I wanted, in this post, to explain the voluntary work I have undertaken over the last three years at Wightwick Manor, a National Trust property, initially built in 1887 (extended in 1893) by Theodore Mander, a Wolverhampton paint and varnish manufacturer and his wife, Flora St Clair Paint. The property was given to the trust in 1937 by their son, Geoffrey Mander MP.
It is a house that I have been familiar with my whole life; it is a centre of art, history and culture in Wolverhampton. My deeply abiding fascination with the house and its history resulted in me applying to become a room guide.
The last few years volunteering at the manor have been incredibly eventful and have helped me acquire many new skills. For example, in helping to clean a few of the rooms in the house, I had the privilege of handling the breathtakingly beautiful, and in some cases worryingly fragile, objets d’art that fill the house. It was a very nerve-racking experience to be cradling William De Morgan lustreware!
I have also helped catalogue the toys in the nursery, learning how to label the objects without causing any lasting change or damage to them and acquiring the ability to compile an inventory. It was quite emotional handling well-loved toys that had provided great joy and amusement for the children of the house.
My passion for the house and the work of the National Trust has increased exponentially since I have been volunteering, there. I have learnt so much and find the experience incredibly rewarding. Furthermore, my confidence in public speaking has improved through my engagement with the curious visitors.
Working at the house, I have also had the chance to enhance my knowledge of the Mander Family, Wolverhampton Manufacturing, and the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood among many other things. I greatly enjoy being able to discuss the house and the family with others. This could be with people who are discovering the Manders, the collection, the Pre-Raphaelites or the house itself for the first time, or with those visitors with great local insight into the Mander company, or with scholars of the Pre-Raphaelites. All of these people have provided me with enriching experiences.
Being an art historian, one of my favourite parts of the collection and the experience is the wealth of Pre-Raphaelite art that adorns the house. The acquisition of such important and spectacular pieces of art was due mainly to Rosalie Mander (née Glynn Grylls), a lover of art and an academic who wrote about the Pre-Raphaelite circle, and who received descendants of the Pre-Raphaelites artists at Wightwick. I have spent many an indulgent hour observing and interacting with the art works and imparting my knowledge of it to the public. The collection consists of works by many noteworthy artists including William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais; Edward Burne-Jones’s Love Amongst the Ruins hangs in pride of place in the grandiose Great Parlour.
In the Great Parlour also hangs the arresting portrait of Jane Nassau Senior by G. F. Watts. I become so interested in this image, due to its amalgamation of virtue and vice, that I chose it as the focus of my undergraduate dissertation.
The collection also comprises paintings created by less well-known female artists associated with the Pre-Raphaelites including Lucy Maddox Brown’s poignant and powerful depiction of Romeo and Juliet, and works by Marie Spartali Stillman and Elizabeth Siddal.
Wightwick also contains some exceptional drawings, including detailed, sensuous, red chalk studies of women by Edward Burne-Jones, showcasing the raw technical skill of the artist. At the manor, it is possible to view the drawings up close and thus observe all the fine details created by the artist’s hand.
Burne-Jones’s red chalk drawing can be seen here, hung with other drawings, in the left foreground of the image in one of the guest bedrooms.
A collection of pencil and ink drawings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti also reside within the house, including a humorous pen and ink cartoon caricature of the artist’s sister, Christina Rossetti created in 1862. One can observe Rossetti’s brotherly affection for his sister, depicting her during an outburst of destructive energy caused by the recent Times review of her poetry. This is one of many images in the house that depict artists’ family members; like Wightwick itself, these provides the visitor with an intimate insight into family relations, whether that be between the Rossettis or the Manders.
In the context of the house, one observes these pictures intermingling with original, contemporary William Morris wallpaper and furniture, William De Morgan tiles and antiques dating back to centuries prior to the manor’s completion. For example in this depiction of the pomegranate passage one can observe William Morris’s Pomegranate wallpaper, Morris ‘Sussex’ chairs and, on the bookcase, a 17th century or early 18th century Italian maiolica albarello.
All these different elements, including the arts and crafts influence, combined in the taste of the Mander family to create a personalised interior. Theodore Mander, a man of artistic tastes, was himself influenced by the writer John Ruskin, who advocated the importance of handcraftsmanship and looking to the past for inspiration, notions which this house truly exemplifies. Ruskin’s beliefs were embedded in the Aesthetic Movement as prescribed by Oscar Wilde’s lecture regarding ‘The House Beautiful’, with which he toured America and then England, coming to Wolverhampton in 1884.
Late Victorian ideas about interior design were one aspect of what I decided to examine when I recently became part of a group at Wightwick that seeks to develop the story of the house and to improve the visitor experience, by, for example, providing visitors with greater and more specialised knowledge on a variety of different themes.
I chose to investigate the principles and beliefs of the family including their involvement in the temperance movement and their religious beliefs. I am also looking at the notions of Ruskin and Wilde that influenced the ethos and aesthetics of the house. The Manders were educated upper middle-class industrialists and cultured individuals. Theodore Mander, for example, was at one time Secretary of the local School of Art, read Ruskin and Morris, and wished to convey his artistic taste and understanding of design at Wightwick.
I have therefore been rummaging in the archives,examining Theodore Mander’s files, including his diary. This document tells us about his piety and includes examples of sermons that he himself wrote and preached, in English and German. There are entries concerning his extensive travels round Europe whilst studying chemistry and also, rather sweet, was the diary entry pertaining to the first time he met his future wife Flora, whom he describes as a ‘very merry girl’. However, the most exciting discovery I have unearthed so far, was a few pages at the back of a notebook entitled ‘Choice Extracts from Various Authors’ compiled by Theodore. Up until this point I had had no luck in finding any correspondence about his attendance at Wilde’s lecture and I was instead looking for more information relating to the temperance movement when I came across some notes from Wilde’s ‘The House Beautiful’ lecture, given in Wolverhampton, espousing Wilde’s theories on interior decoration which drew heavily on Ruskin and Morris. Theodore memorably records Wilde’s discussion of a wide range of fields, which Wilde refined and changed each time he lectured, including, but not limited to, the use of colour in interiors, and the correct proportions for rooms and childcare.
Here’s a short snippet, jotted down by Theodore:
‘Notes from Lecture on the House Beautiful By Oscar Wilde, Wolverhampton, 10.03.1884
Colouring- Let the mass be of neutral shades, lighted up with bright bits of colour here and there. Fashionable colours are an error. It is as if one should say that B flat is to be the fashionable key of the season in music.’
To conclude, I am very grateful to have the opportunity to be able to peruse the archives and unearth the wealth of knowledge contained at Wightwick. I thoroughly enjoy being there and having the opportunity to help shape the future visitor experience. I have had, and continue to enjoy, many varied experiences, which provide me with skills that will be exceedingly useful in my future career. My History of Art degree and postgraduate study at the University of Birmingham have enhanced my understanding of Wightwick’s collection and its place in the art world; volunteering for the National Trust has elucidated for me the great importance of this organisation and inspired me to continue to haunt the halls of National Trust properties, which edify mine and many other people’s lives.
I highly recommend visiting this exceptional house and its collections, and share in the experience. For more information, regarding Wightwick Manor and Gardens or the National Trust click here.