Denton Welch was a talented artist and writer, but his career was sadly cut short by his early death in 1948. A few years before he died he described an ornate 18th century grotto in one of his novels: the fabulous grotto was for real, but it was demolished in the same year that Welch died, making his description all the more poignant.
Denton Welch (1915-1948) was an unhappy, motherless schoolboy, on a summer break from Repton school, when he joined his father and brothers for a holiday in the early 1930s. This experience inspired the novel In Youth is Pleasure, published in 1945, in which Denton Welch becomes the fifteen year old Orvil Pym.
The opening lines set the scene:
‘One summer, several years before the war began, a young boy of fifteen was staying with his father and two elder brothers at a hotel near the Thames in Surrey. The hotel had once been a country house…’
Although not named in the novel, the hotel was Oatlands Park. In the 18th century the estate was home to the Duke of Newcastle, and amongst his landscape embellishments was an amazing grotto: Its early history has been well-told elsewhere, so only the briefest of summaries is necessary here.: there were three chambers in the lower storey, one of which contained a cold bath, and a banqueting room above. The grotto was decorated inside and out with fossils, tufa and shells and one of the floors was made of polished horses’ teeth.
In the novel Orvil sneaks out of the hotel to explore, and first encounters a ‘cottage orné’ in the pleasure grounds. Feeling ‘delightfully like a criminal’ he jemmies open a window to climb inside where ‘everything was in a terrible decay’.
There was stained glass in the windows, and a ‘grotesque’ little fireplace. Elaborate Gothic paper, designed to imitate stone arcades filled with cinquefoil tracery, ‘hung down from the walls in weeping strips’. Upstairs, the ceiling had collapsed and throughout there was a ‘terrible smell of death and decay’.
The impressionable Orvil longed to renovate the cottage as his romantic retreat. Sadly, no-one would have that pleasure. The ‘cottage orné’, also known as the Hermitage or Grotto Cottage, survived for only a decade or so after Welch’s visit. It continued to decay and disappeared completely some time before the Second World War.
To return to the novel, Orvil leaves the cottage and enters the grotto, where he is astonished by the decoration: ‘All the walls of the cave were lined with giant shells, feldspars, quartzes, stalactites and fossils. In one place, a thin trickle of water dripped from pink lip to pink lip of enormous scallop-shells’. Welch’s prose is deliciously sensuous, and prepares the reader for the next scene when Orvil, ‘tremors’ passing through him, progresses through the chambers only to discover two of the hotel guests in a compromising position (you will have to read the book to find out more).
Welch fills the reader in with some historical detail, whilst allowing young Orvil to be entirely innocent of it: ‘King George IV had once been entertained to dinner here by the son of the duke who had made the grotto, but Orvil knew nothing of this. He loved the grotto for itself alone as something beautiful and strange’.
In 1870 the Grotto was described as ‘ugly and neglected’ and ‘sadly dilapidated’ by none other than Queen Victoria. Wartime vandalism caused further damage, and by 1947 it was in urgent need of repair. The hotel owner felt unable to meet the costs of renovation and, considering the building a danger to the ‘innumerable trespassers, whom barbed wire and the strongest chains have failed to keep out’, applied for a license to demolish. This was approved by the local authority, which failed to raise the issue with the County Council, despite an undertaking to do so. Despite last minute attempts by heritage bodies to save the structure, it was demolished in the first months of 1948, only a few years after Barbara Jones recorded the interior.
Happily, Dorothy Grenside, the then curator of the Weybridge Museum, had the foresight to request permission to collect ‘specimens and fragments’ from the grotto before demolition began. As well as some of the decorative rockwork, she also took custody of the marble Venus which stood in the bath chamber.
The Twickenham MP Edward Keeling felt that the Grotto had been let down by the system. The Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 had introduced the listing of historic buildings, but compiling the lists was a slow process. Keeling raised the matter of the grotto in Parliament, urging the Minister of Town and Country Planning, Lewis Silkin, to ‘accelerate the issue of lists’, concluding that there must be no ‘further such ignorant demolitions’.
The Architectural Review ran an article on the destruction of the grotto under the headline ‘Vandalism Triumphant’. Marcus Whiffen wrote that the demolition was a ‘tragic business’, and shared Keeling’s frustration that the Town and Country Planning Act had failed to safeguard the structure.
In May 1948, Lavender Westwood told the tale of the demolition in Country Life, and took some consolation from the fact that the ‘wanton’ destruction had proved ‘considerably longer and more expensive than was anticipated.’ Writing in his journal that same month, Welch’s dismay is apparent in his terse opening sentence: ‘They have destroyed the Grotto at Oatlands’, and he concluded ‘When something beautiful and fantastic that will never be made again is destroyed, one feels that the earth is just that bit drearier…’
To conclude on a cheerier note, in 1937 Welch was one of the young artists whose work featured in the Shell advertising campaign ‘To Visit Britain’s Landmarks’, which focused on British follies. Welch painted Hadlow Castle, aka May’s Folly, which was close to his home in Kent. So after a largely monochrome post about two sad losses, here’s some colour to cheer you up.
For the early history of the grotto and the Oatlands landscape a quick internet search will lead you to a series of articles by garden historian Michael Symes. This link will take you to a paper on the grotto by Tim Knox https://georgiangroup.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/GGJ_1992_10_Knox_0001.pdf
In Youth is Pleasure was recently reprinted as a Penguin Classic https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/319/319677/in-youth-is-pleasure/9780241464137.html
Oatlands Park is still a hotel, but sadly without the glorious garden ornaments https://www.oatlandsparkhotel.com
Weybridge Museum is no more, but the collection, including the Oatlands grotto artefacts, can be seen on the Elmbridge Museum website. There is, for instance, a photo of the statue of Venus here https://elmbridgemuseum.org.uk/collections/?keyword=venus&searchbut=doSearch&object=&collection=&timePeriod=&place=&personOrg=&AccessionNum=
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