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Shell House Showcase: Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire

The Victorian garden at Waddesdon Manor was designed to extend the collection of curiosities within the manor.

The Aviary was the gateway to the Pleasure Grounds which displayed Ferdinand de Rothschild’s collection of classical statuary. It also extended the owner’s love of shell engravings (many pieces are now in the British Museum) into an architectural shell motif within the structure of the Aviary and Grotto.

The Aviary was built before 1889 and was a highlight of the garden tour for guests. The decorative colour scheme of blue and gold is a reference to the French and German 18th century garden pavilions (Versailles and Potsdam). It is located today beneath mounds of rusticated Pulhamite rock-work that conceal grotto seats and dark tunnels.

By contrast the Aviary’s delicate cast-iron fretwork is pure theatrical fantasy. The carved shell is a central feature in the rococo-style cornice which runs under the domed roofs, linking the three separate buildings. Within the central room is a walled grotto made from tufa which overlooks an ornamental pond.

Putti and reclining statuary have the carved shell for adornment and guests would have dined here while listening to birdsong.

The association between garden retreats for entertainment and the display of exotic birds became very popular in the 18th century; other examples in England are : Ashill Shell House at Ilminster, Somerset, Cilwendeg Shell House, West Wales and Goodwood Shell House, Sussex.

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