The Remains of a Dream: Alexander Pope’s Villa at Twickenham

By Loredana Massa

For a common tourist, nowadays, Twickenham, part of the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, may mean nothing but a nice little spot just outside the confused threads of the big city. Yet, it undoubtedly strikes the imagination of the modern literary traveler searching for evocative paths, for this smart town is deeply steeped in eighteenth century literary memories and full of that unexcelled, refined spirit of the Augustan Age which still emanates from the remains of ancient rural England.

Twickenham was the dream of Alexander Pope.

Despite being the dominant figure in English poetry in the first half of the eighteenth century, Alexander Pope’s personality was a source of animated controversy in his own lifetime. His literary career, receiving in many ways John Dryden’s heritage, has been hotly debated, maybe more than any other in English literature.

Born into a prosperous Catholic family in 1688, Pope spent his childhood between the City of London and Binfield in Windsor Forest, developing a voracious appetite for reading and learning, and suffering from a severe tubercular infection which, after causing him a curvature of the spinal column, left him small and almost deformed. After a short stay in Chiswick, in 1719, the family moved to Twickenham on the Thames, his home for the rest of his life.

Except for literary quarrels and his successful achievements, Pope’s life was quite uneventful. He could boast a great number of friends, many of them important artists; his early friends from childhood included William Walsh, Samuel Garth, George Granville, Thomas Southerne, William Congreve and William Wycherley. Because of his health and Catholic religion (regarded as nearly treasonable for the Protestant Revolution), he was debarred from an academic training but he could be educated at home by tutors and friends. From childhood he composed verses and by the time he was seventeen his poetry was known to the critics; Jacob Tonson, one of the leading editors at the time, published Pope’s early verses by 1709, and introduced the young poet to the London circles and to the most eminent writers of the time. In 1711, his philosophical poem Essay in Criticism won him the name of a great genius. The Essay in Criticismpresented his views of literary art and his cult of an integral classicism, critically as well as formally.

By 1713 he launched a subscription to translate the Iliad; the works lasted seven years and were violently attacked by the Protestant public opinion and by much of his literary  acquaintances. In the same year, he invented The Scriblerus Club together with his closest friends John Gay, Jonathan Swift, Thomas Parnell and Dr. Arbuthnot, producing one of the most admirable examples of satire, The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus (which Pope would publish in 1740 long after the death of his friends). In 1717 a collection of Pope’s poetry appeared in the volume of Poems, which included the Pastorals and Windsor Forest. This poem is significant of Pope’s ideal of life and art and it is only apparently a mere descriptive poem: the lines in praise of the Horatian retirement show, beside realistic details, a deep meditation on court life, retirement, peace, nature and several other issues. Even if Pope’s traditional interpretation is still nowadays the generic label of the poet of reason, that is of plain brilliant writing, intellectuality in the poetic art and refined rationalism, much of his poetry shows an enormous imaginative power and sometimes a high emotional expression, even if every sentimental impulse is always recast in classical forms. Examples of this fusion of emotions and reasoning are the tragic monologues of the Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady and the intensely dramatic Eloisa to Abelard.

The best gem in Pope’s Poems  was The Rape of the Lock, a delightful and elegant mock-heroick, published briefly in 1712 and revised in 1714. The twelve cantos of the poem tell the story of the theft of a curl from the hair of a young lady of fashion. This is told in that absurdly dignified style of the mock-heroick and the joke lies in the disparity between the trivial subject and the high-flown language. The poem offers many different readings; as a poem on an occasion (a real life occurrence: Lord Petre cut a lock from the head of Lady Arabella Fermor and caused a quarrel; Pope’s verses can thus represent an effort to reconcile the two families); as an ingeniously built work of imagination, a laughing satire of the frivolities of a polite age through the lenses of the burlesque: the cut lock cause an Homeric war between the families in a superlative game of diminutions and aggrandizements and in a parody of classical epic devices. The Rape of the Lockis considered today one of the highest examples, maybe the highest one, of eighteenth century mock-heroick poetry.

After the success of The Rape of the Lock, Pope started translating the Odyssey with two friends Elijah Fenton and William Broome. The translation (where he made Homer write like an Eighteenth century poet) brought him further fame and fortune, despite the sharp attacks by envious minor authors and the controversy concerning the exploitation of his assistants. In the same years the poet worked also at an edition of Shakespeare works which met a rather qualified acceptance among the critics. The bulky quarto volumes of Shakespeare’s plays were at first unpopular because expensive and quite inaccurate: though extraordinarily learned, Pope, actually, was not so experienced in Elizabethan English and his emendations to the texts resulted inadequate and almost grotesque.

From 1720, the quarrels with the critics and some polemical friends turned Pope into a satirist. As a counterblast to all denigrators of his works, but also to all second rate poets, Grub Street scribblers, pedant professors and greedy editors, he published The Dunciad (from 1728): an ardent praise to the Goddess Dullness shows a heated satire against the ills of culture and general pedantry but also a personal onslaught on all literary enemies as a self-defense (even against some ex-friends like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu). While publishing The Dunciad, he was projecting his ethic epistles and some appeared in 1731 in the Moral Essays. One of the most significant is the essay Of Taste, addressed to the architect Earl of Burlington, which promoted a general refinement of taste through plainer forms in architecture, and through more natural and simpler methods of landscape gardening. Painting and landscape gardening were Pope’s main interests, besides poetry; he was taught painting by his friend Charles Jervas and soon developed an authentic inclination for arts. He had also many friends among painters and artists: the two Jonathan Richardsons, Sir Godfrey Kneller, the architect and landscape gardener William Kent and the Earl of Burlington. Pope tried with them to promote classicism in fine arts against the vogue of rococo.

The last achievement of his career was the Essay on Man, an ambitious philosophical poem in four epistles following the eighteenth century intellectual tradition. Admired by Kant, the poem showed no new ideas and was in fact widely influenced by deism. Accepting the notion of the divine and the idea of the universe as a great chain of being, Pope tried to build a rational system of ethics independent of metaphysics and religion but without denying the latter one, but the result was quite heavy and incoherent. Yet the poem pointed out one of the crucial issues of the century: the aesthetic problem of reasoning in poetry, the insoluble key problem in Pope’s poetry and in much of early eighteenth century art. With such intellectual concerning, Pope spent the last years of his life in Twickenham, by the Thames, enjoying the pleasures of country retirement and dreaming of achieving his beloved home. As a man he was often unjust, bad-tempered and spiteful, as all his enemies emphasized, but as an artist he studied perfection with a rare singleness of purpose and constantly looking for a perfect balance of intellect, emotions, body and soul: there was in Pope’s mind a time for deep feeling, a time for reason and a time to yield to the senses but also a constant aspiration to a complete harmony.

And harmony was also the main concern in building Twickenham villa.

Acknowledged as a successful protagonist of the British literary elite, Pope came to live in Twickenham in the spring of 1719, with his mother, his childhood nurse and his dog, after leaving Mawsons Buildings at Chiswick, and made that quiet setting his home for the last twenty-five years of his life.

He had a wide project on his mind: building himself a villa in the fashionable Palladian style and a magnificent garden facing the Thames, a secluded retreat but within easy reach of London. He then took a lease of three riverside cottages on a small plot of land in the properties of Thomas Vernon of Twickenham Park, in what is now known as Cross Deep. The land included different buildings as a malthouse, a wheelmaker’s business, a bricklayer’s yard and a tannery, used by a small working community of cattle breeders. Other five acres of unenclosed land across the road were also leased by 1734- and intended for the creation of the garden.

Demolishing one cottage, the villa was built according to his classical taste (his theories are partly indicated in the Epistle to Lord Burlington, in description of Timon’s villa) and everything was carefully assembled following an extremely perfect design. Since the manor was separated from his main garden by the road of Cross Deep, he obtained, in October 1720, a licence to construct a tunnel under the road to connect the two properties, thus giving access to the garden. Twickenham garden, arranged by John Searle, was a real work of art, created precisely as a painting or a poem: Horace Walpole commented that Pope had “twisted and twirled; and rhymed and harmonised” his little bit of ground but Pope firmly believed that all gardening is landscape painting. Just like a landscape hung up. The full paradigm of the Picturesque Taste was shown in that tiny spot which would become one day one of the most eloquent expressions of the pictorial and poetic sensibility of the early eighteenth century. Groves were accurately formed by planting trees and shrubs, spaced out by arcades, and other “wildernesses”; the kitchen gardens hosted unusual vegetables, herbs, and quincunxes of vines and fruit-trees. There were hothouses, stone pavilions at the waters edge, an orangery, a bowling green, and also an open temple made of shells and an amphitheatre, at the foot of a large “mount” covered with trees, bushes, and heaps of rugged and mossy stones (with a spiral path to the top, where one came upon a large Forest seat, shaded by a tree); niches containing urns and stone busts of his literary models: Homer, Virgil and Cicero, but also from 1735- an obelisk in memory of his beloved mother. Only nymphs were missing, as Pope wrote to his friend Edward  Blount.

From the cellars of the villa the tunnel led out of the basement of the house and ran under the road up to the garden; in the central section of the tunnel, the poet made his well known grotto, inspired by classical mythology (he was then translating Homer and working on the Iliad). The walls and ceiling of the grotto were entirely decorated and lined with flints, pebbles, and shells, and contained concealed mirrors and alabastor lamps which served to illuminate its rills, fountains, and pools. Such architectural arrangements were for Pope a never-ceasing amusement as well as collecting every sort of exotic minerals and unusual petrifactions (pieces of lava, crystal, coral, gold). His friends often pleased him by sending various materials: metallic ores, pieces of spar from the mines of Derbyshire, gravel of Cornwall but also Italian marble fragments, fossils, statues and even humming-birds’ nests. The first phase of the works, started in 1722 and was completed by 1725 to the great delight of Pope, as he wrote in a letter to Blount:

I have put the last hand to my works happily finishing the subterraneous Way and Grotto: I then found a spring of the clearest water, which falls in a perpetual Rill, that echoes thru the Cavern day and night. When you shut the Doors of this Grotto, it becomes on the instant, from a luminous Room, a Camera Obscura, on the walls of which all the objects of the River, Hills, Woods, and Boats, are forming a moving Picture. And when you have a mind to light it up, it affords you a very different Scene: it is finished with Shells interspersed with Pieces of Looking-glass in angular Formsat which when a Lampis hung in the Middle, a thousand pointed Rays glitter and are reflected over the place.

In winter 1739, during a visit to Bristol, at the Hotwell Spa on the Avon banks, he was deeply impressed by the morphology of the gorges and its peculiar chromatism; he then got the idea of revising the grotto redecorating it with the enormous collections of minerals. Helped by Dr. Oliver at Bath and Dr. William Borlase in Cornwall, he could gather geological material from all over the world: Peru, Egypt, Italy, Germany, Norway and the West Indies as well as from all over England. Many friends also contributed to his works with several mineral presents;  Mr. Bruce sent him a stalagmite from Wookey Hole in Somerset and Sir Hans Sloane gave even two small “joints” of basalt from the Giants’ Causeway in Ireland.

The grotto was his favourite retreat; there he could sit in peace with his friends, undisturbed by the distant din of the world, as he declared:

There my retreat the best companions grace, / Chiefs out of war, and statesmen out of place ; / There St. John mingles with my friendly bowl /The feast of reason and the flow of soul

Though dedicated to repose (according the ideal of the Horatian retirement), the tranquil setting of Twickenham villa became a centre of attraction not only for the poet’s friends, but also for artists, editors, young author aspirants and interviewers of the day, looking for his favours or patronage; Pope was sometimes annoyed by those Twickenamites coming and going, as he describes in the first lines of the Prologue to the Satires: What walls can guard me, or what shades can hide? / They pierce my thickets, through my grot they glide; / By land, by water, they renew the charge.

Besides literature, his main interest was always landscape gardening; directing his old friend Searle, he never stopped conceiving new ways to improve the villa and the grotto, aspiring to the most tasteful alliance between Art and Nature. Yet, he never achieved his dream of perfection: Pope died in the villa on 30 May 1744 and was buried in the nave of the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in Twickenham. A year later John Searle wrote an interesting booklet, A Plan of Mr. Pope’s Garden, published by Dodsley. The volume was a guidebook for visitors and, besides a selection of Pope’s poetry, included a full description of the grotto and the minerals in it, together with a plan of the tunnel, a perspective view and especially the only known contemporary layout of the garden.

Wandering around Cross Deep today, very little remains of Pope’s graceful retirement by the Thames bank: the place is still quite striking and an inscription remembers that on this spot stood until 1809 the house of Alexander Pope; yet the visitors have to call on their literary imagination and make an effort to evocate the magnificence of the popian mansion. The English Canaletto Samuel Scott painted splendid views of Twickenham, and in particular three versions of Pope’s villa as extended by Sir William Stanhope from 1758, but nearly nothing about the house survived to the present day. In 1808 the villa was demolished and replaced by new houses until 1845. Happily the grotto still survives in part, lying beneath various 20th century buildings, owned by the St. James Independent School for Boys. A substantial part of the tunnel, the symbol of Pope’s life and artistic ideal, can be visited and, even if it looks like a mine actually, it can still evoke the spirit of a curious and enchanting age, the last remains of a dream.

Images used with permission from the Twickenham Museum &


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