The architect Edward Ould (1852–1909) designed Wightwick Manor just west of Wolverhampton in the English West-Midlands in 1887 and then added to it 1892-93 for Theodore and Flora Mander and their family. The Manders were long established owners of a successful paint, ink and varnish manufacturing company in Wolverhampton. Theodore saw himself as a scientist and industrialist rather than a country gentleman and rather than being planned as a country house at the centre of a vast estate Wightwick was planned as a family home. The house and contents were given to the National Trust in 1937 by their son and his wife Geoffrey and Rosalie Mander when it was still less than 50 years old, but the family continued to live there. It was their work as pioneering collectors of Pre-Raphaelite art in partnership with the National Trust which today helps to make the house’s interiors unique and the National Trust continues to make acquisitions to add to these important interiors.
In the second half of the 19th century English architects wanted to express sentiments of cosy and romantic domesticity and comfort rather than make grandiose statements of ecclesiastical self-belief, English nationalism and imperial ambition, ideas which had attached themselves to the Neo-Gothic styles developed in the first half of the 19th century. As early as 1850 the young architect George Devey had been pioneering what came to be known as the vernacular revival, looking to traditional, regional, smaller buildings for a new language of architecture. The emphasis was on giving the architect the widest aesthetic freedom while drawing on local building traditions and rooting the building in the landscape. William Morris’s Red House in Bexleyheath in Kent built in 1859-60 by Philip Webb cemented this idea in the creative consciousness of British aesthetes and prompted a continuum of development from other architects like Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912), who introduced “Free Styles” into domestic architecture, eclectic mixes of architectural features deriving from one or more stylistic and historical sources. Shaw and contemporaries like Philip Speakman Webb (1859-60) and Charles Francis Annesley Voysey (1857-1941) looked for a an architecture that did not carry the ecclesiastical and military Gothic baggage that had clung to High Victorian Gothic since Pugin, they were looking for a gentler, more domestic variant that reflected the desire of newly wealthy industrialists and business-men for houses which appeared ancient, secular and homely. They looked to the half-timbered building tradition of England – English Tudor, Early Elizabethan and Jacobean architecture as an exemplar of native structural honesty and expression in what became known as the “Domestic Revival.”
Romanticism and Modern Conveniences
It was within the Domestic Revival style that Edward Ould created Wightwick Manor for the Mander family. The Manders tastes ran to a deep appreciation of the Romantic, a vital theme of historical and moral idealism that runs right through the Victorian period but they also appreciated the benefits of modern technology in conveniences such as electric lighting, central heating and piped hot and cold water.
Cragside in Northumberland, designed by Richard Normal Shaw for the British arms manufacturer Lord Armstrong (of Armstrong Vickers Ltd) had just been finished in 1885 and was the first house in Britain to be equipped with electric lighting and had a number of other innovations including a passenger elevator designed by its inventive owner, central heating and full hot and cold running water. Cragside was undoubtedly a model for Ould’s designs for Wightwick, and like Shaw at Cragside Ould at Wightwick studiously avoided the Neo-Gothic and the academic styles, instead reviving vernacular materials like half-timber and hanging tiles, with projecting gables and tall massive chimneys with “inglenooks” for warm seating. The result at Wightwick was free and fresh, not slavishly imitating his Jacobean and vernacular models, yet warmly familiar, a parallel with the emerging Arts and Crafts movement.
Wightwick is not however an Arts and Crafts house, Ould’s interests in traditional materials connects with the Arts and Crafts movement but in the 1870’s and 80’s he was chiefly interested in the picturesque qualities of materials, an approach common to the Aesthetic Movement. This was a late nineteenth century movement that championed pure beauty and ‘art for art’s sake’ emphasising the visual and sensual qualities of art and design over practical, moral or narrative considerations. Theodore and Flora Mander furnished their new home from Morris and Co. whose founder William Morris (1834-1896) was one of the greatest Victorian designers and a supporter and business partner of the Pre-Raphaelite artists Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones and the architect Phillip Webb. The Manders used Morris & Co. Wallpaper and fabric on the walls, Morris & Co. machine woven carpets and rugs on the floors and Morris & Co. ‘Sunbury’ wing chairs and rush seated ‘Hampton Court’ chairs.
A programme of Morris & Co Acquisitions
From 1937 and its acquisition by the National Trust (partly for its Morris & Co. decoration) the Manders and the Trust started to acquired more Morris & Co. furnishing, extending the Morris decorative programme more fully through the existing fabric of the building than it had been originally. This was in order to create a more complete and immersive experience and to reflect most aspects of William Morris’s work as he had intended it be used, and also in the same way work of his collaborators and contemporaries. Pieces include hand-made carpets, cushions, furniture printed and woven textiles, tapestries, drawings, books, ceramics, metalwork and stained glass. They also acquired a large quantity of blue and white Chinese and Japanese porcelain, very much in the Aesthetic Movement taste, antique English and European furniture and fabric wall hangings (which were quite different from Morris’s designs) from the 17th – 19th centuries and fine eastern rugs and carpets both for use on the floor and for upholstering arm chairs and settees. The result is a uniquely eclectic series of interiors wholly in keeping with the overall aesthetic ambition of Morris. This however is a backdrop to a unique collection of pre-Raphaelite art collected after the house had been passed to the National Trust.
When originally built, Wightwick had been furnished by Theodore and Flora Mander in a conventionally middle class Victorian style with family portraits and European scenes by artist who are little known today. In the 1930’s work by the Pre-Raphaelites, like much Victorian art was terribly unfashionable, the artists were long dead and their work could be collected relatively inexpensively if anybody wanted it. The direct connection between the Pre-Raphaelites and William Morris and the relatively intact, though not entirely consistent programme of internal decoration using Morris and Co. products made starting to collect Pre-Raphaelite art-works to appropriately extend and strengthen the interiors a logical move for Geoffrey and Rosalie Mander. Their first acquisition was a portrait of Jane Morris by Rosetti, completed by Madox Brown and bought for £14 in 1937 which would be about £900 in today’s money. Collecting the pre-raphaelites became a shared interest for them. They knew several of the descendants of the Pre-Raphaelites which helped in acquiring painting and furniture. The Manders were more interested in the Pre-Raphaelites as people and individuals and their approach to collecting was more biographical than definitively visual. The focus was on stories and personal associations, rather than style or medium. Beyond the eclectic context of the architecture and interiors this is what makes the pre-Raphaelite collection at Wightwick fascinating – the narrative links with the artist and their families.