From King Henry’s Mound in Richmond Park the views are magnificent. On a clear day, St Paul’s Cathedral can be seen ten miles to the east. Windsor, which is sixteen miles to the west, is more difficult and deciding which bump on the horizon is the castle relies heavily on guesswork. As we stared, a couple who were more familiar with local geography offered help and, using a series of landmarks, the Queen’s occasional residence was soon identified.
Our conversation continued and soon we were at discussing interesting recent visits. We told of the nearby homes of the painter JMW Turner and the sculptor Dora Gordine (Dorich House). They extolled the virtues of eight naked women relaxing in the gardens of York House. The statues, they said were “extraordinary” and should not be missed. Finding them had been difficult but once discovered the surprise was a delight.
For us, getting to York House is easy – just an hour’s walk from our home along the Thames towpath. The statues were indeed difficult to find; possibly for reasons of decorum they were not signposted! Suddenly, at the end of a long lawn in a formal garden, were seven naked ‘nymphs’ on the rocks of a grotto and one naked Venus atop in a shell-shaped chariot drawn by two horses (see illustration). The scene was extraordinary, not to say surreal, partly because of their incongruity, partly because the whiteness of the statues made them stand out so clearly. The clarity is explained by the natural luminescence of Carrara marble from which they were carved. Indeed, it was this property that made the sculptures a particular problem in the Second World War when it was decided that the statues should be covered in a “grey sludge”. That done, in the light of a full moon they wouldn’t provide a landmark for enemy bombers!
York House has a distinguished history. Built in the 1630s, it was a stately home for the rich and the aristocracy for almost three hundred years. Then, in the 1920s, after the death of its then owner – Sir Ratan Tata – it was bought by the local council, eventually becoming our Town Hall.
The statues too have an interesting background and one in which Sir Ratan played a key role. The Venus and the sea nymphs, or Oceanides of Greek mythology, were made in Rome by the Italian sculptor Orazio Andreoni and with his reputation it was inevitable that each sculpture would be an accomplished piece in its own right. These eight, and several others, were commissioned, then brought to England, by Whitaker Wright, a wealthy swindler and fraudster who promptly died leaving them still unpacked in their crates. Those we see now were acquired by Sir Ratan during the disposal of the fraudster’s property and, in 1909, were mounted in a part of the York House garden that he had specially redesigned.
No instructions came with the statues, and the grotto and its pond had to be designed to fit their various poses – not an easy task when all of them are totally different, are larger-than-life and in some cases weigh over five tons (5000kg). Sir Ratan, a sociable man, clearly thought that the venture was worthwhile – when it was completed, the secret garden with its adorned grotto became a venue to amuse, even to titillate the guests at his garden parties.
Attractive though some might find them, for me the appeal of the grotto is its very incongruity. Yes it offers a fascinating historical commentary; yes the statues individually are of real quality; but arranged as they are in Surrey they have became a curious mix of kitsch and folly.
Moreover, for nude forms in Richmond they have stiff competition; for me, very few works could be more compelling than Edgar Allen Howes’ Aphrodite (the Greek version of Venus), which is carved in grey Portland Stone and mounted in a pond at the centre of a former fountain. This life-size woman was sculpted in 1952, has her arms folded above her head and sits with surety astride a dolphin from where she dominates the space around her. She is strong and unshakeable and just to my liking. Seeing her as I walk through Richmond Hill’s Terrace Gardens is a real tonic.
I am pleased to have seen Sir Ratan’s flamboyant grotto, a creation dominated by the fantasies of a wealthy, middle-aged man of a bygone age. With its seven naked nymphs and one Venus, if the situation arises I will take friends to see the scene not for its art but for its very incongruity, as well as a reminder of its quirky past. In terms of art, however, I find Richmond’s unsung Aphrodite much more appealing. I expect I am in the minority, but my defence is that appeal, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
The illustration shows a photo of the eight naked women, one in a chariot drawn by two horses, posing on the rocks of a grotto in the gardens of York House.
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Elona, Julian, Rohan and Vivien