In her 2010 book Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court, Lucy Worsley called Caroline “the cleverest queen consort ever to sit on the throne of England”. Last week’s post about her Hermitage at Richmond was quite serious, dealing with religious and political controversy as much as garden architecture. But there was another side to this intelligent and enlightened woman.
Caroline’s next venture at Richmond was altogether more amusing, although perhaps it was not meant to be. It shows not only William Kent in a playful mood but also that the Queen was a well informed publicist of her own opinions.
This time it was not religion that set the tone but patriotic fervour and the rediscovery of national history through ancient heroes and heroines, and in particular the Whig association of the legendary King Arthur with England’s ancient liberty. And all to help embed the Hanoverians firmly in the national consciousness as English rather than German.
The unlikely story begins, on 5th June 1735, with a paragraph in several news-sheets:
Read on to find out more about this early 18thc press release , just one of many snippets of news that appeared in contemporary newspapers and magazines about Queen Caroline’s strangest garden building: Merlin’s Cave.
Merlin’ Cave was sited on the edge of The Wilderness overlooking a rectangular canal. Construction was rapid, and once it was finished only a few weeks later, the royal family went to inspect it. This news was carried within a few days by several other news-sheets.
The Cave was a strange hybrid building and the commentator in The Gentleman’s Magazine wrote: “I observed something like an old haystack thatch’d over, and enquired of our conductor what it was. ‘That, Sir, is the Cave’ said he. ‘What! a cave above ground? This is more absurd than the other. [ie The Hermitage] However let us see what is within.’ We then went through a gloomy passage with two or three odd windows which led to a kind of circular room, supported with wooden pillars. In this, too, as well as in the Hermitage, are placed several hieroglyphical figures, male and female, which I cannot pretend to interpret.”
In fact, as the writer well knew, these ‘hieroglyphical figures’ were designed to be very easily understood.
It was continuing the theme begun at the Hermitage with a series of supposedly inspirational and prophetic figures with mystic links to the Hanoverian dynasty and England. Merlin had, according to a story promoted by the Whigs, prophesied the accession of the House of Hanover. Both Elizabeth of York and Elizabeth I were seen as wise and successful unifying English queens – hence their association with Minerva…and by inference of course with Caroline.
The figures were taken from life, and news of who the models were appeared bit by bit in the papers over the course of the summer, as one by one they were called by Rysbrack to his studio where instead of his normal marble he sculpted in wax.
Once the first ones were finished they were sent to Kensington Palace and once approved then sent on to Richmond. This was all done very publicly.
Next came the installation of a large library of what are described very pointedly as a”choice Collection of English books” [later reported to be expensively bound in vellum], and the appointment of a resident “Cave and Library Keeper”.
This was Stephen Duck who was already the resident hermit and poet – for more about him see last week’s post on the Hermitage.
More snippets of information appeared throughout the summer and into the autumn.
No sooner was the kitchen finished than it was put to good use.
And Merlin’s Cave was clearly being promoted. Not only was Kent instructed to prepare an engraving to circulate to the court but the queen allowed the public in to the gardens see it as well.
It was added to the list of sites to be visited by distinguished guests…
And then that autumn Merlin’s Cave took to the stage as well!
And not just once. It entered the repertory in at least 4 different London venues….and with particular mentions of Merlin’s association with the Protestant Succession and the scenery being an exact copy of the real thing!
Caroline continued her campaign to associate the Hanoverians with England. She went to performance of the opera and was presented with a copy of the score. The impresario also had copies printed and send to “persons of quality”
There was no stopping Caroline now. Her next move was to commission Rysbrack to produce busts of all previous monarchs and to install them in Merlin’s Cave, along with other improvements. These were then followed by marble representations of the four seasons also by Rysbrack.
It may have been satirized mercilessly, but In fact the publicity around Merlin’s Cave created a sensation and helped lead the way to a vogue for grotesque architecture and mixed references in garden buildings.
George II was notoriously not impressed by his wife’s ideas. Lord Hervey, talking to the couple about the brass gates of the Henry VII chapel Westminster reported the following conversation. “The King stopped the conversation short by saying ‘My Lord, you are always putting some of these fine things in the Queen’s head, and then I am to be plagued with a thousand plans and workmen.’ Then, turning to the Queen, he said, ‘I suppose I shall see a pair of these gates to Merlin’s Cave, to complete your nonsense there.’ The Queen smiled and said Merlin’s Cave was complete already…’A propos,’ said the Queen, ‘I hear the Craftsman has abused Merlin’s Cave.’ ’I am very glad of it,’ interrupted the King; ‘you deserve to be abused for such childish, silly stuff, and it is the first time I ever knew the scoundrel in the right.’ [ Lord Hervey’s Memoirs ed by R. Sedgewick, 1963]
The cave was imitated all over London in tea gardens, coffee shops and spa buildings. For example a tavern called Merlin’s Cave opened near New River Head [Sadler’s Wells] in Islington in about 1735 – the year the real cave was finished, and another opened at nearby New Wells in Clerkenwell by 1740.
There were more plays, fans made with images of the cave, mechanical shows including one at The Crown Coffee House which featured a moving figure of Merlin, in a replica of the room from the Richmond cave.
This coffee house show was visited at least twice by Frederick Prince of Wales and his wife, Princess Augusta in 1739.
Nevertheless it was a short lived phenomenon not destined to long outlive its patroness who died shortly after the cave was fully furnished. Caroline Crampton writing an article summing her intellectual, dynastic and cultural achievements wrote: “Always on the plump side, by the end of her life she had become so fat and gouty that she had to be wheeled about the palace in a decorative wheelchair first made for a sea goddess in a masque. She lingered on for a week, until an unpleasant hernia (a legacy of her final pregnancy) and her doctors’ mistreatment of it, claimed her. She died holding her husband’s hand, and Walpole reports that George II afterwards declared that he ‘never yet saw a woman worthy to buckle her shoe’.”
Since her death in 1737 Caroline has undeservedly been largely forgotten. but both Lucy Worsley and Caroline Crampton are trying to redress the balance.
Caroline’s gardens were soon neglected and most have disappeared. Merlin’s Cave was demolished during Brown’s redesign of Richmond in 1766, while the Hermitage was left as a ruin and its stones later incorporated into the Rock garden. Caroline’s political skills were considerable and her passion for gardening enormous. The results of the marriage of her overriding interests may not have had the size, subtlety or grandeur of Stowe, and may even appear ridiculous to twentieth century eyes but her attempts were more than just an interesting addition to the diversity of the cultural and political scene of its day, and deserve not to be overlooked.