Visit to A la Ronde
By elsie katz
‘Bet the servants weren’t too pleased, sweeping up all the feathers,’ says Friend, looking at Jane and Mary Parminters’ spiral frieze in the drawing room, but I don’t care. I am a servant too, I sweep up popcorn from under the seats of my local cinema and what matters to me is the vision, commitment and creative magic shown by these two eighteenth century maiden ladies.
It is that time in early September when English Heritage allows free entry to its properties, so A la Ronde, the quirky sixteen-sided circular house on the outskirts of Exmouth, owned by the National Trust, is having its annual busy weekend. National Trust and Heritage are separate organisations; Heritage owning mainly uninhabited heaps of stone such as Stonehenge whilst NT has fully carpeted and chandeliered mansions, but they often synchronise their free Open Days. It is a time of overflowing car parks, of full tills in gift shops and cafés and of enthusiastic volunteers attempting to sell us NT membership.
The story of A la Ronde begins in 1784 when Jane, her sister Elizabeth, their cousin Mary and a female friend from London set off on their Grand Tour of Europe. Rich folks often did this and Jane and Elizabeth were daughters of a wealthy Devon wine merchant. Grand – it was massive, they were away for eight years! They explored France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and possibly Spain and Portugal, returning with cartloads of treasure; paintings, ornaments and precious stones. The clever part happens next.
Back in Devon, the four became two. Elizabeth, never too strong, died shortly after their return, the London friend departed and Jane and Mary, the two cousins (and possibly closer than this when they were alone together but that is guesswork) wanted a place where they could be together and make a lasting monument to their adventures abroad.
They picked a site with sweeping views down to the Exe estuary, and designed their home. The multi-windowed hexadecagon enables the sun to come in at any time. They slept in the room warmed by the light of day. Then they got up and worked.
They made mosaic tables topped with glass to display their eye-catching chunks of lapis lazuli, garnet and obsidian. They cut dreamlike silhouette portraits and they embroidered stumpwork; a type of raised stitching often showing plants and people. As an onlooker, I get a sense of formidable dedication and hard work but also of playfulness and fun. Gathering, sorting, arranging, re-arranging, glueing; then dreaming up their next project I am sure Jane and Mary were seldom bored.
Their biggest projects are the feather frieze and the Shell Gallery. The topmost chamber of A la Ronde is wall-to-wall shells; mussels, razors, cockles, clams. Everything is fixed in geometric precision; ridges, triangles, diamonds, swirls, all matched and contrasted by line, colour, and shape. ‘Touch me,’ it says ‘run your finger along my edges and mounds’ but no. We have to see this now fragile work from the touchscreen downstairs, operating the 360 degree camera to rotate the view and zoom in on all the corners and shapes.
Out in the sun we stand on the haha; land divided by a sunken wall into two levels in order to keep grazing cattle out of the garden while preserving an uninterrupted view. I take a picture of the monkeypuzzle, its branch tips bursting with ripe green cones which is a pollinated female tree. Friend knows a lot of this sort of stuff.
Jane and Mary are buried in Point in View; the small, square stumpy-steepled chapel built on adjoining land. This too is self-designed and ‘different’. Mary who died in 1849, outliving her cousin by 38 years left a lengthy will. It stipulated the house could only be passed down to unmarried female kin.
Women of Jane and Marys’ class and era were expected to display some amateur accomplishments. A little playing of familiar tunes on the harpsichord or a few watercolours of the local landscape would serve to enhance their feminine charm and while away the hours before marriage. It is possible that some women, unknown outside their circle of family and friends, were very talented. Jane and Mary Parminters’ artistry, self-belief and capacity to see a grand project through surpass the everyday. A la Ronde is testament to two extraordinary individuals.