Digital Reconstruction of the Garden of Alexander Pope

Drawing by William Kent

Imaginative sketch by William Kent of himself, Pope and his dog Bounce in the garden at Twickenham, with a glimpse through the Shell Temple and Grotto to boats sailing on the Thames.

Background

Alexander Pope(1688–1744) was in his day hugely celebrated as a poet, classicist, satirist and leader of opinion. (Such was his influence that the wives of several noblemen attempted to bribe him to write favourably of their husbands). He made a modest fortune from his translations of Homer and Virgil, but his greatest enthusiasms were for cultivating friendships, gardening and self-sufficiency. He achieved all three by building a villa and garden on the Thames, between Twickenham and Teddington. The house, in a modest sub-Palladian style, fronted the river, and backed onto a road. The garden he developed over twenty years in five acres of agricultural land on the other side of the road, in a highly innovative and influential naturalistic manner.  He ingeniously connected the garden to the house by a tunnel under the road, leading to the cellar, and then through a rusticated arch onto the front lawn and the river. This underground world he elaborated over many years to form his famous Grotto, decorated with fossils, minerals, running water and tricks of light.

Pope, his poems, garden and grotto were exceedingly famous in his day, and for a century afterwards. Subsequent owners of the property were so annoyed by streams of visitors wishing to see them, that they destroyed first the garden, and then the villa. The grotto and tunnel however, survived as they formed an essential link under the road. Another villa was built to the side of the original, and later expanded into a school which now covers and surrounds the remains of the grotto. The garden has been built over, more than once. The road itself has been widened, and the tunnel lengthened; it was until recently used by the schoolchildren.

So though it is now intended to restore the Grotto, its context and meaning are entirely lost. At least there is nothing but ugly clutter seen on the ground – but what does survive is a large amount of archival material – images, poems, diaries and correspondence recording aspects of its design, construction and impact in the 1700’s. The proposal is to use this archival material to make a virtual reconstruction of the villa exterior, its approach by water, and the garden behind, using interactive computer game technology.

Vision

  1. You find yourself in a boat mid-river, around Twickenham, where you are being sculled by a Thames waterman in a typical 18th Century wherry. It is a fine mellow early summer afternoon in 1740. You can’t steer the boat, but you can look around to see what’s about: the riverside villas with their waterfront gardens, more workaday premises – a tannery, wheelwrights shop – other craft sailing, fishing, or being hauled by hand by a gang of men on the towpath. Sheep and cattle grazing on Ham Common, horses and riders pass. The boatman may be rather loquacious, telling you about the places you pass, their inhabitants, and what’s going on generally.
  2. You arrive at the lawn in front of Pope’s villa and are disembarked. The wherry returns without you. You are free to walk around the lawn, admire the villa and the statuary in the garden, and approach the archway to the Grotto.
  3. When you enter, you will experience a video segment of Pope in his reconstructed grotto, talking to you, or perhaps conversing with one of his mineral-supplying friends, about the grotto, the house and garden, and what they mean to him.
  4. At the end of the segment you will be propelled through the tunnel into the garden.
  5. You will be attracted along a tree-covered walk towards a strange kind of rustic rotunda encrusted in shells - the Shell Temple. If you look back, you can see through the grotto to the river, and catch a glimpse of a passing sail.
  6. From there you will be able to walk throughout the garden, including the wildernesses, groves, quincunxes, and orangery. It is full of twisting paths and visual surprises. Some areas are quite productive: a vineyard, a kitchen garden, a hothouse for pineapples. There are bantam hens, hives for bees and somewhere a Great Dane called ‘Bounce’.  You will be able to climb the mount to get glimpses of the river, and a better view of the bowling green, and beyond it a darkening group of cypresses leading to the obelisk at the far end. If you walk there, you’ll find it is inscribed as a memorial to the best of all mothers.
  7. A number of "forest seats" are scattered around. If you sit in one, a ghostly voice will tell you something of what you are looking at. This may be the architect William Kent talking about the shell temple and how it fell down, the gardener Searle on growing melons or broccoli, Ralph Allen on shipping urns from his quarry in Bath, Pope's mother on the obelisk, Dean Swift on liberating wine from the Prince of Wales’ mistress’ cellar at nearby Marble Hill,  lady friend Martha Blount on Pope the man, Pope himself near his bust of Homer reading about the Garden of Alceus.
  8. If you re-enter the grotto, the experience will end, with some information for visitors.

Modes of experience

The reconstruction can be experienced in several different ways. As outlined above, it is the experience that a single person might have, if they downloaded the file onto a home computer of reasonable power.  An even more immersive and exciting presentation can be obtained, eg at exhibitions or conferences, by projecting the image onto a large screen with five-channel sound, or by using VR headware such as the Oculus Rift. This would require a powerful computer, such as game enthusiasts use, and a high resolution widescreen projector in a darkened room. A somewhat downgraded version playable on ordinary computers will be available for streaming from a website (probably that for Twickenham Museum). In two year’s time it is likely that it will be operable on a high-end mobile device. As a fall-back, a linear video version will be posted to Vimeo.Visitors to the actual Grotto will be shown the top-quality version projected in one of the school lecture rooms, with the assistance of a guide who will control the navigation. In this case it may be split into two sections, with a visit to the restored Grotto taking the place of scene 3.

Technology

The reconstruction will be developed using the Unity 5 game engine, scripted in C#, and with art assets (architectural models and character animations) developed using Rhino and 3DS. Plants will be generated by SpeedTree and bespoke software. Props will be modelled in Rhino or scanned form actual exemplars. Textures will be acquired by scanning or photography, processed in Photoshop, or bought in from eg Quixel.

Participants

There are two parts to the reconstruction. The first is collecting the available information and graphic references for the local environment, the villa, and the garden as it was around 1740. This will be largely carried out by volunteers interested in local history, of which there are considerable number. They will be able to use copious local resources held at the Twickenham Museum, Richmond Local Studies Centre, the Orleans House Gallery, and by private individuals in the neighbourhood. Of particular importance will be: Tony Beckles-Wilson, architect and local historian, author of many works on Pope and the neighbourhood, who will advise on the geography and inhabitants of the Cross Deep neighbourhood as it was in 1740, and help with re-imagining the details of Pope’s Villa; Robert Youngs, former chairman of the Strawberry Hill Residents Association, and webmaster for the Twickenham museum and of Pope’s Grotto Preservation Trust. Local knowledge, especially relating to the river Thames; Val Bott MBE, historian on horticultural practices in the early 18th century; Dr Marion Harney (University of Bath), landscape historian and  author of works on Pope’s and Horace Walpole’s gardening, will advise on surviving gardens which show traces of Pope’s and William Kent’s ideas such as Prior Park, Chiswick, Marble Hill and Rousham,for use  as references to aid in the reconstruction; Mark Edwards, Richmond Boat Builder, constructor of the Queen’s barge Gloriana, on the design of historic river craft, and how they were managed.

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