Quirky 18th-century house with fascinating interior decoration and collections
This unique sixteen-sided house was described by Lucinda Lambton as having 'a magical strangeness that one might dream of only as a child'.
-- National Trust website
On a recent road trip through Devon and Cornwall, we decided to stop, on the suggestion of Evan Michelson, at the charming and eccentric National Trust property A la Ronde. This lovely and fantastical 18th-century sixteen-sided, twenty roomed house was the life's work of "the Misses Parimenter:" the adventurous and artistically inclined Jane Parminter and her her younger orphaned cousin (and ward) Mary.
Upon returning from an all-ladies Grand Tour in the 1780s embarked upon with Jane's invalid sister (!) and a friend from London, the cousins commissioned this eccentric house--allegedly based on the Basilica of San Vitale at Ravenna, which they had seen on their travels--and began a life's work of crafting it into into the perfect home, an inhabitable objet d'art, via the painstaking and artistic application of feathers, shells, cut paper, stones, objects, artworks, artifacts, paint, curiosities and artfully arranged mementos. In the end, they created the ultimate setting to showcase the mementos and impressions collected on their Grand Tour.
The home is best known today for what is probably the cousin's great masterwork, an epic shell gallery or grotto said to contain nearly 25,000 shells. Sadly too fragile for visitors to traverse, it is, thankfully, fully explorable via video screens in the home (bottom image). Is is also, as the guidebook explains "regarded as the most accomplished of its kind to have survived in Britain, particularly on this scale [and utilizes] shells, feathers and cut paper... supplemented by lichen, glass, mica, pottery, stones, bones and paint..." ADDENDUM: You can click here to virtually explore the shell gallery on your own; well worth the click! (Thanks so much, Lisa Wood!)
Other highlights of the home include the library, containing the Misses Parimenter's intact "cabinet of curiosity" (top image) stuffed full of aesthetically arranged shells, watercolor paintings (2nd image down), and assorted mementos (3rd image down); The drawing room with its special friesework crafted by the cousins from the feathers from native game birds and chickens artfully arranged and stuck down with isinglass (swirly looking tiles on image 6th and 7th image)," ingeniously designed chimney-boards... comprising a watercolor of St. Michaels's Mount surrounded by its own seaside collection of shells" (7th image down) and cousin-crafted specimen tables inset with stones, cameos, and shells (second from bottom). Also lovely was the central octagonal room topped by tantalizing glimpses of the shell grotto, with its unusual wall design thought to be meant to evoke "a seaweed covered undersea cave lit by the shell grotto above"and hung with gilt-framed family portraits (8th image down).
If you find yourself in the area, I highly recommend a visit; the place is truly an inspiration. suggesting the possibilities of beautiful living and a life dedicated to inhabitable aesthetics. It is also headily evokes the 18th century romance of the cabinet and the Grand Tour in an especially poignant and visceral way.
You can find out more about A la Ronde by clicking here; All photos are my own; click here to see more.