On the side of the house less prone to the winds off the sea, Cattermole had constructed a Conservatory, once celebrated (Pevsner, Walpole) for its capacity to grow giant succulent pineapples in brassbound mahogany tubs, until a future archivist discovered a folder of receipts for the purchase of great numbers of that fruit from London merchants. His expenditure was considerable and the cost of transport and consequent armatures partly responsible for the need for an economic retrenchment months before his tragic and unnecessary demise. In a print dating from the end of the century, the Giant Pineapple Head, almost as big as a small child, much vaunted as a European fruit of record natural dimension was, in fact, a novel light-fitting in plaster and mica accounting for the unusual inner glow registered in opaque gouache. Other devices to encourage organic growth throughout the garden (radishes, curly kale, cress, and pootleberries) were also revealed as much more the work of a skittish stage designer rather than a skilled and imaginative market gardener.
We took it in turns to lie prone on the couch raised on the dais, covered with a tartan rug, while the others would arrange the raffia chairs in the vicinity. The Conservatory was exactly thirty-two feet long, with sepia stained double glass panes held in a web of Victorian ironwork. The whole structure was braced with simple iron bars painted in the primary colours. The corbel tables were cast in terracotta and set forth a Narrative Programme based on the five senses. Chaste medallions portraying the Origin of the Arts were set in the quoins and swags of clustered grapes framed the doorways and fire escape.
We observed the Bloomsbury Protocol in the Conservatory , of no conversation while a book is held in the hand, and, above all, it was forbidden to read aloud from your own book. Should the need arise, it was however perfectly acceptable to crawl slowly on hands and knees towards the reading figure from behind and read over his/her shoulder. I found great satisfaction in hearing slow rhythms of inhalation and exhalation, and the waft of warmed breath across the nape of my neck. I have no idea if the others also enjoyed this enhancement of the act of reading.
The original ten foot Bird Cage in the shape of a Pineapple had been an intriguing addition to our domestic life at first but the demands of feeding and cleaning became onerous. By fitting the cage with a hot air fan at its base, and substituting coloured cellophane for the canaries, the effect was virtually the same, and as a system, ran itself. We never resented the silence of the operation, preferring the prismatic flush of arbitrary fluttering to the shrill chatter of the conventional denizens .
One door led onto the terrace, the other into the hallway. Leaving both doors open seemed to create a powerful convection current that proved extremely nourishing for sweet peas. What had started as a geometrically exact grid of single annual plants soon turned a highly scented forest extending over two Georgian style radiators. On a celebrated occasion I had come down to breakfast in my Noel Coward, caught the scent of the sweet peas and strayed idly into the dense growth with my volume of Sapper. I gathered a nosegay for the breakfast table and, feeling slightly light headed, tripped out onto the floor. My house mates, already breakfasted were reading large picture books and did not take kindly to this ominous apparition sprawled onto the tiles, whimpering with a glazed expression. I pretended to have chipped a tooth in order to regain some dignity.
I should add to those of you who feared an unwanted exposure of self, I always secure the Noel Coward with a four foot gilded cord , tied with almost obsessive care and the appropriate knot. You can’t be too careful in a household of both sexes. Should the corporeal come to be accepted, we all agreed, it should be a matter of unanimous agreement. Some knots slip, and lead to scandal.
In the corner furthest from the dais, was a small delft ware fountain, of a conch shell surmounted by a cluster of puttis with hay ropes. In recent years, after the indecency of the figure grouping had been pointed out by a visiting child, the Scrutineer had fashioned little bathing drawers which on reflection (and again pointed out by a visiting child) made the effect of the clustering even more salacious. Her efforts had been so heroic and well intentioned that we determined to brave the ridicule and moral obloquy. I associate her with a serene sense of creative satisfaction expressed in expression and gesture. In certain lights, and to certain visitors, we steeled ourselves before we realised that on balance, the sustaining of this serenity was worth the danger. I did however draw the line at the three of us sporting these revealing costumes on the lawn at High Summer.
Many of my discerning and practical readers will suspect that the cost of heating the Conservatory was prohibitive in the Winter months (October to March) . Be assured, oh Guardians of the Carbon footprint, that the array of heat generating plants (Yak, Pointy, Tufted Cress and Bomps) was sufficient to support our life style during the entire year while offering excellent compost and ground cover. The air of muffled calm, the slow circulation of scents by convection and an absence of insects made the Conservatory an ideal venue for the Ludic Evenings that took place once a month.