Ornament and Deformity in Alexander Pope’s Grotto

Though long deemed frivolous and unworthy of study, ornament has recently returned to scholarly attention. What might account for this shift in perspective, and how are we to understand the rejection of ornament in the first place? This paper examines the motivations undergirding the marginalization of ornament in the eighteenth century, focusing on a particular case: Augustan poet Alexander Pope’s grotto. Beginning when he arrived at Twickenham in 1719, Pope worked continuously on his grotto for over twenty years. It was excessively decorated and deliberately disorienting; mirrors and sparkling gems created a glittering chaos, and closing the doors produced a camera obscura. Dr. Samuel Johnson, an essayist and acquaintance of Pope’s, jested,

"A grotto is not often the wish or pleasure of an Englishman, who has more frequent need to solicit rather than exclude the sun, but Pope's excavation was requisite as an entrance to his garden, and, as some men try to be proud of their defects, he extracted an ornament from an inconvenience, and vanity produced a grotto where necessity enforced a passage."

Ornament is here – and in the words of many other Augustan critics – related to defect. The insult was doubly cutting, for Pope himself suffered a deformity. A victim of tuberculosis at a young age, Pope’s spine was curved, leaving him with a hunchback and extremely short stature. His posture was the source of much mockery by his peers, who extended their critiques to his art. Responses to the grotto consequently wed the discourses of deformity and ornament, discourses that shared much of the same rhetoric in the eighteenth century. This paper will explore the interrelation of deformity and ornament as they converge in Pope’s grotto, using contemporary texts (particularly William Hay’s treatise, “On Deformity,” and Sir Joshua Reynolds’ lectures to the Academy) to address the broader implications of the move away from ornament.