diamond geezer

 Saturday, May 14, 2022

NATIONAL TRUST: Wightwick Manor and Gardens
Location: Wolverhampton, WV6 8EE [map]
Pronounced: 'Wittick'
Open: 11-5pm daily
Admission: £13.00
Website: nationaltrust.org.uk/wightwick-manor-and-gardens
Socials: [Facebook] [Twitter] [Instagram]
Five word summary: from the William Morris catalogue
Time to allow: a couple of hours

Here's a quirky one. It's tucked away on the western outskirts of Wolverhampton. It looks like a Tudor manor house but was actually built in 1887. It's only ever been home to two generations of the same family. And it's packed with Arts and Crafts and Pre-Raphaelite treasures because those two generations had slightly different tastes.

The Mander family were Victorian industrialists whose Midlands business grew to become the Empire's largest supplier of paints and varnishes. With the profits they built themselves an imitation halftimbered manor house in what was then a small Staffordshire village, complete with twisted brick chimneys and oak-framed white-washed walls. After Oscar Wilde delivered a lecture locally they were inspired to fill their house with William Morris furnishings, following the mantra 'have nothing in your house that you do not know to be beautiful or believe to be useful'. Not only did they cover most of their walls with William's finest wallpaper but nobody's papered over it, which means visitors get the rare chance to admire an original Arts & Crafts interior in situ.

Chatting with the volunteers 1: Blimey, I said, you've even disguised that electronic sensor by covering it with William Morris wallpaper. Yes, he said, we happened to have some left over, and then launched into a discussion about the house's electrical system. This cable over here is part of the original wiring, he added, which we've kept because Wightwick Manor was only the third house in England to be lit by electricity. I knew number one was Cragside but couldn't guess the second, which turned out to be Buckingham Palace.

When the Manders' eldest son and his wife took over they set about stocking up on Pre-Raphaelite art. Their tenacity means you can now enjoy a Ford Madox Brown in the hallway, a Rossetti portrait in the drawing room and a huge Burne-Jones oil painting across one wall in the Great Parlour. This is a most impressive double-height space with timbered roof, minstrels gallery and fireplace tiles by William de Morgan, which on entry looks to be screechingly 16th century. You can disprove this by checking the glittering Charles Kempe frieze around the upper walls which depicts a cavalcade of animals, one of which is an entirely anachronistic kangaroo.

Chatting with the volunteers 2: Do you know why it's called a sub-rosa fireplace, he asked, and all I could think of was a Star Trek episode which wasn't particularly helpful. It's because it's indented into the main wall, he explained, so two people could sit beside it and gossip without their words leaking acoustically into the rest of the room. I lapped all this up. Later as my circuit took me upstairs and out onto the minstrels gallery I heard exactly the same spiel again delivered with equal gusto, so all praise to the National Trust volunteers who keep this up day in day out.

The free flow tour takes you along the full length of the ground floor before heading up to the bedrooms. Best not rush. The Indian Bird room, I deduced, was named after its particularly fine avian wallpaper. In most rooms they keep the curtains half closed so that a) direct sunlight doesn't fade the colours b) you can still marvel at the stained glass. Several rooms have fey quotes emblazoned on the wall, which felt a very Morris-ian aesthetic. Normally they let you down the nursery corridor but for unspoken reasons that was roped off.

Chatting with the volunteers 3: The lady in the billiard room was less keen on talking to me than she was on chinwagging with the previous volunteer. She attacked some new rules the Trust have brought in regarding minimum staffing and how that means there aren't always enough guides present, and explained how the other day they had to close the whole of the upstairs because the lunchtime relief didn't arrive and what a shame that was and how the number of local volunteers seemed to be in decline anyway, and I earwigged with great interest and wondered whether perhaps she should have had her conversation in the sub-rosa fireplace.

The Manders offered the house to the National Trust in 1937 on the understanding they'd ultimately preserve the contents but the family could continue to live here in the meantime. The Trust took some persuading because no living tenant had ever suggested such a thing, but thankfully concurred. Sir Geoffrey survived another 25 years, opening up the house on Thursday afternoons to interested parties, and Lady Mander lingered for 25 more. She continued to collect Pre-Raphaelite art throughout, always with an eye to the collection she'd be posthumously bequeathing to the nation, and particularly enjoyed inviting appreciative guests to stay.

Chatting with the volunteers 4: I adore this carpet, she said, it's so bright and well over 100 years old which is amazing because it's all coloured with vegetable dyes. It survived so well because this was only ever the guest room, indeed this is where Sir John Betjeman slept and he did his writing in the wood panelled study over there. Of course Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber would love to get his hands on this carpet, he adores anything Pre-Raphaelite, he's already snapped up every single William Morris carpet in Australia, but in this case when he asked the Trust obviously they said no.

Once you've exited via the scullery you can visit all the usual - the tearoom, the gift hoard and the second hand bookshop - or you can step up into the Malthouse Gallery. This small-ish space exists to display the works of the De Morgan Collection, a lot of which is coloured tiles, but at present is displaying a dazzling set of lustreware and several paintings by Evelyn de Morgan, wife of the usual suspect.

Chatting with the volunteers 5: Do you like lustreware, she asked, and plainly I said yes. She also explained how the collection shuttles around between Cannon Hall in Barnsley, the Watts Gallery in Surrey and here at Wightwick. She was at pains to point out that the gallery was separate to the National Trust, indeed I got the feeling that volunteers either worked here or in the main house and a sense of veiled tension exists between the two groups, and I might be wrong but it'd make a great sitcom.

Then there are the gardens which are extensive, pristine and splendid. On the front lawn an avenue of yew thimbles runs up to the main terrace, currently overlooked by wisteria in its purple prime. Round the back are tulip beds and the obligatory pair of topiary peacocks. Further down by the lake is an exemplary row of glacial erratics, each labelled in case you've ever wanted to know what microgranite or epidotised coarse welded tuff look like. And yes it's also rhododendron season at present so that's a bonus, as was the rain finally stopping and the sun coming out, and then I had to dash for the bus because it's only hourly. I'm pleased I made the effort.

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