these changes mirror the directions for grotto building given by John Woolridge in his Systema Horti-Culturae: or The Art of Gardening published in 1677:

either in the side of some declive of a Hill, or under some Mount or Terrace artificially raised, may you make a place of repose, cool and fresh in the greatest heats. It may be Arched over with stone or brick, and you may give it what light or entrance you please. You may make secret rooms and passages within it, and in the outer Room may you have all those before mentioned water-works, for your own or your friends divertisements. It is a place that is capable of giving you much pleasure and delight, that you may bestow not undeservedly what cost you please on it, by paving it with Marble or immuring it with Stone or Rock-work, either Natural or Artificially resembling the excellencies of nature. The Roof may be made of the same supported with pillars of Marble, and the partitions made of Tables of the same.
The National Trust, as it considered restoring the Grotto, had some difficult but exciting decisions to make before it began the actual work, in particular the decision about which of its architectural manifestation the Grotto would be returned. As the panorama below shows, the interior of the building in its disrepair reveals layers of wall and floor decoration that needed to be preserved and replaced. The panorama will spin to the right on its own, but you may control the speed and direction of its spin by placing your cursor on the imaged and using your left mouse button to drag the view in the direction you choose.

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John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College,