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.


  1. Laura,
    I so enjoy your architectural tours of England's great houses. It almost feels like I've been on tour with a very informed docent. This house sounds like a bit of a mash up but the owner's social and technological innovations are most interesting!

  2. This sounds like a fascinating place to spend an afternoon. I love Morris wallpapers and those chimneys are amazing! Thanks for another informative post, Laura. From your photos it looks like it's chilly there, which I can't even imagine. I'm baking in the 100's!

  3. Ingrid, that's really sweet of you, thanks! Trust me, I love visiting, and promise to continue doing so. It's a really tough job, but someone has to! Mash up is the right word for Wightwick, but it all fits somehow.

    Catherine, this is a gorgeous place to spend an afternoon...a whole day even. It was a warm day, believe it or not, just showery, hence the grey skies. When I say warm, I mean 20c, so nowhere near baking... :)