Period Property of the Month - May 2008
If ever a house could be described as brimming with period character, it must surely be Wightwick Manor. It's a step short of heaven for Arts and Crafts fans, but within this Victorian jewel lies a wealth of other delights.
A step back in time
Wightwick, a National Trust property near Wolverhampton, was built in 1887 for prosperous paint manufacturer Theodore Mander. It was designed in the popular 'Old English' style which aimed to recreate the atmosphere of an ancient house. With black and white timbers, gabled roofs of different heights, a mix of tile, stone and red brick, it all gave the impression of longevity - leaded-lights, stained glass and inglenook fireplaces only added to the charm. But this look of heritage was not intended to take over the conveniences of life. From the outset there was central heating, electric lighting and even a Turkish bath.
Yet this was not a flamboyant country house in a great estate, but the home of a hard-working businessman and his family. Theodore Mander went to his Wolverhampton factory each day. His wife Flora was active in charity work or held her 'At Homes', social events for ladies, with tea and conversation. The family hosted dinner parties for their local friends; the children performed amateur theatricals. They played croquet in summer and skated in winter.
When it came to furnishing their home, Theodore and Flora knew just what they wanted. They admired the ideas of John Ruskin who advocated a return to traditional hand-craftsmanship, looking to the past for inspiration - especially the medieval past. These principles heralded the Arts and Crafts movement and the foundation of William Morris' design firm, Morris & Co. Although he did not supervise the decoration of Wightwick, Morris supplied many of the wallpapers, fabrics, carpets and furniture.
Thirteen rooms were hung with Morris designs, still much-loved and reproduced today, with their familiar motifs of fruit, flowers, leaves and birds. Originals still in situ at Wightwick include 'Dove and Rose' silk, wool wall-hangings and 'Larkspur' and 'Acanthus' wallpapers. Morris and Co. also supplied work by other leading craftsmen. There were many beautiful tiles and ceramics by William de Morgan, metalwork and light fittings by W.A.S. Benson and spectacular stained glass by Charles Kempe.
However, Theodore and Flora were not slavish followers of William Morris. They also chose antique furniture, tapestries, Indian and Turkish rugs, blue and white porcelain (an essential feature of 'artistic' interiors of the time) and fabrics by companies such as Warners. The comfortable armchairs in the library are upholstered in oriental carpet, a frequent late-Victorian practice. The result was an eclectic mix of complementary themes and styles.
Wightwick had none of the cluttered, ostentatious display of many middle-class late-Victorian interiors. However, as befitted the era, it had colourful patterned tiles and stained glass, with decoration of rooms according to their masculine or feminine uses: ladies had the morning-room and drawing-room, the gentlemen the dining-room and billiard-room. A great parlour, with its minstrels' gallery, provided the focus for music and entertaining for all the family and their guests.
After the death of Theodore and Flora, Wightwick continued to evolve. It was inherited in 1905 by their eldest son Geoffrey. With his first wife Rosalind and their three children, Wightwick became a family home once more with a full complement of servants. They entertained frequently, including a visit from Captain Scott before his 1910 Antarctic expedition.
In 1930, Geoffrey and Rosalind divorced, but he remarried shortly after. Now a Liberal MP, he and his second wife, Rosalie, welcomed many guests during the 1930s, including Stanley Baldwin and the Asquiths. They also began to acquire more furnishings for the house, including William Morris embroideries, stained-glass panels and books from his Kelmscott Press. However, it was Rosalie's enthusiasm for collecting works of the Pre-Raphaelite artists that greatly enhanced Wightwick.
The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of artists whose work reflected a love of medieval imagery, romance and legend, and they had a formative influence on the Arts and Crafts style: several of the artists, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, were co-founders of Morris & Co. Wightwick provided a natural backdrop to the wealth of their paintings and pictures collected by Geoffrey and Rosalie.
Over time, some of the original jewel-coloured décor and fabrics at Wightwick have faded. A frieze of imitation leather paper has darkened from its bright crimson and gilt. Fabrics by Morris, who frequently used natural vegetable dyes, have mellowed. Nevertheless, Wightwick still packs a strong design punch and it's not difficult to imagine how it first looked. There is something intriguing around every corner: rooms with changing levels and interesting shapes, inviting window-seats and inscriptions from poetry painted on the walls or carved into fireplaces.
The kitchen, little altered since 1888, conjures up the life of the Victorian cook and her staff. It was used for the more complex cookery while the basic food preparation and washing up were done in the scullery. The original range is still black-leaded and lit regularly, and the tables, pans, dresser and cooking-moulds are all authentic to the house. But these were the days before extractor fans - with Mrs Beeton advising the lengthy boiling of cabbage without a lid, it's little wonder the kitchen was positioned well away from the family rooms.
It's the everyday personal details of the past which are perhaps among the most fascinating: the 1893 electric bell-board, used to summon servants with a waving 'flag' for each room, or the cloak and hats hanging beside the original porcelain washbasins in the gentlemen's cloakroom. Nostalgic childhood scenes are evoked in the nursery suite, last used in the 1930s and '40s, with its animal cartoons, toys and books.
William Morris once said, "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful". Wightwick brought life to his words. Wightwick may be a step back in time, but it's not lost in the past.
Wightwick Manor, near Wolverhampton, West Midlands, is open from 1st March to 20th December 2008. For further information, telephone 01902 761400 or visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk.
All photography included in this feature is copyright of NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel.