Daniella Turner

Daniella Turner is a multidisciplinary designer and historian, whose research focuses on marginal and vernacular crafted interior spaces across the early-modern and modern period. Her research contemplates the relationship between objects of space and the construction of narrative and experience.

Trained in textile design, she now works between producing sculptures for contemporary artists, interior design projects, and working with craftsmen on bespoke commissions. Recent clients have included Charles & Co, New York, and The New Craftsmen, London.

Research Project

The Sensorial Experience of the Naturalistic Grottoes of Eighteenth-Century England, 1730-1800

What can be understood about the designed sensorial experience of naturalistic grottoes, from the accounts of those who experienced them in the eighteenth-century?

Material Culture, Early-Modern, Modern, Europe, Built Environment, Interior Space, Natural Objects, Applied Arts, Lived Experience, Sensory Histories

Authors own, Painshill Park Grotto, Surrey, England, as it appears after restoration, 2021 © Daniella Turner.

In 1788 French writer, Jacques Cambry wrote of his visit to the Crystal Grotto at Painshill Park, Surrey:

the winds and turns are so well arranged, the paths so artfully contrived, that, conducted by a practiced guide you pass over the bridge and find yourself over the lake without being aware of it, without being able to guess how this magic journey was made.’1

The naturalistic grottoes of eighteenth-century England formed part of a broad network of objects within the broader study of the Picturesque landscape and English landscape design. These spaces have most frequently been addressed as a footnote to more popularised narratives, however, they carry their own distinct history that has seldom been explored.

This research attends to the single commonality across all iterations, often overlooked by scholarship, as spaces designed to be experienced sensorially. Asking what can be learnt about the designing of the sensorial experience through an examination of the accounts of those who used them, this research argues that it is this central point of contemplation that is essential in constructing the history of this architectural-type, and where to situate it in the socio-cultural context of the Enlightenment England.

The construction of the illusionary realm sits at the heart of this research. As noted by Cambry, these ephemeral experiences were designed to deliberately draw the visitor away from reality and into their distinct inner worlds. Whilst there was no singular interpretation of what constituted this illusionary realm, atmospherically these spaces are connected in their shared sense of ‘otherness’, the analysis of which is complex through the discipline of material culture studies. These subversive realms most often played into an overarching duality and tension between the Enlightenment’s engagement with observations of the natural world, and ideas of illusion, fantasy, the imagination and fiction. 
This leads to broader questions around how this architectural-type was conceived and consumed within the context of the socio-cultural shifts of the Enlightenment period. Revealed is how these spaces functioned on multiple interconnecting levels, consolidating a myriad of contemporaneous ideas relating to the examination and improvement of one’s immediate physical environment and experience through new ideals of comfort and health, as well as matters of the mind and philosophy. Naomi Miller’s definition of the grotto as ‘a metaphorical portal [and] a gateway to wonder and to knowledge’,2 seems most apt when considering grottoes as sites where these narratives and ideas were assembled and juxtaposed against each other to form a distinct entity that observed, celebrated and subverted reality.

Simply put, the naturalistic grotto provided an explorative experience of the intangible, resolved through tangible allegory, and there was no singular way to achieve this.

The theoretical frameworks of both sensory histories and French philosopher Michel Foucault’s Heterotopias underpin how this study has approached this research, in an attempt to raise the status of this genre by introducing new historical narratives to the existing tropes of English grotto design.

[1] Typed transcript of Jacques Cambry’s Visit to Painshill Park Grotto, 1788, Painshill Park Archives; Surrey History Centre, PPT/4/2/3/51.

[2] Naomi Miller, Heavenly Caves, p. 123.

Assembled so cleverly that nature itself would have been deceived.

Princess Dashkova, 1779, written about the Crystal Grotto at Painshill Park, Surrey, England.

Authors own, Interior of St. Giles House Grotto, Dorset, England, as it appears after restoration, 2021 © Daniella Turner.

Authors own, Interior view of a stalactite at Painshill Park Grotto, Surrey, England as it appears after restoration, 2021 © Daniella Turner.


©2022 by V&A/RCA History of Design MA