The Grottoes of Fonthill
 
A mystery solved?by Maxwell Steer 9/1999

Since the publication of Timothy Mowl’s William Beckford, Composing for Mozart in 1998 there has been a debate about the date of the construction of the grottoes on the east side of Fonthill Lake, arising from his assertion that these must have been created by ‘Alderman’ Beckford, William’s father prior to his death in 1770.

Issue was joined by Laurent Chatel in the Beckford Journal, Vol 5 (Spring 1999). He takes the contrary position, believing ‘that the subterranean features were not there before 1778 but that they probably did exist after 1788.’ If so, this would mean that they were constructed between William’s 18th and 28th years. In other words, that they are William’s conception. The matter is complicated by the absence of any documentation; but a solution has occurred to me whereby both contenders might be partly right.

Altho I have lived near Fonthill for over five years I had not trespassed around the eastern side of the lake and thus had not encountered the grottoes for myself until September 99, when I came across them by chance while walking my dog. My immediate thought on seeing their scale was that they must have been constructed for a child, not an adult. I therefore returned with a 10 year old, James Hatcher, whom I photographed both in the grottoes and in the gothick tower, or cromlech, on the opposite bank.

Photo 1 shows James in the southern end of lakeside grotto
Photo 2 in an alcove within it
Photo 3 James stands in the arch leading to the inner recess of the grotto
Photo 4 he stands in the northern exit
Photo 5 shows him sitting on the edge of the Hermit’s Bath.
Photo 6 James is standing in the doorway of the Gothick Tower, or Cromlech
Photo 7 He peers from a first floor window of the Gothick Tower

James is 4’8 (1.42M). I think any viewer will be immediately struck, as I was, by the fact that he is at the limit of the height where a person might enter any of these structures without stooping. What adult, building them for himself, would have given them all 5ft entrances? One or two, maybe - but all? To be sure the interior roofs of the grottoes are considerably higher, but then so they are in any building, especially one striving for such ‘aweful’ effect. In the gothick tower however there is scarcely a foot of headroom for James.

It is their scale which persuades me that they must have been built for a child or children – and I would have said most likely a child of 8-10 years of age, beside whom the entrances would have appeared proportional to a normal doorway - giving them the delightful appeal which a well-scaled model has to this very day. In Photo 5, the hermit’s bath, even if one allows for a build-up of detritus beneath James’ feet it still suggests pool of safe depth for a child since the water level would not be much higher than an adult’s ribs. What nervous mother would not make such a stipulation? Taking all in all, I find it inescapable that these structures were designed to address a child’s consciousness.

There are three groups of picturesque buildings: the east bank grottoes, the West Bank Grottoes (WBG) and irts nearby gothick tower. Only the WBG has an indication of date with a plaque carved <J.L. 1794> which most authorites take to be a date of construction. However a fruitful source of confusion is to assume that all were built at the same time.

In his book about presumed constructors, Joseph & Josiah Lane, Masters of the Grotto, Christopher Thacker quotes JC Loudon writing about the latter in 1836, 3 years after his death, that ‘He used to do all the work with his own hands, and be paid at the rate of about two guineas a week;’ This would have been a princely wage if Josiah worked alone, but I take to mean that the money was to cover any additional labour. Nevertheless if Josiah’s working practices were inherited from his father then Thacker’s remarks that the grotto at Oatlands, Surrey ‘took [Joseph] several years’ work [in the late 1740s] and cost many thousands of pounds’ would obviously apply to an even greater extent at Fonthill.

For the purposes of my hypothesis I am going to make the assumption that there were two or possibly three periods of construction - but my belief remains that they are all related to childhood. All authorities agree that nothing is likely to have been built after 1794, thus I would like to put the WBG to one side and first consider the East Bank Grottoes (EBG), which I suggest were built for young William by his father in the later 1760s. Any other child would be content with a wendy house - but not William, he has to have a grotto!

The only positive evidence I can offer is circumstantial - but then all the evidence concerning this conundrum is circumstantial. If we assume the EBG were indeed built by the grotto-building Lanes then I do not find it as far fetched as Chatel that the Alderman could have ordered it from them, the more so in view of his proven taste for the exotic, evidenced by his unlikely ‘turkish’ room in Splendens. Moreover, if these structures do date from the later 1760s, then the fact that all parties saw and enjoyed them inter vivos provides a perfectly satisfactory explanation as to why there is no documentation about their construction. Given that the EBG alone must represent at least six months’ work I find it improbable that, had he built them during adulthood, Beckford’s correspondence would not contain some reference to it. The fact that such a slapdash comentator as William Gilpin did not apparently see or remark on these grottoes in the mid 1770s cannot be taken as evidence that they were not there. The circumstances of his visit are not explained, and it is not impossible that he was simply unaware of the grottoes' existence, and thus would hardly have come upon them by accident, given that they are a considerable distance off the road

But the circumstantial evidence which convinces me of my hypothesis comes in a letter, which Chatel quotes, by the 20 year old Beckford to his ex-tutor Cozens that chimes exactly with my own experience: ‘One Evening … the Sunset grew inconceivably splendid - the Caves of the sleepers were illuminated with the liveliest Red I ever beheld …’ As it happens when I photographed James Hatcher at about 16.45 on 30th September a sudden shaft of sunlight came full into the lakeside grotto, revealing the existence of a concealed aperture above the main waters edge opening, it did indeed illuminate the cave with a vivd light. If Beckford was not describing this grotto in 1780 - then what was he describing? Moreover, the terms in which he speaks of his experience suggest that The Cave of the Sleepers was not only well-known to Cozens; but that it is entirely possible that it antedated Cozens' arrival at Fonthill in 1774, since Beckford does not remark on the Cave as being in any way a novelty to whose genesis Cozens was a witness.

Beckford’s subsequent remark, in a letter dated 1784, that ‘Mr Lane is rockifying, not on the high places, but in a snug copse by the river side’ does not need to be read as meaning that building was proceeding ab initio. Perhaps Lane was simply enhancing or extending inland what already existed? Nor do I think that this reference can conclusively be taken to refer to the EBG at all, since to call anything ‘a snug copse’ when it is on steeply rising rocky ground, adjacent to the greenward of the landing stage is not really a convincing usage of the term. The WBG, on the other hand, is built where there might originally have been just such ‘a snug copse’, and it is not stretching a point too far to describe that location as ‘by the river side’, since it is no more than a stone’s throw away. Maybe some initial work was done at that time, which was revised or extended a decade later, with the fact being recorded on a plaque to celebrate what might by then have been nearly 30 years’ association between the Lanes and the Fonthill estate?

This then leaves us with the gothick tower or cromlech, standing above the WBG. Beckford’s parenting has not received a good press but might it not be very much in character for someone of his temperament to have built something which would have delighted both them and himself? The fact is that during 1793/4 the Misses Beckford were between seven and nine, not only an age at which any child would delight in picnicking around the gothick tower and WBG, with its intricate interior and elfen staircase to a magical upper chamber - but, most signicantly, the very age at which Beckford himself may have thrilled to such a gift himself. What argues in favour of this hypothesis is that these two constructions are easily accessible from the road, and thus that Beckford could even have intended them for a summer picnic rendezvous with his daughters and their governess, since they lived in separately from him in Berwick St Leonard.

That is of course pure speculation, but from having explored these places I am convinced that what unites them is the Tolkein-like romance of a childhood world from which adults are banished. Was Beckford so unnatural that he -of all people- would not have enjoyed what nearly every father enjoys, seeing the world again thro the innocence of childhood and reentering, perhaps for one last time, the childish world of make-believe giants and goblins and fairies?

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