The Shell Grotto opened as a visitor attraction in 1838 yet very little is known about it prior to that date. Today local legend continues to debate whether it was originally built as an ancient temple, a meeting place for a secret sect, a smugglers cave or a wealthy mans’ folly – and following my visit, its purpose remains ambiguous (though I would like to believe it was commissioned by an idiosyncratic family as a whimsical cavern for their children). Unusually for Margate it is located inland; away from the beach, Turner Contemporary, Old Town, and Tudor House, but is well sign posted. The grotto lies just two metres below a residential garden, and is 104 feet long. It is punctuated with archways, a rotunda encouraging visitors to explore in either direction, a stunning dome where the shells glisten in natural light, and culminates with the Altar Room where the only non-local shells (Caribbean conches) can be seen. Somewhat frustratingly, it is difficult to describe my visit without contradicting myself… whilst the grotto itself is wonderfully eccentric and fantastical, it left a lot to be desired in a “museum” sense and offered little in terms of interpretation or explanation. Although there is a small orientation room before entering the grotto, the layout feels clumsy and cluttered and despite being keen to learn more about its origins and history, I found myself skipping this room as trying to make sense of it was quite hard work. However, once inside the grotto all is immediately forgiven and forgotten as the intricate floor to ceiling mosaic of approximately 4.6 million shells is absolutely breath-taking! Regardless of whether you believe in religious or cult symbolism, the delicate patterns made from regional cockles, muscles, whelks, limpets, oysters and razor clams is astounding and well worth the humble £3.50 adult entry fee.
“Southeastern apologies for the late running of this service…” echoes from the tannoy at St Pancras station, but delays aside, the high-speed link to Margate takes just ninety minutes. Once on the coast you can see The Turner Contemporary less than a kilometre away, along the promenade in its stunning sea-front location. The Gallery is completely free and currently exhibiting a retrospective of Grayson Perry’s work from 1980’s to the present day entitled ‘Provincial Punk’ which nicely encapsulates the artists teasing rebellion. Visitors enter into a room filled with free standing plinths showcasing at least fifteen of Perry’s ceramic pots of various sizes, styles and décor; a highlight for me was one shaped like the European Cup called ‘Football Stands For Everything I Hate’ humorously covered in words like ‘pub bores’, ‘bad tattoo’, ‘hair-gel’, ‘cheap fags’ and more. The next room includes additional ceramics including the powerful and provocative ‘Dolls at Dungeness’ made shortly after the attacks on September 11th 2001 and depicts planes in the sky with buildings and children below, and speech bubbles wording ‘help’, ‘go kill yourself for a virgin fuck’ and ‘testosterone addicts’. It also includes etchings, watercolours, collages, early films, and photographs of his most recent 2015 ‘A House for Essex’ project. Not only does it showcase Perry’s talent, it also highlights his intelligence with influences ranging from English 17th century slipware, to global folk pottery, ancient Greece, Thomas Moore’s Utopia, 19th century commemorative plates, his own childhood and much more. The final room is dedicated to three huge tapestries drawn on photo-shop then made with a computer controlled loom. Most notable is ‘The Walthamstow Tapestry’ which parodies the Bayeux Tapestry and successfully intertwines themes ranging from religion, to identity, class, politics and media amongst others. Artistic merit aside, this exhibition provides a thought provoking and wry commentary on contemporary culture.