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Isaac de Caus, Nicholas Stone, and the Woburn Abbey grotto.

The history of the grotto at Woburn Abbey has hitherto not been clearly established. That it dates from the early seventeenth century is universally accepted, for it is within the ground floor of the still extant north range that was almost certainly built in the late 1620s or early 1630s. 'Garden-making' accompanied the building boom in country houses in the first few decades of the seventeenth century, and a fair number of patrons commissioned designers to create renaissance-style gardens that included grottoes. As we will see, however, the siting of the Woburn grotto in the actual living area of the house appears to have been distinctly unusual for the period. The identity of the patron has been uncertain as well, although it has generally been agreed that Isaac de Caus was its contriver and designer. Until recently, it was generally assumed that Lucy, Countess of Bedford, wife of the 3rd Earl of Bedford, Edward Russell (1572-1627), and famous for her other gardens at Twickenham and Moor Park in Hertfordshire, was the patron of the grotto. (1) Recent research, however, has made it clear that Edward Russell and his extravagant wife Lucy were not responsible for any of the seventeenth-century changes at Woburn. Cash-strapped for most of their adult lives, the pair evinced little interest in Woburn Abbey beyond attempting to sell it on several occasions. Francis Russell (Fig. 1), Edward's first cousin and his heir, actually took control of almost the entire Bedford estates in 1618/19, eight years before he inherited the earldom, and there is abundant evidence that the future 4th Earl moved to Woburn with his family shortly afterwards. It was he who, in the process of converting and adding to the remnants of the old monastery buildings, decided to include a magical, classical conceit--the grotto (Fig. 4). That he did so is a fascinating point in its own right, and adds further to the revised persona of the 4th Earl that has recently emerged. More importantly, however, the stonework in the grotto has now been attributed to Nicholas Stone, Master Mason to Charles I. (2)


During the first few years of the 1620s, Francis Russell certainly carried out some updating work to the old monastic structure that had been only partially converted beforehand by his grandfather and namesake, Francis, the 2nd Earl. (3) But it seems most likely for several reasons--financial in particular--that it was not until towards the end of the decade that he began the major conversion and rebuilding of the Abbey. He retained the basic fabric of the east and west ranges of the former monastery, but rebuilt the south and north wings, the former probably on the site of the laybrothers' reredorter. The new north wing was built on the site of the south-western corner of the old abbey church nave, a small range of approximately 93 x 30 feet containing, on the ground floor, two family parlours flanking the spectacular centre-piece--the 22 x 26-foot grotto. Within the rear wall of this wing is still subsumed the remnants of the south nave wall of the old abbey church (Figs. 2 and 4). One cannot fail to wonder at the incongruity of this capricious grotto within a disciplined classical building, which is only increased by the fact that the outlook from this range would almost certainly have been onto an ordered renaissance garden. Jonas Moore's survey of Woburn in 1661, although somewhat naive and not totally accurate in its architectural detail, shows classically laid-out, walled gardens to the north, west and south of the abbey (Fig. 3). (4)


What is indicated by the very existence of the grotto in the new, classical north range, is that the earl was aware of the architectural inter-relationship between the renaissance garden and the features it shared with the house. Grottoes, a quintessentially mannerist phenomenon, were a common feature of classical villas and their surrounds both in antiquity and the renaissance. They were often sited and presented like natural caverns in the outer reaches of gardens, or under terraces in their more formal parts, with the ambiguity of simulated nature behind an architectural exterior. But sometimes they were situated within the main building, like the grotto in the basement of Inigo Jones's Banqueting House which, it seems, James I used as a privy wine storage and tippling cellar. Around the early 1630s, Thomas Bushell, a servant of Francis Bacon, created an extraordinary hermitage at Enstone in Oxfordshire with an elaborate basement grotto, above which he lived. Samuel Pepys, in 1663, describes visiting Mr Povy's house in Lincoln's Inn Fields, where after dinner the guests went 'down to see his new cellars ... and in a room next to it such a grotto and fountayne'. (5) The unusual location of the Woburn grotto as an integral part of the living accommodation, how ever, is comparable to the grotto in the great chamber on the first floor of the conduit court at Theobalds, the Cecils' house near Enfield, and perhaps the one 'in the house behind the loggia' at their establishment in Wimbledon. (6) Indeed, the interior siting of the grotto at Theobalds was very possibly Bedford's inspiration, for throughout his childhood he often visited his aunt, the Countess of Warwick, at Nyn Hall, Northaw (which he was eventually to inherit and live in until c. 1621), only a few miles from the Cecil mansion. He may also have been influenced by Francis Bacon whose Essays he is known to have read: in 'Of Building', first published in the third edition in 1625, Bacon writes that 'On the Under Story, towards the Garden, Let it be turned to a Grotta, or place of Shade, or Estivation.' (7)

According to an inventory of 1700, the Woburn grotto was flanked by the 'Green Parlour' to the west, and the 'Grotto Chamber' to the east. (8) The main State Rooms were on the first floor of the west range, but certainly the sumptuousness of the furnishings listed for the 'Grotto Chamber' would seem to indicate that it was also used, at least towards the end of the seventeenth century, for receiving guests. These furnishings included 'ffive pieces of ffine Tapestry hangings of the Apostles', the important Mortlake Tapestries that are now in the 4th Duke's Bedroom, which had been acquired by the 5th Earl around 1660. The 'Green Parlour', which in 1700 contained eighteen chairs and five tables, may have been used as a dining room in the 4th Earl's time; the 'Greene Parler' certainly appears on glaziers' bills from as early as 1658. It appears that the capricious ethos of the grotto extended to this parlour to its west, for the fine Serlian fireplace surround (with a slightly incongruous, but none the less spectacular Jacobean-style overmantel), sports chimera masks on the shoulders of the curved stone piers (Fig. 6).


There is also compelling evidence, from the 1700 inventory, and an eighteenth-century carpenter's account, that during the seventeenth century the area above the grotto on the first floor was the 'Stone Gallery', which was most probably accessible from the northern end of the Long Gallery along the rear of the west Range. (9) This area, where the 'Racing Room' now is, was reduced to its present proportions by the 4th Duke in the mid-eighteenth century. Thus, the grotto was at the heart of the entertainment area of the north range of the house, an area through which the inhabitants of Woburn or their guests would often have passed. It may be that it was used for informal gatherings and dining; moreover, the long-held assumption that this room was open to the elements throughout the seventeenth century must now be discounted, since glaziers' bills for replacement 'squares' of glass in the 'gratoe' from the 1650s tell us otherwise. (10)

The Woburn grotto is unique in two ways--for its striking mannerist decoration, of course, but also as the sole relatively unaltered survivor of the type from the early seventeenth century. Unlike so many other grottoes of both the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it did not have the room for automata--figures of animals and mythological characters that 'performed'--sometimes spraying the unwary with water for the amusement and wonder of spectators. Unlike the garden grotto at Wilton House--so admired by Celia Fiennes--with its various hydraulic effects, including fountains, 'weeping' figures, and bird 'calls', it certainly did not have sufficient pressure provided by a generous local supply of running water feeding a great reservoir. (11) Plumbing accounts from the seventeenth century for Woburn, however, do indicate it was served with water from a cistern, through the south wall into the large niche that is framed with rustication and shell-flower roundels. (12) A small fountain, and water trickling over the backdrop of the dark grey and deep red tufa-like rock in the niche would have been very evocative of the walls of an underground cavern. The niche would have contained a statue, or small group, but the figure of Bacchus, currently in situ, is not original (see Fig. 4). The four stone buffet niches on the east and west walls are also thought to have had water supplied to them originally (Fig. 5). (13) They are decorated with stylised masks on cartouches, from which there extend swags carrying fruit.


The absence of the original tableau in the rear niche makes it difficult to comprehend the iconography in its entirety, but the main theme of the wall decorations certainly seems to have been associated with Neptune, who appears in the form of an elaborate shell mask in the full-width south lunette. His copious locks and beard stream in the wind, and he is flanked by his usual retinue of a Nereid and a Triton, both seated on cockle-shell boats being pulled along on shimmering mother-of-pearl waves by sea creatures (see Fig. 4). These beautiful waves, which must have appeared quite stunning in subtle, flickering candlelight, extend around to the side lunettes, where putti made out of beige pebbles riding luminous blue dolphins flank elaborate shell- and pebble-decorated grotesque satyrs (Fig. 7). The grotto space itself is fashioned as a sea cavern, whose ceiling is a shallow groin vault, the webs filled with shell arabesque strap-work, with a background of many thousands of tiny cinnamon and dark brown pebbles. Above the rusticated north arches is another grotesque mask, carrying a pearl swag, also done in shells with a background of pebbles.


Other surviving decorative elements are a mixture of biblical and mythological themes. There are four masks--but only two designs--with cartouche surrounds in the four corners of the grotto at the springing of the ribs, notionally supporting the roof (Figs. 8 and 9). One masktype, in the north-east and south-west corners, is wearing a lion skin mantle with claws draped around the neck: it undoubtedly represents Hercules. The other, in the north-west and south-east corners, appears to be a short-haired, bearded man with his eyes put out. Samson springs immediately to mind, and it is interesting to realize that the two were juxtaposed in other schemes of interior decoration during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The overmantel in the Small Drawing-Room at Levens Hall in Cumbria, for example, is supported by a pair of full-length figures, dating from the Tudor period, representing Samson to the left and Hercules to the right of the fireplace. (14) Eric Mercer has observed that in the houses of the 'greater [rather] than the lesser men' ... [while] some classical themes were not welcome to all ... there was no general conflict between religion and the study of antiquity and there are many instances of their appearance without any moral or abstract quality at all'. He cited the over-mantel in the White Drawing-Room at Charlton (1607), which has a scene of Perseus with the head of Medusa above a fireplace frieze representing the triumph of Christ. (15) Perhaps it is not appropriate to expect there to be any coherent, meaningful theme in the Woburn grotto.


As has been said, the designer of this triumph of capriciousness was almost certainly the Huguenot, Isaac de Caus. He was a relative--probably either a son, nephew or brother--of the renowned Salomon de Caus, the garden designer and hydraulic engineer who worked for Queen Anne of Denmark and her son, Henry, Prince of Wales, as well as later for Henry's sister, Elizabeth, and her husband, Frederick, the Elector Palatine. Salomon returned to France after Henry's death in 1612, but Isaac remained in England, and has been tentatively connected with many garden and grotto designs dating from the following decades. There is firm evidence that he designed a no longer extant grotto in the basement of the Banqueting House in 1623-24, and the grotto in the garden of Wilton House in the early 1630s. (16) Much new evidence has emerged recently concerning his working relationship with the 4th Earl of Bedford--and Inigo Jones--on the Covent Garden development, and, in particular, concerning the grotto at Bedford House on the Strand. (17)

Stylistic clues have now been identified at Woburn that also appear to confirm, once and for all, De Caus's authorship of the grotto there. It has been noted before that Isaac de Caus copied from Salomon's scholarship and illustrations on many other occasions. (18) In his publication of 1644, the Nouvelle Invention ..., Isaac used no fewer than twenty-six plates from Salomon de Caus's Les Raisons des Forces Mouvantes ..., which was first published in Paris in 1615, and then again in an enlarged edition in 1624. Several of Salomon's figures were obviously used as templates for the figures reclining on shells pulled by dolphins on the rear wall of the grotto, and the putti riding dolphins in the flanking lunettes. Indeed, the impression at Woburn of glimpsing figures riding on shells through a mysterious underground cavern behind rustic, but classical, arches is strikingly evocative of one of Salomon's grotto designs from Les Raisons.... (Fig. 10). (19)


The realisation of De Caus's ideas would have required skilled craftsmen, and, in particular a skilled stonemason and sculptor. Nicholas Stone, master mason and architect at Windsor from 1626, and Master Mason to the Crown from 1632, worked with De Caus on several occasions from at least as early as 1623, when the former had designed the grotto in the basement of the Banqueting House. Stone was employed by Inigo Jones as the master mason for this project, and he probably executed the stonework for the grotto there. De Caus was also involved with 'the Grotte' in the Somerset House garden, for which payment was authorized in 1630. Since Stone worked on a later fountain in this garden with the sculptor Hubert le Sueur (who signed himself 'Praxiletes Le Sueur'), it is very likely he also executed the grotto stonework there. Moreover, Charles Stoakes, Stone's nephew, later wrote that his uncle 'desined & built many curious workes for the Earle of Pembrock at his [Hon.sup.s]. House att Wilton', where, of course, De Caus was heavily involved in the garden and its extraordinary grotto. (20)

Under the circumstances, it is perhaps surprising that a link between Nicholas Stone, Isaac de Caus and the Woburn grotto has not been suggested before. Dr. Adam White has now confirmed, however, that in his opinion the two armorial cartouches--the only non-fantastical/mythical elements in the Woburn Abbey grotto-can 'certainly be attributed to Stone'. (21) These are the Russell coat of arms in a swathed cartouche above the east door, and the impaled Russell/Brydges coats of arms above the west door, both with flanking putti (Figs. 11 and 12). There are many examples of similar Stone cartouches with coats of arms for comparison, although an exact match of style is not to be expected, for we are not comparing absolute like with like (Fig. 13). (22) The great majority of Stone's other armorial cartouches were for funerary monuments, while the Russell/Brydges cartouches were obviously designed with the spirit of the grotto in mind. As Adam White has written:

[FIGURES 11-13]

The notion of painting the arms of the Russell/Brydges cartouche within a. grotesquely enlarged lion's mouth is an extravagant mannerist conceit which is particularly appropriate in this context but would have been less so elsewhere. (23)

This can be extended to the chimera mask below the Russell coat of arms, and the affectation of the scroll-work on both of the cartouches, not forgetting the chimera masks on the pier shoulders of the fireplace surround in the adjacent Green Parlour, the base of which is probably also Stone's work. Presumably, if similar features were included in other of the now lost grottoes that Stone worked on, what can be seen at Woburn is a unique survivor of a fascinating facet of his oeuvre.

Everything suggests that Stone was also responsible for the masks of Hercules and Samson, the former a subject that he was to execute again as a full-length statue around 1640 for the Pastons of Oxnead Hall in Norfolk. This piece is now in the orangery at Blickling Hall, (24) and although the treatment of the upper part of the lion's head is slightly different, and its front claws are draped around the hips rather than the neck, the facial features bear such a striking similarity to the Woburn mask of Hercules that there can be little doubt that both are by Stone (Fig. 14). Furthermore, flanking the grotto side doors to the south are two satyr masks on the buffet niches, with two masks sporting sun tiaras to the north (Fig. 5), the latter comparable to Stone's heads on the frieze of the Whitehall Banqueting House. This type of mask was a decorative feature that Stone used often in the late 1620s and early 1630s on his monuments; Salomon de Caus had also repeatedly used such masks as vignettes in Les Raisons des Forces ... The source was, very likely, Jan Vredeman de Vries, who had such a profound influence on so many architects and artisans of this period, and whose designs featured this mask (and satyrs) in innumerable settings ranging from friezes like that on the Banqueting House, to buffet washbasins in niches, to grotesque decoration of cartouches. (25) Whatever the origin, however, collaboration between Stone and Isaac de Caus on various elements of their many designs was obviously inevitable.


The attribution to Nicholas Stone of the stonework in the Woburn grotto requires some clarification, for there are no mentions of this work in either Stone's Note-Book, or his Account Book. The reliability of Stone's record of his working life, however, much of it written some years after the event, or later still when he was an invalid, has long been questioned. Stone's nephew, Charles Stoakes, wrote that his uncle carried out repairs to St Paul's Cathedral, and built Goldsmiths' Hall, but 'strangely makes no mention of them in either of his two books', and went on to say that the mason 'did many more workes of Eminency in many places'. (26) Furthermore, Adam White has recently made the point that there are works mentioned in Stone's Note-Book (which concentrates on his monuments) that are omitted from the Account Book, and vice versa, strongly implying that they provide an incomplete chronicle of his work. (27) It is particularly interesting that although Stone was the master mason at the Office of Works, and therefore an associate of Inigo Jones at the very time he was designing and building St Paul's Church and the Piazza at Covent Garden--that is from 1629 (at the latest, and probably earlier) to c. 1634--the mason was apparently in no way connected with that, or other development work in central London. It would seem that this must have been the period when he was working with Isaac de Caus at Woburn Abbey. (28)

Isaac de Caus's virtual sole eligibility as the contriver of the Woburn grotto by others' default, its similarity to a design that was very probably for the long-lost Bedford House grotto, his known association with the 4th Earl of Bedford, and the remarkable links with Salomon de Caus's designs, leave no doubt that he was its deviser. Now, the identification of Nicholas Stone, Master Mason to the Crown, and De Caus's sometime partner, as having been responsible for the stonework and even possibly some of the design in the grotto, represents a significant contribution to our understanding of the history of the Woburn Abbey grotto.

My thanks to Lavinia Wellicome, the curator, and Ann Mitchell the archivist at Woburn Abbey, for their time and help. Both were acting on behalf of the late Duke of Bedford and the Trustees of the Bedford Estate, to whom I am most grateful. I must also thank Dr. Adam White, John Newman, Dr. Rosalys Coope, Dr. Paula Henderson, and Paul Underwood at Blickling Hall.

(1) See Roy Strong, The Renaissance Garden in England, London, 1998, pp 139-41; John Dixon Hunt, Garden and Grove: The Italian Renaissance Garden in the English Imagination: 1600-1750, London, 1986, pp 134-35; and Timothy Mowl, Gentlemen and Players: Gardeners of the English Landscape, Stroud, 2000, p. 3.

(2) See Dianne Duggan, The Architectural Patronage of the Fourth Earl of Bedford, 1587-1641, unpublished PhD thesis, University of London, 2002. See also Howard Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840, New Haven and London, 1995, pp. 929-31.

(3) Woburn Abbey Archives (hereafter WAA), 4E, Accounts, 1625, 2861.

(4) When the 5th Earl inherited in 1641, the garden had been completed only a few years earlier, and it is likely that the layout remained fundamentally the same for the next twenty years. See Marie G. Draper, 'The Houses of the Russell Family', APOLLO, vol. CXXVII, no. 316 (June 1988), p. 389, for a ground plan of Woburn Abbey in the eighteenth century.

(5) Strong, op. cit., pp. 130-31, 138-39; Robert Latham (ed.), The Illustrated Pepys, London, 1983, pp. 57-58.

(6) See Paula Henderson, 'A Shared Passion: The Cecils and their Gardens', in Pauline Croft (ed.), Patronage Culture and Power: The Early Cecils 1558-1612, New Haven and London, 2002, pp. 104-107. Dr. Henderson writes that the Wimbledon grotto may have been built by Thomas Cecil in emulation of his father's creation at Theobalds, or that it could have been added by Queen Henrietta Maria after 1639. See also Malcolm Airs, '"Pomp or Glory": The Influence of Theobalds', ibid., pp. 13-15.

(7) See J.H. Wiffen, Memoirs of the House of Russell, vol. II, Cambridge, 1833, p. 73. For Bedford's interest in Bacon's essays, see W.A.A. [Francis Russell's] Commonplace Book (Historical Monuments Commission [HMC]) 11/I/326; for this quotation from 'Of Building',

(8) WAA 5E (1D), Inventory, 1700.

(9) WAA 4D, 28/17/5, Rebuilding Interior Topography B.16c. 'Stone' galleries were more often situated on the ground floor, and so named to differentiate them from 'wooden' and 'matted' galleries above. The rear, south wall of the Stone Gallery at Woburn was the three-foot thick stone wall of the former abbey church, and probably prompted the name.

(10) Bedford and Luton Archives and Record Service, Russell Papers, Box 356, House Repairs. Unfortunately, very few household documents prior to the late 1650s have survived.

(11) Celia Fiennes, quoted in John Bold, Wilton House and English Palladianism, London, 1988, pp. 84-85.

(12) Ibid., note 10.

(13) See Mark Girouard, 'Grottoes and Buffets', Country Life, vol. CLXIV, no. 4251, 28 December 1978, pp. 2218-20.

(14) Jeremy Musson, 'Levens Hall Cumbria', Country Life, vol. CXCV, no. 49, 6 December 2001, p. 114, states that the overmantel is an early nineteenth-century composite of Tudor carvings, although it is not clear if he includes the supporting Tudor figures in this assessment; in any event, they are quite clearly a pendant pair.

(15) Eric Mercer, English Art, 1553-1625, Oxford, 1962, pp. 126-27.

(16) Colvin, op. cit., p. 298.

(17) See Dianne Duggan, 'The Fourth Side of the Covent Garden Piazza: New Light on the History and Significance of Bedford House', British Art Journal, vol. III, no. 3, Autumn 2002, pp. 53-65.

(18) Roy Strong, The Artist and the Garden, New Haven and London, 2000, pp. 185-86.

(19) See Salomon de Caus, Les Raisons des Forces Mouvantes ..., Paris, 1624, Livre Second, the illustrations accompanying Problesmes XXII, XXVIII and XXIIIV. I have argued that a grotto drawing in the Victoria and Albert Museum, which has been attributed to Isaac de Caus by Roy Strong--and which I believe was a design for the Bedford House grotto--shows distinctive similarities with the style and the decorative elements of the grotto at Woburn; see Duggan, op. cit. in n. 2 above, Chapter 4, 'Bedford House and its Garden'.

(20) Per Palme, Triumph of Peace, Stockholm, 1956, p. 66; Howard Colvin (ed.), The History of the King's Works, vol. IV, London, 1982, p. 269; Bold, op. cit., pp. 80-88; Howard Colvin, 'The South Front of Wilton House', Essays in English Architectural History, New Haven and London, 1999, pp. 136-57; and W.L. Spiers (ed.), 'The Note-Book and Account Book of Nicholas Stone', Walpole Society, vol. VII, 1918-19, p. 137.

(21) Adam White, letter, 28 August 2000.

(22) See idem, 'A Biographical Dictionary of London Tomb Sculptors', Walpole Society, vol. LXI, 1999, pp. 118-19, for a discussion of Stone, and a listing of his monuments.

(23) Idem, letter, 3 November 2001.

(24) W.L. Spiers, 'The Note-book and Account Book of Nicholas Stone', Walpole Society, vol. vii, 1918-19, plate XXVII.

(25) See Ger Luijten (ed.), Vredeman De Vries, 2 vols., (Hollstein's Dutch and Flemish Etchings, Engravings and Woodcuts 1450-1700, vols. XLVII and XLVIII), Rotterdam, 1997, vol. I, nos. 293, 302, 315, vol. II, nos. 502, 506, 660.

(26) See Spiers, op. cit., pp. 136-38. Further suggestions have been made concerning possible works of Stone that are not mentioned in his two books; see Roy Strong, op. cit. in n. 18 above, p. 55; John Newman, 'Copthall', in H. Colvin and J. Harris (eds.), The Country Seat, London, 1970, pp. 18-29. See also Colvin, op. cit. in n. 2 above, p. 931.

(27) See White, op. cit., p. 121. For Stone's other work and responsibilities around this period, see Howard Colvin (ed.), History of the King's Works, 1485-1660, part I, vol. III, London, 1975, pp. 132-33, 330, and part II, vol. IV, London, 1982, pp. 49, 266.

(28) Stone had many other connections with Bedford, for which, see Dianne Duggan, 'Woburn Abbey: The First Episode of a Great Country House', Architectural History, forthcoming 2003.

Dianne Duggan is an independent research scholar who specialises in the architecture of the early seventeenth century.
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Date:Aug 1, 2003
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