A la Ronde: A most unusual house with a most unusual history

Exterior view of A la Ronde, Devon

Exterior view of A la Ronde, Devon. © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

A la Ronde is an unusual house conceived of by rather unusual women, the genteel spinster cousins Jane and Mary Parminter. Discover their artistry and charity, and note that only unmarried female kinswomen could inherit their estate. Were Jane and Mary proto feminists?

Quirky and definitely idiosyncratic, A la Ronde radiates a sense of otherworldliness. There is probably no other house quite like it on earth. Resting humbly on a hillside not far from Exmouth in Devon, it’s certainly not a classically beautiful, commanding edifice. Indeed, the house just might befit the dwarf sized hobbit folk who inhabit J R R Tolkien’s children’s fantasy The Lord of the Rings.

It was the Misses Jane (1750-1811) and her cousin Mary Parminter (1767-1849) who gave rise to this extraordinary residence and its grounds upon which they also built a chapel, manse and almshouses. (Jane, incidentally, was Mary’s guardian for over a decade.) Jane was the daughter of a prosperous Devon merchant based in Lisbon, where he first owned a wine export business and later diversified into the cement manufacturing business after the great earthquake in Lisbon of 1755. Jane was brought up in Lisbon and in London. Mary came from a West Country family of landowners and wealthy merchants. When her father died in 1784, Jane and her sister, Elizabeth, Mary and a female companion, a Miss Colville, embarked on an extensive European tour. Elizabeth, alas, died upon the women’s return in 1795. It was likely that Jane’s married sister, Marianne Frend, encouraged the cousins to settle near her home in the fashionable sea bathing resort of Exmouth. Being independently wealthy, Jane and Mary could purchase some 20 acres of land in the region. Their site afforded lovely views overlooking Exmouth and the Exe Estuary.

The most distinguishing features of the house they created are its sixteen sides, linked circularly, and the conical roof (now tiled but originally thatched) with a white painted balcony and cupola atop. The fenestration of the house, originally and even now, is peculiar, too. What remains of the original are the red-bordered diamond shaped windows and the angled green shuttered sashes. Centred inside is an octagon shaped central hall, reaching up from the upper ground floor to the first floor. Originally the surrounding rooms were connected to each other by ante-rooms; now only some of the lobbies remain. The octagon’s walls are painted decoratively with a chevron pattern, most likely conceived of by the Parminters. In between the upper ground floor doors are Mary Parminter’s octagonal-shaped seats with triangular backs, topped with a small octagon shape.

The Octagon Room at A la Ronde, Devon.

The Octagon Hall, A la Ronde, Devon. © National Trust Images/David Garner

The Shell Gallery at A la Ronde, showing a zig-zag shell frieze above a clerestory of eight diamond-paned windows with shell encrusted recesses

The Shell Gallery at A la Ronde, showing a zig-zag shell frieze above a clerestory of eight diamond-paned windows with shell encrusted recesses. © National Trust Images/David Garner

Above the octagon is an extraordinary gallery. The outer wall, painstakingly created by the cousins, is covered with fantastical designs of shells, feathers, seaweed, sand, glass, quartz, quillwork and bones. The materials were gathered from neighbouring woods, fields and the seashore. The Parminter technique entailed sticking materials on card before this was attached to a plaster surface. Other materials were pressed into the lime putty skin that covered a coarser pink plaster before it set. A steep, narrow staircase leads to the gallery, along which there are window recesses, encrusted with decorations such as one finds on the gallery outer wall.

In the drawing room there is an impressive ‘Parminter’ feather frieze made from feathers culled from native game birds and stuck down in a series of concentric patters. In the library, the breakfront of the mahogany bookcase in the library looks as if it will burst with the cousins’ souvenirs: shells, beadwork, semi precious stones and votive statues vie for space on papered raked shelving. You might want to take home the cousins’ tiny 18th century bookcase holding a collection of miniature Regency school textbooks.

Some of the interesting additions added by later generations include, for example, a speaking tube in the library, with a whistle, linked to the lower ground floor kitchen. The wood and sealskin Inuit models on the chimneypiece in the music room were acquired in Canada by the father of the kinswoman, Ursula Tudor-Perkins. (The bedrooms, dressing rooms and bathrooms are on the second floor.)

The cousins’ decorative interests were shared by other middle and upper class men and women in the 18th and 19th centuries, who also created large and small-scale pictures and designs using unusual materials. Alexander Pope’s grotto, created in the early 18th century, near his Twickenham villa, was first finished with shells and pieces of ‘looking glass’ and later transformed into a ‘museum’ of mineralogy and mining, using ores, fossils, crystals, a stalagmite, flint, shells, Bristol and Cornish diamonds, marble, alabaster, snakestones and sponge stones and a section of the basalt Giant’s Causeway. At Goodwood House, near Chichester, there is a Shell House, with over 500,000 shells (the Shell Gallery at A la Ronde is believed to have about 25,000 shells), which was created over seventeen years by Sarah Lennox, the 2nd Duchess of Richmond, and her daughters, Caroline Fox and Emily Kildare. Shells fascinated the Duchess of Portland (1715-1785), who determined to collect examples of every known molluscan species; she managed to collect at least 20,000. Mary Delany, a very close friend of hers, is well known for her shell and needlework, as well as her botanical drawings. Thinking of the small scale, after collecting sea shells or buying packets of shells, many ‘genteel’ women would use them to create pictures of birds, animals and people or dress dolls, chandeliers, boxes and vases, picture and mirror frames. One would dip the back side of the shells in hot wax and attach them to the object being decorated.

It’s most likely, suggest most sources, that Jane conceived of and designed A la Ronde, as the inspiration for the quaint abode is believed to be the sumptuous, many sided, sixth century Byzantine Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, and its vaulted octagonal tower and splendid mosaics. The Parminter and Colville entourage would certainly have appreciated it during their tour. Others believe the house is the brainchild of a Commander John Lowder, a property developer who built Lansdowne Place in fashionable Bath, or possibly his young son, John Lowder, an aspiring architect. The actual ‘builder’ could probably have been either the father or the son; they both would have had the practical skills to undertake A la Ronde’s construction. Undoubtedly, Jane and Mary would have designed the interior. Could one imagine otherwise? The grounds, now simply landscaped, were originally elaborately landscaped and ornamented.

A quarter of a mile away from A la Ronde one finds the “facilities for private devotions,” as the Mary Parminter Charity, otherwise known as “Point of View”, describes the manse, chapel and almshouses, completed in 1811. The ‘complex’ is another example of the distinguishing interests of Jane and Mary Parminter. They determined that non-conformists would use the chapel for worship. (Mary’s grandfather and a cousin of hers had been dissenting preachers.) The Trust notes “although of non Jewish extraction, the two spinsters evinced a lively interest in the conversion of Jews to Christianity prior to their promised return to Palestine. This was their ‘point in view’ ”. Mary Parminter specified that the residence should be occupied by a “Minister of the Gospel…a Protestant Dissenter…” , four single approved women over fifty years of age should live in the apartments, and a schoolmistress should be appointed to teach six poor female children. A Jewess who has embraced Christianity shall be given preferential treatment, and “the children of Jewish parents shall in all cases be preferred”.

Nowadays the church, which holds services regularly, is associated with the United Reformed Church. The schoolroom is used as a vestry; there is a meeting room and a new kitchen; both male and female residents are housed in five bungalows on site.

Were Jane and Mary proto feminists? (The word was not in use during their time, and the movement was but a dot on the horizon.) It is quite likely that there would not have been a shortage of suitable men to marry in Jane and Mary’s social circle. Potential partners would have regarded the women’s independent wealth as an asset. So it’s likely that instead of choosing to live within a patriarchal domestic setting, they opted to enjoy a companionship between equals and engage in exceptionally individualistic craft and charitable work. Would their pursuits have been realisable in a traditional ‘Victorian’ domestic setting?


Furthermore, Mary’s will stipulated that the estate must be preserved intact, and that only unmarried kinswomen could inherit. Changes in the law allowed one heiress to break the trust and transfer the property to her brother, the Revd. Oswald Reichel, the only male owner the house has ever had. (Was she pressured to do so as she was unmarried and he had a wife who might bear children?) Reichel made several modernising changes; his marriage was childless. It was the ultimate heir Ursula Tudor Perkins who arranged for the National Trust to purchase the property; maintenance was cumbersome and costly.

Had Jane and Mary been living in the early 20th century, it’s conceivable that they might have supported the peaceful suffragists. One can see them establishing a worker’s guild, à la Mary Seton Watts, for women practising shell craft. “Votes for women” could have been written in shells.


Model of A la Ronde underneath a glass bell jar at A la Ronde, Devon © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Jenny Kingsley

For further information please visit:

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/a-la-ronde – to find out about opening hours and facilities for A la Ronde.

For images of Hobbit abodes, refer to – http://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&ccid=kNetVkPF&id=FBC0C4639D1066816B703D4E0D1E457A9A537D5A&thid=OIP.kNetVkPFGOjWU_RSj8QVeQDIEs&q=lord+of+the+rings+hobbit+houses&simid=608041661424994384&selectedIndex=2&ajaxhist=0


Fashion with Compassion

Pupils at Shokoh School. Image courtesy of Pop Up 38

Pupils at Shokoh School. Image courtesy of Pop Up 38.

In Afghanistan, women are discouraged from higher education, but times are changing, as Jenny Kingsley discovers when she visits Pop Up 38, a shop selling vintage and contemporary clothes to raise funds for a co educational school in this struggling nation.

One is not likely to find an enterprise that is quite like Pop Up 38. Its history, raison d’etre and colourful tapestry of stock in trade are a tribute to female entrepreneurship, artistic talent and faith in humanity. In every square foot of merchandise there is a strong sense of compassion.

The story of the venture begins with Dr Howard Fyfe Harper who was born in New Zealand in 1930. After attending Auckland Grammar School, Harper tried his hand in the building and menswear trades before becoming a bible study student. At the age of 23 he sailed to Pakistan as a missionary. There he determined to train as a doctor when he realised that there was a desperate need for professional medical care in Central Asia. Harper was particularly appalled by the severe shortage of treatment for the leprosy patients in light of the horrific deformities they endured. In England, he prepared for his exams and gained relevant experience while also studying Islamic law and Urdu.

In 1960, Harper married Monika, a German nurse and Second World War refugee. Monika had worked at London’ renowned Moorfields Eye Hospital. She inspired her husband to specialise in eye surgery. The couple had three daughters, Naomi, Faith and Joy. The Harpers mainly lived in Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan where Harper worked as a hospital eye surgeon and ophthalmologist, established eye camps, wrote textbooks and trained local doctors. In Afghanistan he established the Noor Eye Hospital. For about fifteen years the family was based in Kent so their daughters could attend secondary school and experience western culture.

The Harpers firmly believed in the life enhancing value of education and wished especially to leave an educational legacy to the people of Afghanistan, notably the displaced Hazara peoples for whom they nurtured a special affection. When a Hazara elder offered Harper a piece of land in 2008 upon which to build a school, Harper began raising funds for its construction and development; in the meanwhile the school prospered in rented accommodation. Alas, Harper did not live long enough to see his dream fully realised. After battling with liver cancer, Harper died in 2011, aged 80. He is honoured by both New Zealand and Afghanistan with awards for exemplary humanitarian service; and he was one of the first foreigners to hold an Afghani passport. In 2010, Faith Goldberg, his second daughter, who is also a doctor, published From Kabul with Love, an account of Harper’s extraordinary life, based on correspondence between him and Monika with his father.

After her father’s death, Naomi Brons-Harper, his first-born, determined to fulfill her father’s dream. With two good friends, Natalie Tubeilah-Hall and Leigh Sullivan, Naomi established Pop Up 38 in the vibrant King’s Cross area of London as a means of raising funds for the school. All three women have an extensive background in fashion and design; Leigh is also an artist and Natalie has worked as an investment banker for a leading merchant bank, so the partners certainly have the expertise to succeed. The shop sells a mixture of designer samples and vintage clothing; the traditional Afghan dresses and jewellery are especially intriguing.

The nature of the stock changes frequently. In the next several months, when you visit you could find clothes designed and donated by Ella Moss, Free People and Splendid, all unquestionably trendy labels.

You will also discover colourful and dazzling jewellery designed by Philippa Kunisch; some pieces are very delicate while others are more forceful and bold, using larger stones grouped together in concentrated patterns. One of her commissions was a collection for the William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain in 2000 and 2001. Her jewellery has also appeared in British films, where it is worn by actresses such as Emma Watson, Joanna Lumley, Isabella Rossellini and Charlotte Rampling. Philippa graduated in Theatre Design from Central Saint Martin’s, after which she then designed sets and costumes for theatre, and later formed her own theatre company. When, over twenty years ago, Kunisch designed a few pieces of jewellery for herself, she felt inspired to design for the public.

Pop Up 38 also has its own fashion label featuring clothes and clutch bags created by a graduate of the London College of Fashion. Brightly coloured bunting is also on sale.

Word about the opening of POP UP 38 in 2012 spread quickly and profits from the sales, together with the prize money Harper received from his New Zealand award enabled the school to open its own premises on the outskirts of Kabul in 2012. The school is registered as a non-profit charity known as Lapis Lazuli Schools; the name of the school is Shokoh School. Floors have gradually been added, more equipment has been obtained, and the number of staff and pupils has increased since then.

Now in 2016, there are 620 pupils, aged from 5 – 18 years old; girls over the age of fourteen are taught on one floor, without boys. There are male and female teachers. The school hours are from 8.30 am until 3 pm; this is a note worthy factor as many schools in Afghanistan are only open for half a day or one sex is taught in the morning while the other is taught in the afternoon.

Shokoh School provides a hot lunch and mini buses for transport to and from home, which is especially important for the girls as many of them would be too intimidated to make their own way to and from school. An increasing number of pupils progress to university and winning scholarships. The school teaches the Afghan syllabus to pupils aged 5 to 16. Pupils also learn English; Farsi is their native language. The curriculum also features IGCSE courses in English, mathematics and science in conjunction with Cambridge University’s International Examinations programme, which includes A Levels.

Naomi Brons-Harper says that the children do not fully appreciate the value of play and the visual and performing arts. How can these subjects be fertile paths towards positions in academia, the civil service, business and finance, or qualifying subjects for studying to be a doctor or lawyer? Painting like an Impressionist will not lead to the presidency. It is hard to find art, music and drama teachers. However, the students do receive art and recorder lessons once a week, and they participate in weekly assemblies where they perform plays they have written in front of an audience of parents. And they do love acting, Naomi comments. Ironically applied art – the realm of fashion design – is the prime means of raising funds for the school.

The school is widely admired throughout the country for its high level of academic achievement and standards. The fee for each pupil is £450 British pounds sterling per annum; it covers tuition, books, uniform, lunch and transport. About 160 pupils are fully supported.

Lapis lazuli is one of the most coveted stones in use since ancient times. Its deep shimmering blue is believed to symbolise honour, wisdom, friendship and truth. It is thought to have a healing effect. The best raw stones are said to come from northeast Afghanistan. Lapis lazuli is a national treasure as undoubtedly is the school.

Article by Jenny Kingsley.

For further information about Pop Up 38 concerning location and opening hours, please visit popupshop38@gmail.com or call 07967 805097.