Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Smack My Kitsch Up

While I've posted about Grand Tours and eccentric collections/collectors a few times recently, it has not escaped my attention that all the individuals involved so far have been male.

It's easy to assume that only men took part in such adventures, and the ladies sat at home and took tea in the drawing room. In fact, British and European women of the 18th century were increasingly interested in having their own tours and making their own collections (you can read more about it here).

I encountered a brilliant example during my travels in the South West of England.

A la Ronde is a 16-sided building in Exmouth, Devon, constructed to house Jane and Mary Parminter, a pair of daredevil cousins with an amazing collection of travel memorabilia.

A BBC article on the house explains that the octagonal shape is practical, as well as creative:
The building's ingenious design was intended to catch maximum sunlight. Sash windows were built on the angles and the rooms were laid out so that the ladies could follow the sun around the house during the day. They would start on the eastern side and move round to finish with tea in an oval room on the west in the evening. Everything was designed to conform to the building's unusual shape and awkward angles: cupboards and bookshelves have sliding covers, doors slide back into the walls to save space, and flaps come down between each of the doors in the octagon to provide extra seating.

They were so obsessed with traveling that they toured their own house every day!

The cousins masterminded a quirky interior that accommodates and maximises the circular space in clever ways, with some unique storage solutions.(Click to enlarge.)

The article points out that A la Ronde "bears witness to the independence and resourcefulness of two women in an age when the early feminists were only just stirring":
In 1784, following the death of Jane's father - a wealthy Devon merchant - Mary and Jane travelled throughout Europe for 10 years, together with two other women. The 'Grand Tour' was a recognised way for wealthy young men to finish their education in the 18th Century, but it was much more unusual for women to travel alone in this way. Returning from their tour in 1795, Jane and Mary decided to build a house to remind them of their travels and provide a home for all the souvenirs they had collected. 

Tangent alert: it's interesting, because at the time I visited A la Ronde I was traveling in a group with three other women, including my own cousin.

We did some adventurous stuff, and I like the historical parallel - the idea that the Parminters were pioneers of something that continues to this day.

Also, I saw a snail.

Lots of snails!

And this is why I'm always last... too much sitting around in the mud.

Anyway, the sheer amount of stuff the Parminters and their friends brought back is impressive, but the ladies didn't stop there. They also used the natural objects they found (various shells, feathers, rocks and dried plants) to decorate walls, tables and cornices, and to construct pieces of art.

It seems they were fond of writing, which makes me like them even more.

The Parminters' feminist impulses were not confined to travel. As the BBC article explains:
The spinsters went to great lengths to keep A la Ronde in female hands, specifying in their will that it should only pass to unmarried female relatives. In almost 200 years, before the house was purchased by the National Trust in 1991, A la Ronde had only one male owner. The cousins used their unmarried status to their advantage in a world where marriage was seen as the only acceptable career for wealthy women.

Good work.

All the horrific stories of violence against women recently - and the accompanying calls for ladies to watch themselves, be careful, don't go places alone, don't do risky things, etc. - have made me think about the Parminters again.

They were privileged, they were gentlewomen and had money to travel, but I'm sure they would have been warned many times about the dangers of adventuring. I myself lost count of the people who tutted anxiously when they discovered I was traveling alone. Stuff might happen. Terrible stuff. Not a good idea. Bring a man next time.

I find it sad how mobile women are framed as victims-in-waiting, rather than explorers. You can just as easily (and, statistically speaking, are much more likely to) be harmed in your own house than out roaming in the world.

We need more female daredevils, not less.

Who else is going to ship a crapton of shells across the globe and spend years gluing them to their wickity wack house?

The highlight of A la Ronde runs around the interior of the upper gallery at its center. The cousins spent years fastening shells to the walls up here, creating an intricate DIY masterpiece.

You can see a hint of it in this pic.

Unfortunately, their glue wasn't the greatest, and the wall is now so delicate nobody is allowed up there in case they sneeze and half the shells drop off.

This is as close as I could get.

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you can take a virtual tour of the gallery right here. I highly recommend having a look.

Do it now. I'll just wait here.


Amazing, eh.

Get out there.


  1. "Who else is going to ship a crapton of shells across the globe and spend years gluing them to their wickity wack house?" This is my favourite line ever.

  2. Absolutely LOVE this post. :-) I'm going to smile all day, embracing my role as a female daredevil, an explorer. :-) Thank you!! :-)

  3. What a great post: about the Parminter sisters, about you, about the grand tour, about A la Ronde as a building, about collecting, about feminism then and now - and hilarious into the bargain.

  4. Thank you for the lovely comments!

  5. At A la Ronde we love it when visitors immerse themselves in the unconventional world of the Parminters cousins.
    The team have enjoyed reading your page.