The Woburn Grotto

Written for Pleasure Garden Magazine issue seven 'Into the Blue'


Woburn Abbey contains a rare room - a survivor from a time when the houses and gardens of the nobility were infused with magic and allegory. It is neither inside or out. It is static and yet seemingly animated. This room is a fantastical shell grotto populated by mythical heroes, nymphs, gods and monsters.


The exact date of its construction is lost somewhere among the years of the late 1620s and early 30s. It is most likely that Francis Russell (1587-1641), the Fourth Earl of Bedford, was responsible for its creation as part of his extensive rebuilding of the house which he inherited in 1627. Two significant figures are known to have helped conjure this extraordinary tableau; the ingenious French garden designer, architect and engineer Isaac De Caus (1590-1648) who dreamed up its design, and Nicholas Stone (1587-1647), the appropriately named master-mason to Charles I, who pressed his artful chisel into service in the creation of some of its sculpture. 


The genesis of the ornamental grotto in garden history can be traced back to the caves of antiquity. These subterranean spaces served as conduits between the realms of spirit and humankind; here mortals, in search of enlightenment, would commune with divine beings. The grotto became a fashionable feature of late Renaissance gardens, the most influential of which were laid out by the architect Bernardo Buontaenti (1569-1584) around the Villa Pratolino in Italy between 1569-81. Amongst the elaborate parterres, terraces, avenues, and grottos were peppered all manner of extraordinary sculpture, hydraulic wonders and visual delights: a vast stone colossus peering down into a lake, statues given life by ingenious mechanical devices and a water-powered musical organ. It was intended as a vision of earthly harmony within which a cast of mythical characters were brought into being. 


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This is the visual language that De Caus employs within the Woburn grotto. Here Neptune, wreathed by writhing octopus-like tentacles, surveys his sala terrena (a room within the main body of a house which is open to the garden along one side) and casts a briny eye upon the visitor. He is bordered by a frieze across which the cavorting Triton and nereids ride cockle shells and sea creatures on mother of pearl waves. The grinning heads of grotesque satyrs above the buffet niches, and well-fed lackadaisical putti atop the doorway pediments, also perform their part. The visual climax to this marine masque was originally to be found within the large apsidal niche below the head of Neptune; it once contained a statue group, long lost, which depicted another mythical scene. Evidence survives to suggest that De Caus also engaged his aquatic wizardry in the form of playful fountains which spouted from within the niches and a cascade which flowed over the grey and red tufa rock behind the central statue group. The overall effect, when newly built, of candle light refracting off the moving water, many thousands of shells, and polished stones must have been dazzling. 


This however was to be one of the final flourishes of such an earthly elysium. Ten years or so after the grotto’s completion, the first of the English Civil Wars erupted in 1642. A new era of conflict and revolution ushered in the puritanical and pious values of the Commonwealth. The allegory and magic of the Stuart Court were swept away and the arts in England lay fallow until the Restoration in 1660. Remarkably however in spite of the seismic changes which raged around it here the grotto remains acting out its endless joyous masque.