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Scenes from a Cave Tour, 1808 with Additional Note
By Anna Miller
Posted: 2021-08-11T16:11:00Z
  • Scenes from a Cave Tour, 1808


    In the summer of 1808, John Edwards Caldwell, a former U.S. consular agent in the West Indies, traveled through northwest Virginia, making a loop from Baltimore back to Alexandria.  He aimed to improve his health with a change of air and the ‘wholesome exercise’ of riding. He also managed to take in many of the natural attractions along the way.  He documented his journey in a series of letters which he compiled into a book for the entertainment of friends in the coming winter months.  He wrote one letter all about the caves near modern day Grottoes, Virginia.


    “Weir’s [sic] Cave …was discovered in February 1806, by a Pole Cat’s being caught in a trap and retreating for shelter to the Cave, to which a dog pursued her.  The owner of the dog enlarged the hole by which the animal entered, and discovered the place from when I now write to you.  It is certainly a most remarkable subterraneous curiosity on this continent, and is well worth the attention of an observing traveler.”


    Caldwell entered the cave system with a ‘conductor’ or guide. Inside, the conductor named each of the big cave ‘rooms’: the drawing room, dining, room, Washington’s room, &c.  In the dining room, he writes:


    “…here are a great number of pillars and busts, which, on first approach, appear to be indebted for their shape to the art of the chisel, and a variety of chairs, decorated like bishop’s stalls, give it the appearance of a cathedral….”


    The visitor and his guide moved among rooms via “artificial and oftentimes, crazy ladders” while being obliged to watch their heads “from being broke by the crystallizations which hung over them.”  In Washington’s room, Caldwell observed a formation that looks “so like the great man whose name it bears, that nature, through only shewing her skill in its formation by drops of water , falling for ages, from the lofty ceilings above, could not be excelled by the most skillful statuary.”  


    Caldwell’s letter reveals that he was aware of the elements and processes that form caves: water and time. The ground water, flowing through limestone both creates the open cavern spaces, via erosion, and fills them with amazing structures by the slow buildup of mineral-laden drippings.  The overhead hangers are called stalactites; the spires rising from the cave floor are stalagmites.  How to remember which is which?  Stalac-tights cling tight to the ceiling; stalg-mights might grow up to meet them one day!


    Another stunning room reminded Caldwell of Eden:

    “The diamond room takes its name from the variety of chrystalizations [sic] and transparencies it exhibits; our lights were not sufficiently splendid, but had they done justice to the scene before us, I questions the eye could be presented with a more glittering or magnificent object… The tout ensemble appearing like a petrified flower garden, formed by nature in her playful moments, as if for her own amusement “


    Caldwell and his guide refreshed themselves in the so-called bar room, where “as the conductor is generally provided with a bottle of brandy, the almost exhausted strength of the exploratory may here be recruited.” At day’s end, Caldwell repaired to the village where he notes he was welcomed to stay the night in a private home but found in the morning that he must pay ‘tavern prices’ for the privilege.  Non-cave note: In his youth, the orphaned Caldwell was taken to Paris and educated by the Marquis de Lafayette.  The Marquis took on the care of the youth out of his great respect for Caldwell’s father, a parson and orator known as the “Fighting Chaplain” of the Continental Army in New Jersey.  Caldwell’s next stop after visiting the cave was Monticello.


  • Notes on Cave Paintings


At least one author proposes that caves, like other seemingly blank natural spaces, were “uncolonizable” to the 18th/19th century British imagination, and consequently were spaces that literature might claim. Representative paintings from the era illustrate mythic settings; for example, Turner’s 1835 “The Cave of Despair,” which draws on Spenser’s Faerie Queen.  Many other paintings and drawings depict sea caves, real or imagined.  The scenic choice parallels Regency-era travel writings about the sea caves at the island of Staffa in the Hebrides of Scotland. Sea-cave paintings also invoke Robert Burns’ 1793 poem of lost love that begins “Had I a cave on some wild, distant shore…”  The Staffa cave, dubbed ‘Fingal’s Cave’ by explorer Sir Joseph Banks after poet James Macpherson’s epic 18th century poem, has inspired writers, artists and musicians - no less than Wordsworth, Keats, Turner, Mendelssohn and, allegedly, Pink Floyd.

Another sea cave, real or imagined.

Cave in the evening. (or A Cavern, evening) by Joseph Wright, 1774. Smith College Museum of Art.  Source:


Caves prove to be an uncommon Regency/Federal-era portrait setting.  A prevailing romantic and literary notion of caves may be why a search for portraiture in cave settings yielded at least a few ladies, but no gentlemen.  Though the stormy seas and rocky shores of war and conquest provided popular backdrops for naval men, perhaps no man wanted to be seen sheltering in the vast unknowability of a cave. Maybe caves, in their very unconquerability, presented a feminine setting.


I imagine it must have taken a certain type of woman to be shown à la grotte. The soon-to-be Lady Hamilton kicks things off in the late 18th century with a painting known by several titles, which is fitting given her flair for re-invention.  Does the sea outside the mouth of the cave presage her infamous connection with Nelson? If so, the water is remarkably calm.

“Emma Hart in a Cavern”  (or “ Absence,” or “as Andromeda”) by George Romney, c. 1782-5. National Maritime Museum, London .

Madam d’Aucourt made so bold as to be seen within the cave without her hat and partially ungloved.  Compare her with the possibly cave-adjacent Lady Beechy, content to remain hatted and outside on the beach.

Anne, Lady Beechey
, by Joseph Clover, c. 1800-1840. Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.


"Portrait of a Woman in a Cave, possibly Madame d'Aucourt de Saint-Just"by Louis Leopold Boilly. 1805. Location not known.


Anna Miller is an RSV member since 2015, a professional geologist, and the daughter of a painter.  She has toured several caves but has never yet been painted in one.


Caldwell, John Edward. A Tour Through Part of Virginia, in the Summer of 1808, in a Series of Letters, Including an Account of Harper's Ferry, the Natural Bridge, the New Discovery Called Weir's Cave, Monticello, and the Different Medicinal Springs, Hot and Cold Baths, Visited by the Author. New York, 1809.  (available at


Carrol, Siobhan. An Empire of Air and Water: Uncolonizable Space in the British Imagination, 1750-1850.  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.


John Edwards Caldwell, 1769-1819.




Mr. Wick’s ‘Pedia

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