Having grown up in a seaside town, with the lofty contempt of the year-round resident for anything decorated with seashells, and having in childhood found the lurid polystyrene enclosures occupied every Advent by Father Christmases in the local department stores more sinister than alluring, I came only belatedly to an interest in grottoes. So too, it seems, did Shakespeare, who never used the word ‘grotto’, not even after the arrival of the French hydraulic engineer and garden designer Salomon de Caus at the Jacobean court encouraged the fashion for fancifully ornamented damp underground chambers that had been sweeping Italy since the 1560s. While the Stuarts and the Russells were commissioning elaborately theatrical grottoes at Greenwich Palace, Richmond Palace, Woburn Abbey and Somerset House, Shakespeare’s characters were still speaking only of cells and caves. Prospero, whose magical art, one might think, would have enabled him to decorate the seaside accommodation he and his daughter share in as modish a manner as he liked, goes out of his way to stress to the fellow Italian aristocrats who arrive on his island that he has been living in a ‘cell’, ‘a poor cell’ in fact, or even a ‘full poor cell’. It may sound like a grotto, if a minimalist one, but it is never called that.
Shakespearean drama would only acquire a grotto decades later. While Edmund is feigning remorse at having connived at his father’s arrest for treason in Nahum Tate’s 1681 acting version of King Lear, Regan whispers to him: ‘The Grotto, Sir, within the lower Grove,/Has Privacy to suit a Mourner’s Thought.’ The next scene duly opens on ‘A Grotto’, where we find ‘Edmund and Regan amorously Seated, Listning to Musick’. But intriguingly, as I gathered only recently, in 1742 Shakespeare himself would be placed in effigy in just such an intimate and enigmatic space, to be surrounded by female admirers.
In the late 1980s, when I was researching the commissioning and installation of the statue of Shakespeare by Peter Scheemakers in Westminster Abbey in 1741 as part of my doctorate, I discovered that one of the leading proponents and fundraisers for the project had been Susanna Ashley-Cooper, née Noel, Countess of Shaftesbury. It became clear that she was also the ringleader of a previously shadowy group, the Shakespeare Ladies Club, which from the mid-1730s lobbied theatre managements to stage more Shakespeare; she had also encouraged Sir Thomas Hanmer, a former Speaker of the House of Commons, to prepare the Oxford edition of Shakespeare published in 1744, with a picture of the Westminster Abbey statue as a frontispiece. Nor were her artistic interests confined to Shakespeare: among those the countess patronised were James Thomson, John Gay and George Frideric Handel (of whom she painted a portrait), all of them occasional guests at the Ashley-Cooper family seat, St Giles House, at Wimborne St Giles in Dorset.
My interest was much piqued by the fact that I knew the Wimborne St Giles estate, or at least its perimeter, very well. In the 1960s, my father became the headmaster of the village primary school at Cranborne, barely two miles from Wimborne St Giles; and I spent a good deal of time around Cranborne, sometimes borrowing a bicycle from one of my father’s pupils on which to explore the countryside. The Ashley-Cooper estate was forbiddingly inaccessible, I recalled, the house invisible from the road, its presence marked only by a dilapidated octagonal lodge beside rusty gates. Who knew what relics of its former chatelaine’s Shakespearean activities the place might conceal? An unaccustomed peep into Debrett’s Peerage revealed that Christ Church, the Oxford college to which I was then attached, was the one attended by successive earls of Shaftesbury, the first of whom, despite studying at Exeter College instead, had even employed one of its former censors of moral philosophy, John Locke, as an assistant. So, in 1989, I obtained some of the college’s headed notepaper and envelopes, and wrote to the Earl of Shaftesbury, St Giles House, Wimborne St Giles, Dorset, asking whether any of that countess’s books, correspondence or other effects were still in the house. Better still, was there any chance that I could come and have a look for them?
I eventually received a brief and reluctant reply from a steward (I never met this man, but his prose style suggested tight cross-gartering). His Lordship was away indefinitely: the house was shut up and empty: my request could not be entertained. I did go to Wimborne St Giles one day while I was revising the doctorate as a book, just to double-check whether there was a visible memorial to Susanna Ashley-Cooper in the chapel just outside the locked gates to the estate, but there wasn’t, so I took a last look at the gatehouse, published what I had, and left it at that.I remember reading a decade or so later that the earl, who had been living on the French Riviera, had disappeared, and then that his third wife had been involved in his murder. But I did not renew my request to search their house.
Years after that, not long before the pandemic, an academic journal sent me a draft article to assess. It turned out that a Canadian student called Genevieve Kirk had read my book and written an MA dissertation on the Shakespeare Ladies Club, determined to see whether there was more information to be uncovered. The essay was the result.From a coffee-table book called The Rebirth of an English Country House: St Giles House (2018), Kirk had learned that the new earl, the 12th, Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, had in 2012 returned with his wife, Dinah, from an expatriate life as a night-club proprietor and DJ in New York and set about restoring the family seat to its former splendour. The Rebirth of an English Country House, written by the new earl and Tim Knox, reproduces a passage from the journal of an 18th-century traveller called Joseph Pococke, who visited in 1754 and was particularly impressed with the grounds:
The gardens are very beautifully laid out, in a serpentine river, pieces of water, lawns, &c, and very gracefully adorn’d with wood. One first comes to an island in which there is a castle, then near the water is a gateway, with a tower on each side, and passing between two waters there is a fine cascade from one to the other, a thatch’d house, a round pavilion on a mount, [and] Shake Spear’s house, in which is a small statue of him, and his works in a glass case; and in all the houses and seats are books in hanging glass cases.
Kirk established that ‘Shake Spear’s house’ – where presumably the countess and fellow members of the Shakespeare Ladies Club sat at the playwright’s represented feet reading his works aloud together – was originally built in 1742: estate accounts from July of that year record the expenditure of £1 8s 6d on ‘Shells’ for what they call ‘Shakespear’s Cell’, and in November a further £6 5s 5d went to George Osboldstone and his men for ‘working about Shakespear’s Cell’. The figure presiding over this not very poor cell was, in some sense, a likeness of Prospero: it was Scheemakers’s original model for the statue of Shakespeare installed in Westminster Abbey the previous year, on whose scroll is a misquoted version of Prospero’s ‘Our revels now are ended’ speech. Susanna Ashley-Cooper had, it seemed, co-funded the first public national monument to Shakespeare, in London, so that she could simultaneously furnish a private Shakespearean grotto, in Dorset. Elsewhere in the grounds she commissioned another grotto, designed by John Castles and completed in the early 1750s, but her first consignments of seashells were for Shakespeare.
The revelation that the countess had built her own Shakespearean shrine-cum-reading-room in 1742 – more than a decade before David Garrick commissioned what had previously been considered the first Temple of Shakespeare, complete with a statue by Roubiliac, for his own garden at Hampton – made me sufficiently curious to want to renew my attempt to see her former house and gardens. After Kirk’s article appeared in print, I made contact with her, and we compared notes about our experiences of corresponding with the Ashley-Coopers. The 12th earl was clearly more historian-friendly than his forebears, and though Genevieve, on the far side of the Atlantic, had not been able to go to Wimborne St Giles, he had put her in touch with Suzannah Fleming, a garden historian who had studied the estate records, and hadn’t ruled out a visit. Thirty years after my first letter, I wrote once more to the Earl of Shaftesbury, St Giles House, Wimborne St Giles.
One afternoon in September 2021 I was admitted to the house and permitted to wander through the library, the ground floor and the park, keeping to the fringes of the current countess’s pandemic-postponed 40th birthday house-party. I alternated between trying to discover which books acquired by Susanna Ashley-Cooper might remain in the library, talking briefly with Nick (as he prefers to be known) about what does and does not remain of the 18th-century landscaping, exploring the area described by Pococke beside the artfully bifurcated River Allen and the artificial lake, admiring Joseph Highmore’s portrait of the 18th-century countess, and meeting her present-day successor in a kitchen ornamented with Forbidden Planet-style toy robots in honour of Nick’s former nightclub, Robots.
This was pleasant, if disconcertingly like an afternoon spent in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, and went some way towards compensating for the paucity of what can now be found at St Giles House to testify to Susanna Ashley-Cooper’s crucial part in the canonisation of Shakespeare. Her copy of Hanmer’s edition is still in the library, and so are works by her cousin Elizabeth’s husband, James ‘Hermes’ Harris, of Salisbury, a proponent of education for women who, fifteen years after the countess’s death in 1758, kept alive the legacy of the Ladies Club when his daughters and their friends staged the first recorded all-female production of a Shakespeare play. But little remains of Ashley-Cooper’s contributions to the landscaped gardens. Other than the castellated two-towered Gothic gateway, and the later grotto designed by John Castles (which was locked, though I was able to walk through the adjoining fossil-encrusted semi-circular underground tunnel), nothing is to be found of the buildings mentioned by Pococke. Genevieve, tantalisingly, had managed to find a reference to a photograph of Shakespeare’s Cell taken as recently as the 1890s, but even the photograph seems to have been lost during the hard times (by the standards of earldoms) that overtook the family in the mid-20th century.
In the absence of further archaeological evidence about the design of Shakespeare’s Cell, speculation about Ashley-Cooper’s reasons for enshrining her Shakespeare in a simulated sea-cave had to rely on an investigation into what grottoes meant more generally and what they had specifically come to mean in England by the 1740s. Surely the Shakespeare Ladies Club didn’t see Shakespeare in the same light that Nahum Tate saw Edmund and Regan? The Italian grottoes of Shakespeare’s time were often explicitly amorous. I had seen the nymphaeum at the Villa d’Este (1566), originally provided with a Fountain of Leda, and Bernardo Buontalenti’s even more influential grotto in the Medicis’ Boboli Gardens in Florence (1583-93). At the latter, one is led inwards from an incongruously stalactite-crowded assembly of flirtatious nymphs and shepherds, into a cavern centred on a statue of Paris abducting Helen, and finally into an inner chamber where a naked Venus is surprised in her bath by sculpted satyrs who would originally have sprayed her with water. But I felt that there must have been more to the grotto boom than subterranean soft porn, and so in August 2022 I hired a car and spent a week wandering from one Italian grotto to another in quest of further clues.
It was remarkable how ingeniously guidebooks set out to explain away these buildings. Most Italian grottoes do, as the guides point out, provide shady, cool, elaborately watered places where their owners could take refuge from the Italian sun, but the quest for air-conditioning can’t fully account for the booby-trapped Venus at the Villa Lante in Bagnaia who squirts water at the unwary from her breasts. Various attempts at schematising these Renaissance gardens as embodiments of an orderly progression from the primal to the civilised, with grottoes placed at uphill springs from which rivers are gradually tamed into rills and fountains and thence to geometrical ponds as they come closer to the villas they serve, don’t convince either. At the Villa Lante, for instance, the loggias closest to the supposedly primitive Fountain of the Deluge and its grottoes, at the upper rim of the garden, are the most urbane, clearly designed for private conversations Cardinal Gambara might have with important guests. At the Giusti garden in Verona (1580-91), the central item framed by the magnificent symmetry of the garden as seen from the palazzo is an enormous and menacing grotesque stone face carved just below the summit of a grotto-pocked cliff (the face could be made to breathe fire on special occasions). It doesn’t look anything like a proto-Enlightenment celebration of the triumph of order.
Oddly, the Italian garden which seemed most germane to the question of grottoes didn’t contain a grotto at all. The Sacro Bosco di Bomarzo, near Viterbo – if it even counts as a garden – occupies an area of woodland in a river valley leading up to the walled city of Bomarzo and its ducal palazzo. Here at several points between the 1560s and the 1580s, Pier Francesco Orsini, the duke of Bomarzo, employed the designer Pirro Ligorio and the sculptor Simone Moschino to create what feels like a deeply submerged atavistic otherwhere in the process of manifesting itself above the surface, or the half-buried ruins, of a bizarre lost civilisation. Random outcrops of rock, some in the river, some among the trees, have been carved into fighting giants, mother goddesses, gaping sea monsters, huge splayed double-tailed mermaids, a dragon and many-breasted sphinxes; one cave has been sculpted as the mouth of a huge savage face, with a raised flat stone tongue that invites guests to enter and use it as a picnic table, eating while seeming to be eaten. An elephant assaults a Roman legionary; herms stand obscurely in rows; a partly ruined stone house leans at a crazy angle as if mid-earthquake; a life-sized winged woman stands on a plinth on the back of a giant turtle; boulders morph into women wearing huge urns on their heads. The poems by Annibal Caro and others engraved beside some of the sculptures provide no interpretative help with this surreal parody of every other Renaissance garden. (The place had been almost forgotten by the middle of the 20th century until an unsurprisingly keen Salvador Dalí made a film there.) At Bomarzo a profuse and private creativity seems to irrupt irresistibly and almost pathologically from the ground. The place is every bit as grotesquely fertile as any of the more womb-like grottoes confined to the perimeters of courtlier gardens, suggesting that their more routinely mythologised underworlds are rationalisations of unconscious drives only partly to be controlled or even named.
This sense that grottoes are connected not just with sexuality (as places of furtive privacy) but with an unruly gothic creativity rooted in the darkest places of the psyche had registered with English grotto-builders by the time of the countess. It is impossible not to associate the grotto built by Alexander Pope under his villa in Twickenham between 1720 and 1725, for instance, with the Cave of Spleen in The Rape of the Lock (1712-17), home of the goddess of bad moods and sick fancies:
Here in a grotto, shelter’d close from air,
And screen’d in shades from day’s detested glare,
She sighs for ever on her pensive bed,
Pain at her side, and Megrim at her head.
The cave is just as rich in surreal and sexualised metamorphoses as Bomarzo:
Unnumber’d throngs on every side are seen,
Of bodies chang’d to various forms by Spleen.
Here living Tea-pots stand, one arm held out,
One bent; the handle this, and that the spout:
A Pipkin there, like Homer’s Tripod walks;
Here sighs a Jar, and there a Goose-pie talks
Men prove with child, as pow’rful fancy works,
And maids turn’d bottles, call aloud for corks.
The connection between the Cave of Spleen and Pope’s own retreat was made early: Samuel Lewis’s 1785 plan of the grotto, sold to the tourists who had been flocking there ever since Pope’s death in 1744, labels one of its principal chambers ‘the Cave of Pope’. The bulk of the villa was demolished in 1808 and the grotto fell into decay, but in the 1990s its remains, now located under a private school, could still be visited on a single day every year (it has now been restored and will soon be open one day a month). When I visited then it was dismally dark, dank and musty, since like all English grottoes it lacked the pretext and the protection offered by the Italian climate. As Dr Johnson replied to the Lincolnshire woman who showed him her grotto and asked whether it would not be ‘a pretty cool habitation in summer’, ‘I think it would, madam, for a toad.’ At Twickenham in the 1990s some sort of rot had blackened all the pieces of mirror, rare minerals, shells and coral that Pope had embedded in the walls and low ceilings, but they were still maliciously and vengefully sharp. The spirit of the place lived on.
Was Shakespeare’s Cell, then, an attempt posthumously to provide Shakespeare with an allegorised dwelling like Pope’s, identifying what the 18th century regarded as the excitingly lawless, archaic fecundity of Shakespeare’s poetic imagination with a psychic underworld of the sort hinted at in Twickenham? It must have been rendered a more sociable space by the presence of his works in their glass case, and it clearly admitted enough natural light to allow them to be read, but the fact that Pococke’s account doesn’t place the cell beneath ground level doesn’t rule out a grotto-like design (the earliest grotto at the Boboli, for instance, the Grotticina della Madama of 1570, is a freestanding building part-disguised as a small cavern). An illustration to the last act of The Tempest by Louis du Guernier, published in the 1714 version of Nicholas Rowe’s edition, gives Prospero a cell that looks less like a grotto and more like a small classical temple, but when Ashley-Cooper’s protégé Thomas Hanmer gave instructions for an illustration to Francis Hayman in 1744 he was clear about the way the exiled magician’s home and its surroundings should look (rather like 18th-century parkland):
A Landskip the most pleasing that can be design’d, varied with woods and plains and Rocks and vallies, and falls of water and all the wild beauties of nature. Into one of the rocks the Entrance of a Cave must appear, not far from which Prospero and Miranda are to stand as in conference together … The Grotesque figure of Caliban to be coming from behind the Cave towards the mouth of it with a burthen of wood upon his Shoulders.
Perhaps Shakespeare’s Cell was something like the ample cave in Hayman’s finished illustration, which places it beside a stream much the size of the Allen and pleasingly arranges the natural rocks and vegetation above its doorway to give it a rudimentary but definite classical pediment.
There remained the question of the shells. Where had they come from, and why were inland grottoes, identified with Prospero or not, so determined to speak of the seashore? A guidebook to one of the 16th-century specimens I visited in Italy identified the marine motif as not only a reference to the caves of the Sibyl but as an assertion by the grottoes’ owners of dominion over the sea – this (and indeed, dominions over the seas) wasn’t a small matter for the 18th-century English. When I wrote about Susanna Ashley-Cooper thirty years earlier I had stressed her family’s libertarian, Whig credentials: the 1st earl’s friendship with Locke, who tutored the 3rd earl; the 3rd’s earl’s authorship of that bestseller of Enlightenment moral philosophy Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711); the participation of Susanna and her husband, the 4th earl, supporters of opposition writers such as Fielding and Gay, in the ‘Patriot’ resistance to Walpole’s oligarchy. But in the course of explaining how they came to occupy a country seat larger than its agricultural estates might have been expected to support, The Rebirth of an English Country House points towards another aspect of their inheritance:
As early as 1656 [Anthony Ashley-Cooper, subsequently the 1st earl] had owned a share in a plantation in Barbados, while in 1663 he was appointed by Royal Charter one of the eight Lords Proprietor of the Province of Carolina in North America … He was a member of the Royal Adventurers Company from 1663, and, from 1672 – when he was appointed by Charles II as the First Lord of Trade and Plantations – its successor body, the Royal Africa Company, a chartered organisation which attempted to gain a monopoly over the English slave trade.
There are rivers still named Ashley and Cooper in the 1st earl’s honour in South Carolina. He and Locke are now usually credited (if that is the word) with the composition of the neo-feudal 1669 Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, which provided the colony with an impressive level of religious toleration (any like-minded group of seven or more people could be considered a faith and have its rights to convene protected), but also gave it, among other things, a hereditary nobility and hereditary serfdom. In addition, despite Locke’s subsequent assertion of every citizen’s property in his or her own body as the fundamental basis of all other property rights, it also specifies that ‘every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever.’
A subsequent passage in Tim Knox’s potted history shows that the estate improvements over which Susanna Ashley-Cooper presided seventy years later were largely funded by the sale of the family share in the Carolina colony. Her husband instead became in 1733 a trustee of the new, and at that time slavery-free, Colony of Georgia: the trustees’ secretary, Benjamin Martyn, not only helped James Edward Oglethorpe draw up Savannah’s utopian town plan but served on the fundraising committee for the Westminster Abbey statue of Shakespeare, even contributing a prologue for the benefit performance of Julius Caesar that the countess organised in 1738. When the family gave up their holdings in Barbados, however, is less clear, and the sale of their interest in Carolina is unlikely to have been an exercise in disinvestment motivated by abolitionism. The 4th earl remained a friend of the wealthy Jamaican plantation owner William Beckford, father of the novelist and folly-builder, who provided a good many of the seashells still visible in the surviving grotto on the estate. ‘I have given orders to my Managers of the best Parts to send the Shells mentioned in your memorandum,’ he wrote from Spanish Town in Jamaica on 25 May 1749, ‘the Tamarinds are prepared in this Town & shall be sent by the [ship] Caesar Templer … My best respects attend ye Lady Shaftesburys.’ That July he sent word that he had also shipped ‘one thousand of Shells in the Happy Return, consigned to Mr Julian Beckford for your use, which I hope safe to hand & that they may answer.’
I assume that the shells Lady Shaftesbury used to decorate Shakespeare’s Cell came from this or a similar source, and there is no evidence to suggest that she ever worried about the enforced labour of those who may have gathered them. She was clearly a highly literate and intelligent woman, a connoisseur, and even, within the terms of her circle, a feminist, but her celebration of Shakespeare was supported by slave labour, just like the Prospero with whom she identified him. In the illustration for his edition of The Tempest, possibly made with the St Giles estate in mind, Hanmer wanted the enslaved Caliban portrayed as a ‘Grotesque figure’: he has been banished from Prospero’s cave, to live somewhere behind it, ‘styed’ in a ‘hard rock’, the grotto of a grotto, from which he is only grudgingly allowed into view. The architectural idiom Susanna Ashley-Cooper chose in Dorset – even as it represented Shakespeare’s creative imagination as something primitive and subterranean, potentially grotesque, libidinous, Caliban-like, a thing of darkness – depended for its funding as for its seashells on a world of offstage suffering.
I finally got to see some of the many shells sent by Beckford inside the surviving and now restored grotto in July. It is an incongruously comfortable and well-lit place, with a ceiling height far greater than that favoured by Pope, and it is even armed against the rigours of Dorset summers with a fireplace and chimney: if Shakespeare’s Cell ever got too chilly, the countess could have come here to read The Tempest beside its tamarind-adorned hearth instead.
Genevieve Kirk was in London for a week, so I contacted Nick the earl again. Genevieve and I looked at James Harris’s house in Salisbury, to which, in the days when Susanna Ashley-Cooper used to visit, he fitted a sundial bearing a motto from Macbeth (‘Life’s but a walking shadow’), before driving to Wimborne St Giles. Nick was dealing with a prospective wedding party – opulent weddings are now the main business of St Giles House – and entrusted us to an eager young assistant, headhunted a year earlier from ‘the best eco-hotel in Bournemouth’, who took us to the surviving 1750s grotto in what he described as ‘a golf buggy on steroids’. Before doing so, however, with considerable if hushed fanfare, he produced a special key in order to show us a long secret cellar directly under the house proper, newly fitted with state-of-the-art turntables, amplification and lighting: an underground disco and bar, Robots redivivus, incongruously transposed from Manhattan to rural Dorset. From its console the 12th earl can, when the nostalgic mood takes him, direct nuptial entertainments as dazzling as any staged by Prospero for Miranda and Ferdinand, and considerably louder. I had come in search of one grotto, and now I was being shown another: no seashells, perhaps, but some terrific dance music.
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