Sunday, 4 December 2011

A la Ronde

A la Ronde, Summer Lane, Exmouth
It's one of those weird syndromes that when you live close to some attraction, you never get around to visiting it. I've been in East Devon sixteen years, and never visited A la Ronde, even though it's only a 15 minute bus ride away.

However, on Saturday my employer Lily and I were playing a music slot for a small fete there, and the manager kindly organised for us a free whistle-stop tour of the house (built in the late 18th century for two spinster cousins, Jane and Mary Parminter, and acquired by the National Trust in 1991). Even though much of the content was under wraps for conservation, it was fascinating: the 16-sided house is a warren of wedge-shaped rooms around a central octagonal well,  all self-decorated by the Parminters with shells, feathers, and memorabilia from their European Grand Tour. Unfortunately, the windows being shuttered and with a no-flash rule, I couldn't get any internal photos.

Point-in-View: side entrance
We also visited Point-in-View, the associated chapel, which is part of a complex - also commissioned by the Parminters - originally comprising the chapel, a school, a manse, and four almshouses. The unusual name comes from a motto above the chapel's entrance: "Some point in View - We all pursue". It's a very cosy chapel; the altar is underneath the turret (it's a trifle small to be called a spire), whose windows light the altar area, which has a lectern, a miniature organ, and the tomb of the Parminter cousins.

I won't reiterate the standard history beyond the basics I mentioned above; it's thoroughly well-documented: see, for instance, the BBC Legacies feature, The Rough Guide to Devon and Cornwall, and the chapter in the book Bollocks to Alton Towers: Uncommonly British Days Out. I do feel, however, that the standard history of the house and the Parminters has been through an anecdotal filter: everything the Parminter cousins did tends to be categorised either as a direct reflection of their Grand Tour experiences or as merely "eccentric". They're also co-opted in support of other causes: for instance, I've seen the house's design cited as an early example of energy-saving architecture; and the Parminter cousins' female-only Grand Tour, and their injunction for exclusively female inheritance of A la Ronde and occupancy of the almshouses, said to be an example of proto-feminism.

Point-in-View - rear

There are a couple of revisionist websites that explore the historical context rather more critically. In his paper eccentricity, heritage and the end of the world, Phil Smith notes how primary sources are almost non-existent due to the WW2 bombing of the Devon Record Office. This means that sources on the Parminters are secondary ones (for instance, Chapter IV, The Point in View, of the 1930 The Way of Yesterday) that frequently recycle borrowed information, much of it coming from a later inheritor of the house, the Reverend Oswald Reichel. Smith argues, from collation of such sources, that the accounts are skating around an undocumented eschatological agenda, the "point in view" being the return of the Jewish diaspora to Israel as precursor to the Second Coming. Even so, it's hard to prove some of the much-repeated details supporting this theory; for example, the claimed codicil to Jane Parminter's will concerning a grove of oaks at A la Ronde ...

These oaks shall remain standing and the hand of man shall not be lifted up against them till Israel returns and is restored to the land of promise.

... doesn't appear until mid-late 19th century secondary sources. See the following post - The Oaks of A la Ronde - for more on this.

Point-in-View - altar
Then then there's the unofficial A la Ronde weblog (subtitled "Don't believe the guide book - a lot of what you think you know about a la Ronde isn't true"). Unfortunately it has only two entries, but both of them raise good points: one dissects, via the context of similar buildings of the period, the standard story that A la Ronde was inspired by the Basilica of San Vitale at Ravenna; the other critiques the chronology of the Parminters' 11-year Grand Tour.

At the risk of doing exactly what I criticised above - co-opting the Parminters to some affiliation - I think an area studiously avoided by most accounts (even if they approach it with terminology like "became greatly attached to each other" - A la Ronde and Point-in-View, Exmouth, East Devon, Keith Searle, GENUKI) is the question of whether the spinster Parminter cousins were an item. To ask this is not out of prurience; if they were it would make them significant characters in social history; another example of how, if you were rich and/or upper-class enough, openly lesbian domestic arrangements were tolerated at the beginning of the 19th century (compare the Ladies of Llangollen and Anne Lister). Howeverm only one account I can find - David Watkin's 1982 The English vision: the picturesque in architecture, landscape, and garden design - openly makes this assertion, describing A la Ronde as:

Another pictorially freakish house is A-La-Ronde near Exmouth in Devon, built in 1795 for two lesbian cousins, the Misses Jane and Mary Parminter.

I don't know what, if any, evidence this is based on.

Anyhow, whatever the background, if you like your architecture, both house and chapel are thoroughly worth visiting. The whole complex is a very pretty example of a Regency ferme ornée, a working estate laid out aesthetically, and the view across Exmouth to Dawlish Warren and Langstone Rock (weather permitting) is lovely.

Addendum: I just found online Extracts from "A Devonshire Lady's notes of travel in France in the eighteenth century" (Oswald Reichel, pp265-275, Report and transactions, Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature, and Art, Volume 34, 1902). This consists of an extract from Jane Parminter's diary of the first leg of her Grand Tour, starting from Calais and proceeding south via Paris to Dijon. It's undoubtedly interesting as a view of the landscape and social conditions of 1784 France as seen by a well-off traveller. But as a personal document it's deeply unenlightening: mostly at the level of (I caricature only slightly) "And then we went to X and saw Y, which was nice; but the inn was dirty and we couldn't sleep". There's no sign, for example, of what they ate. It's impossible to tell how much this completely impersonal tone is that of Jane Parminter or an artifact of Oswald Reichel's selection of the material; whatever the reason, as a travelogue it's pretty dull considering the unusualness of this all-female tour.

Addendum 2, December 15th 2011: Trevor, a tour guide for A la Ronde, kindly commented on this post and the next, concerning his research into the history. It seems I'm on the wrong track about the possibility of the Parminters being "an item"; but right about "The Oaks of A la Ronde" being a myth. See The Oaks of A la Ronde.

- Ray

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