Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Things to See: Wightwick Manor

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the National Trust property Wightwick Manor (pronounced "Wittick") near Wolverhampton, West Midlands. A true Victorian conundrum, it was built in the "Old English" style but with the kind of modern comforts a twenty-first century visitor can still appreciate today. Remarkable on many levels, it is also considered the most complete example of a property built and furnished according to the Arts and Crafts style.

The Arts and Crafts movement was spearheaded by the poet and artist William Morris in the late 1800s and early 1900s. As a member of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, Morris' ideas were influenced by their love of medieval tales, ancient mythology and folklore. Not only that, the design movement grew out of reaction against mass, machine produced goods and the industrialists whom Morris considered to be exploiting their workforce. With much stylistic emphasis on botanical motifs, Morris and his followers set about creating wallpapers, fabrics, stained glass, ceramics and furniture using traditional methods - hence Arts and Crafts.

Wightwick Manor was initially built in 1887 (and extended in 1893) by Theodore Mander and his wife, Flora. From the outside, you could be forgiven for thinking the house several hundred years older than it actually is - its timber frame the epitome of Tudor architecture. A quick look up, however, starts to tell a different story. Atop the timber frame and stained glass windows sit several red brick chimneys of ornate design - solid Victorian-made brick.

Inside the house, the finish and furnishings were all carefully chosen by the Manders to give the impression of an old manor house. There are low ceilings and wooden floors, carved marble fireplaces and gorgeous stained glass. Virtually every wall is covered in William Morris wallpaper; the seats and curtains Morris company designs - the lush, swirling flowers and leaves assault the senses. 

The Mander family at Wightwick, c.1898.

The Mander family were industrialists - owning and running a large paint factory in the centre of Wolverhampton. These industrialists, however, held beliefs largely in keeping with William Morris' philosophies. The Manders' held unusually progressive views, and paid their workers much higher-than-average wages. This was also true of Wightwick Manor's household staff. A new servant could expect to enjoy their own room, a separate shared bathroom with toilet and running hot and cold water, and if and when relationships developed between staff, the Manders (instead of forbidding such romances, like most staffed households) provided housing for the newly married couples. 

And so Theodore and Flora Manders' values translated successfully into all parts of their home, from the outside in. Their progressive views took flight not only in their stylistic and social views, but also in their wholehearted embrace of the kinds of modern technology still eyed with suspicion in many Victorian circles. Wightwick Manor was one of the first houses in Britain to be completely wired for the new innovation of electrical light (examples of the original Thomas Edison light bulbs can still be seen in some of the wall fittings), as well as a full central heating system which extended to all parts of the house (servant quarters included). Most amazingly of all, the family also had an air-conditioning system installed, evidenced by vents and boxes still present in all rooms. 

The house was handed over to the National Trust's stewardship in 1937 by Theodore Manders' son, Geoffrey. Most of the impressive collection of Pre-Raphaelite art now on display in the house was collected by Geoffrey's wife, the writer Rosalie Glynn Grylls, at a time when it was so unpopular, pieces by the likes of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais could be bought for several pounds. As well as collecting Pre-Raphaelite art, Rosalie also made a point of collecting William Morris & Co. pieces she felt would fit in with the house, thus making Wightwick Manor the treasure-trove it is.

This is what makes Wightwick so special...and such a conundrum: a timber framed Arts and Crafts house, complete with "medieval" great hall, built and furnished using traditional methods of craftsmanship - yet made to be one of the most technologically advanced houses of its time. It looks forward and back at the same time, and does a great job of both.

For opening times, click here.

All images by me, except for the Mander family portrait, courtesy of the Owlpen Manor Estate & Nicholas Mander.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Modesty Piece

Women's fashion during the eighteenth century largely dictated a lower neckline, either scalloped or square in finish. Most period films would have you believe that all eighteenth century women walked around with ample decolletage permanently on show - tightly corseted, powdered and dotted with beauty patches, but this was by no means the universal experience of women when it came to what they showed off - and what they covered up. Respectable ladies sought to preserve their modesty, yet still maintain a pleasing and attractive appearance by using fichus, neckerchiefs or Modesty Pieces (as they became known).
Early eighteenth century fichus, Flemish origin, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Made of lace, muslin, cotton, and sometimes silk, fichus came in a variety of shapes from rectangular to square, triangular to curved. All shapes and designs served essentially the same purpose - they were folded and arranged around the neck and tucked artfully into the neckline of a lady's bodice, thus saving her blushes and letting everybody know she was a woman of impeccable virtue.
Joshua Reynolds, Mrs. William Molesworth, 1755.
During the early to mid-1700s, Modesty Pieces like the Flemish examples in the first image, and in the portrait above were delicate affairs with fine embroidery. They were of varying widths, from thin scraps to wider kinds that were worn almost like shawls.
Joshua Reynolds, Miss. Elizabeth Ingram, 1757.
While modesty was a prized feminine virtue, it's interesting to note that the early to mid century examples were translucent, so much so that they sometimes didn't serve to cover much of anything at all. This is a fact born out by French philosopher Denis Diderot in his Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1756) in which he writes,

"Fichu, part of a woman’s underclothing. It is a square or rectangular piece of muslin, or of another white or coloured cloth, or even silk... but with white skin, curves, firm flesh and a bosom, even the most innocent peasant woman knows how to let just enough show by arranging the folds of her fichu."

Modesty Pieces like those worn by Miss. Ingram (above), were more like a cursory nod to the idea, rather than a wholehearted adoption of it. As with any fashion, personal taste allowed for adaptation.
Muslin and whitework kerchief, 1780s, V&A Museum
By the 1780s, Modesty Pieces had changed significantly from embroidered gauze to become larger, plainer pieces of fabric, which were placed around the shoulders, crossed over at the front and tied at the lower back. 
Cotton fichu, c.1792-3, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
As the Enlightenment gained momentum and revolution swept through France in the 1780s and 90s, clothing became heavily influenced by neoclassical ideals. Shapes and patterns were simpler, eventually giving way to what we now know of as Regency style. 
Thomas Gainsborough, Mrs. Sarah Siddons, 1785.
For the twenty or so years prior to this however, the Modesty Piece truly came into it's own, adorning sophisticated silks and simple cottons alike. It both preserved respectability and, when needed, helped to create the illusion of it.

All portraits courtesy of Olga's Gallery.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Weekend Escape

On Criccieth Beach
Last Friday, my boyfriend and I drove to Criccieth in Gwynedd, North Wales, to join my parents for a couple of days. It was an interesting drive in that we took a rather special route devised by my boyfriend - a route that involved some nausea-inducing bends in which a few naughty words may have escaped my ladylike lips. (This part of Wales, like certain parts of Scotland, is renowned for its curvaceous thoroughfares). We only spent a grand total of one night there, but it was a short break full of lots of little escapes. I lived in North Wales for three years whilst at university - it is and always will be a part of the world that has an impenetrable hold over me. Whenever I go there I feel as if some part of me has come home. We stayed in the small coastal town of Criccieth (right at the very top end of the wide sweep that is Cardigan Bay), walked the length of the beach, skimming stones and watching the weather change from fair to foul before our eyes. 

Jumbo Beer Battered Cod at The Golden Fleece, Tremadog.
In the evening we ate at the The Golden Fleece Inn in Tremadog, where my Dad blithely ordered the jumbo beer battered cod. None of us realised it would dwarf everything else on the table.

View from the top of the staircase, Plas Glyn-y-Weddw.
The following morning we visited Plas Glyn-y-Weddw in Llanbedrog, a neo-gothic Victorian mansion saved from dereliction and now being used as an art gallery. After breakfast in the old conservatory we wandered around the house...

It's a really well thought out space - making use of the generous proportions of the old house without spoiling its beauty.

Every front-facing window of the house looks out onto the gardens and the sea beyond...

So down to the beach it was - the National Trust beach at Llanbedrog - for a walk in the warm sand, a spot of shell picking, and for admiring the multi-coloured beach huts facing the water...

The water was still that morning - blue-green meeting the sky above. It was a moment of escape in a whole series of such. After all, they can be found in all kinds of ways, not least of which in the little pleasures.

A short trip away from home, time with people you love, a drive on winding roads...a walk on the beach and a pocketful of shells...good food, beautiful views, huge castles, waves, clouds and sand. My friend Mademoiselle Poirot has written a thought provoking post motivated by the fact that a few other blogs she reads have recently wondered about the seemingly charmed, gorgeously styled and endlessly fascinating lives that some bloggers seem to lead. Those who choose to leave out the day-to-day cataloguing of every event, but instead decide on an edited version (or those who don't discuss their personal life at all). Is there anything wrong with that? It works for Mademoiselle Poirot, and it works for me, too. Like her, I write posts based on what inspires me - what I've been thinking about, reading and seeing, all in the spirit of sharing and of hoping it can inspire those who read it, too. A warts-and-all daily run down of my routine and all the things which in turn upset me, anger me, stress me out and bother me is just not my style. Like Mademoiselle Poirot, this blog is my escape from that - but a sincere escape, most importantly. 

Caenarfon Castle
I don't live in a perfect world any more than anybody else, but with this blog I choose to celebrate a world full of infinitely inspiring places, people and things. The small details matter just as much as the large, and more than that - they make me happy.