Cherkley Court, near Leatherhead in Surrey, was the home of newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook, from 1910-1964. Beaverbrook was a cabinet minister in Churchill’s wartime government and Winston Churchill was a regular visitor to Cherkley. The house, rebuilt after a fire in the 1890s in high Victorian style, sits high on a ridge in the Surrey Hills surrounded by 400 acres of private estate with extensive views.
The house’s interior and the 16 acres of formal pleasure grounds surrounding it have been extensively and painstakingly restored in recent years. The formal gardens have been redesigned by landscape architect Simon Johnson and are now open to the public. On the lower terrace behind the house, overlooking the wooded downs beyond, shell artist Belinda Eade has built a grotto in a vault.
The new grotto at Cherkley is Belinda’s largest work to date. A team of ten worked on 80 sq metres of walls and ceilings to create a shell grotto inspired by the Greek myth of Arethusa — a chaste water nymph who was transformed into a fountain. Some of the work was done in the studio, the naiads protecting Arethusa, for example, but most of the work had to be done on site and grotto building can be far from glamorous. Site preparation can involve anything from building seats, archways and alcoves to driving steel rods into walls to support huge lumps of stone.
In a recent interview in the Times, Belinda discussed her inspiration which varies according to the elements of the project she is working on at the time.
“Sometimes, when I‘m trying to make something very specific — an eye or a cheek — I have to decide which shell will be right for the job,” she said. “Other times, I‘ll have a pile of materials and they’ll dictate the direction. Tufa and slag have all sorts of incredible bits in them; rough stone is often suggestively figurative. You build them all together and let them dictate the flow.”
Some of the shells are far-fetched and expensive, imported from Japan, Australasia and the South Pacific, but many come from British shores, and would be thrown away if Belinda didn‘t salvage them. Fish markets provide mussels, cockles, scallops, whelks; London restaurants are a rich source of oysters. There was once a vast glasshouse conservatory on the upper terrace (it was destroyed by fire) and some of the coral from there has been reused in the grotto.
Twin garden seat pavilions have been restored and sited at either end of the lower terrace.