Poet, satirist, letter writer, designer of gardens and grotto maker
1688 - 1744
Comes to Twickenham
Alexander Pope came to live in Twickenham in the spring of 1719. He took a lease of some riverside land owned by Thomas Vernon of Twickenham Park. There were several cottages on the land, in the middle of a small working community. Amongst a number of buildings there was a malthouse later owned by a poulterer, an unspecified workshop, a wheelmaker's business, a bricklayer and a tannery, of which Warburton later wrote:
close to the grotto of the Twickenham bard
too close adjoins a Tanner's yard
Pope already knew Twickenham. He wrote to Caryll on 6 August 1717 that he had visited Lord Burlington (his neighbour at Chiswick), the Duke of Shrewsbury (Isleworth), the Duke of Argyle (Ham), Lady Rochester (Petersham), Lord Percival (?London), Mr Stonor (Twickenham Manor or Stonor Park near Henley), Lord Winchelsea (?), Sir Godfrey Kneller (Whitton) and the Duchess of Hamilton (?London). “all these have indispensible claims to me….living within 2 hours sail of Chiswick”.
No doubt these visits would have been made over several days. Getting to Stonor Park would have taken more than two hours from Chiswick. Thomas Stonor (1677-1724) enjoyed a tenancy of Twickenham Manor from 1716 until 1721 following Bolingbroke’s exile. If this was where Pope came, travelling by river, in July 1717, it offers a delightful picture of him disembarking on Twickenham’s riverside and walking up Church Lane, St Mary’s Church on his right, to the Manor House at the lower end of Church Street. In the lane, to his left, there might have been a newly built house, now The Twickenham Museum. Later, he would have made his way over to Whitton where Sir Godfrey Kneller had recently built himself a mansion.
Builds the villa and takes land for a garden
He brought with him his elderly mother, his childhood nurse, Mary Beach and a hound named Bounce, the first of many so named. Demolishing one of the cottages and lodging in another, possibly newly built by Vernon, he built his villa. He may have been assisted by James Gibbs but the design was not of a high standard: the amateur hand of Pope himself, celebrating his association with Burlington and the Palladian movement, is surely apparent.
At the same time he obtained a licence to construct a tunnel beneath the road, Cross Deep, to give access to about five acres of land which he leased and enclosed to form his garden. This land was owned by a number of local families, and some of it by Thomas Vernon.
The land between the villa and the river became what he described as his "grass plot", flanked with planting which included a weeping willow. Later, this tree acquired considerable fame.
Begins to create his Grotto
The cellars of his villa were at ground level facing the river and in the centre portion he established his first grotto. Seven years of translating Homer's Iliad brought him both money and a delight in classical mythology. The latter, naturally enough, found expression in the creation of the grotto. Complete by 1725, he wrote to his friend Edward Blount that, having found a spring of water it lacked nothing but nymphs. These he never did find. Naturally enough, the grotto decoration extended along the tunnel from the rear of the cellars, covering up the elegant brickwork possibly built by William Reeves, his neighbour. This gave rise to the misapprehension, introduced by Dr Johnson, that the grotto lay beneath the road.
A new portico for the villa
In 1732 he asked William Kent to design a portico for the river front of the villa; an essay in gentrification that provoked some asperity from his patron Lord Burlington, whom he also consulted and who wrote to him that I have considered your front and am of opinion that my friend Kent has done all that he can, considering the place.
The grotto converted into a museum of geology
Towards the end of 1739 Pope visited the Hotwell Spa on the banks of the Avon at Bristol. He became entranced by the geology of the gorge and its colours to the extent that he resolved to redesign the grotto as a museum of mineralogy and mining. Help was sought from Dr Oliver at Bath and Dr William Borlase in Cornwall and the following spring material from Cornish tin mines was delivered, with instructions for its reassembly in the grotto. Other material was contributed over the following years by many people. Some were his friends, like Ralph Allen of Bath; there were others who liked to think themselves so. Material came from abroad: Peru, Egypt. Italy, Germany, Norway and the West Indies as well as from all over England. A stalagmite from Wookey Hole in Somerset was sent by a Mr Bruce and two small "joints" of basalt from the Giants' Causeway in Ireland were given by Sir Hans Sloane, joining over 140 other mineral and geological contributions.
At the end of each season Pope claimed that he had finished this work, but he never did: his death intervened on 30 May 1744, nine days after his 56th birthday. He died in his villa, surrounded by friends and was buried in the nave of the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Twickenham.
Further reading:John Serle, A PLAN of Mr Pope's GARDEN, 1745 (The Augustan Reprint Society, publication no211, University of California, 1982)
Maynard Mack, Collected in Himself, University of Delaware Press. 1982
Maynard Mack, Alexander Pope, a Life, Yale, 1985
Anthony Beckles Willson, MR POPE & OTHERS at Cross Deep in the 18th Century, 1996
Anthony Beckles Willson, Alexander Pope's Grotto in Twickenham, The Twickenham Museum, 1998
Anthony Beckles Willson, Strawberry Hill, A History of the Neighbourhood, 1991
Anthony Beckles Willson, Mastiffs & Minerals in the life of Alexander Pope, The Twickenham Museum, 2005
Mavis Batey, Alexander Pope - the Poet in the landscape, Barn Elms Publishing, 1999