Diana Reynell (1934 - 2017), restorer of Marlborough Mound's mysterious grotto and many others since

Written by Nick Fogg on .

The Grotto in the mysterious Marlborough Mound, Diana Reynell's masterpiece of restorationThe Grotto in the mysterious Marlborough Mound, Diana Reynell's masterpiece of restoration


Not many people discover their vocation in the fifth decade of their lives, but Diana Reynell, who died on 1 August, aged 83, certainly did. 


She had come to Marlborough as the wife of Classics teacher, Anthony Reynell, after graduating from Ruskin College, Oxford, and taught jewellery design in the Art Department as well as being a mother of four.  Why her interest was seized by the Marlborough Mound is enigmatic, but, without her knowing it then, it was an interest that was to dominate the rest of her life.

The mysterious Mound had been constructed by prehistoric man.  It was where the bones of wise Merlin, the magician, were said to lie.  In the Middle Ages it had supported a castle.  In the 1720s, Frances, Countess of Hertford, beautified it by creating a spiral way to its summit, a hermit’s cell on the way up, complete with fully-paid hermit and a grotto.  It was this latter that gained Diana’s attention.  Much neglected, it had become a store chamber and bicycle shed.  She determined to restore it.

Persuading Marlborough College that the task was worthwhile must have been a major task, but her persistence won through, possibly because she announced that she intended to engage her pupils on the task.  The next stage was to inform herself on the nature of grottoes.  She learnt that the Old Marlburian stone-carver, Simon Verity, had an interest in the subject and went straight up to the Victoria & Albert Museum, where he was employed, to involve him, whether he liked it or not.  She travelled in France and Italy, inspecting examples of this forgotten craft.  


When she was ready to go, Marlburians were asked to bring back shells from wherever the long Summer vacation took them.  They arrived by the bucket-load.  To these was added a huge clam shell, blue glass waste from the Czech Republic, the only place it was still made in the C18th fashion and such other knickknacks as stag’s horns and horse’s teeth.  The theory of a proper grotto was that it should assail the senses.  At midday sunlight hits the water in a pool, which is then reflected onto the glass and the shells in what is almost a glimmering psychedelic effect, what has been described as a world between reality and illusion, between nature and art.  She duly engaged Simon and the students, one of whom, Belinda Eade, became herself a noted restorer of grottoes.  The result was a thing of great beauty:  one of Marlborough’s hidden gems.

Not that it ended there.  Diana became the restorer of many forgotten and neglected grottoes, often working with Simon and Belinda and others.  Goldney Hall, Bristol, Hampton Court House, the Duchess of Richmond’s Shell Pavilion at Goodwood House, the Bath House at Walton Hall, and commissions as far afield as Provence.  Most remarkable of all, was the creation of a huge grotto representing the underworld at Leeds Castle – the first one built in England in over two centuries.

Diana’s pretty elfin face and twinkling eyes concealed a determined perfectionism.  ‘All you can do is never let your standards slide, she’d say.  Never say “This will just about do.”’  Her philosophy is reflected in the many esoteric works of art she has left for posterity, at least one of which can be rented by anyone wishing to get closer to her work.  The much vandalised and exquisite Bath House, near Stratford-upon-Avon, contains just one living room, but it’s described by the owners, the Landmark Trust, as ‘a room you may never wish to leave’.  Of course it was restored by Diana.  She would have appreciated the description that someone has written in the visitors’ book:  ‘The poshest bedsit in Warwickshire.’