Thursday, May 23, 2024

Snowshill, Gloucestershire

Wolf’s Cove

The other week the Resident Wise Woman and I revisited one of our local Cotswold country houses, Snowshill Manor, a place we had not been to for years. Snowshill, a 16th-century building much altered over the years, is now best known fior the collection it houses, which belonged to the architect-craftsman-artist-collector Charles Paget Wade, who bought the house in 1919. Wade’s collection is so large that it fills every room and spills over every surface. There is one room full of suits of samurai armour, another housing a large collection of musical instruments, one full of weaving equipment and domestic appliances, an attic room containing many bicycles, models of traditional British farm wagons, and perambulators. The theme that unites these apparently random and undoubtedly diverse objects is above all their owner’s passion for craftsmanship in all its forms. Wade would buy broken items and learn how to mend them himself, in the process giving himself a deeper understanding of how they were made. So Snowshill is a three-dimensional portrait of his interests and obsessions. Stepping inside the house, more than any place I know apart perhaps from Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, is like taking a trip inside its owner’s head.

After the frantic plenitude of the house, it’s a relief to step outside into the garden, arranged as a series of courtyards by Wade, taking advice from his friend the great Arts and Crafts architect M. H. Baillie Scott. In a corner of the garden is another Wadeish eccentricity, a model village that he called Wolf’s Cove. Before World War I, Wade lived in Hampstead (he had worked with the architects Parker and Unwin on the garden city at Letchworth and the planning of Hampstead Garden Suburb). While there he had created in his garden one of the earliest outdoor model villages, and when he moved he took its buildings to Snowshill and re-erected them, adding more buildings and turning it into a sea port. Houses cluster around the end of the harbour, straggle up the slope beyond, and there is also a railway and station (invisible in my photograph, it is to the left behind the wall).

J. B. Priestley is his book English Journey (1934) describes visiting the manor and seeing Wolf’s Cove. He calls the village ‘boy’s play on a smashing adult scale, defying all common sense but glorious in its absorption in the exquisitely useless’. Priestley also points out that all the buildings (with the exception of the walls and jetty of the port) are moveable, and are designed to be taken down and put into indoor storage in winter. At the time of Priestley’s visit, Wade was making drawings for a possible castle to overlook the village, but that’s a project that does not seem to have got off the drawing board.

Wade gave up his architectural practice to concentrate on running his house and its eccentric collection, funding his obsessions with a private income, I believe. Making the buildings for his model village must have been a sort of surrogate architecture for him. For modern visitors, leaving the eccentricity of house for the quiet beauty of the garden, it’s one reminder that we have not quite escaped the bizarre magpie world of Charles Paget Wade.

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*Wade’s village has a claim to be the first of all miniature villages. This label is usually given to Bekonscot, near Beaconsfield (begun in the 1920s), however, presumably on the grounds that it has always been in the same location and was always a permanent construction, not one designed to be taken indoors in winter. However, if primacy of the idea is important, Wade should be given credit too.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Cogges, Oxfordshire

Sixty years a queen

The diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897 inspired a host of commemorative items, from plates to trays, medals to jugs, including some jugs made by Doulton of Lambeth emblazoned with the legend, ‘She wrought her country lasting good’. I don’t know how much good Victoria did her country, how much her influence has lasted, but such commemoratives are certainly still highly visible, as a visit to any antiques fair will show.

One can also find Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee commemorated on buildings. Jubilee clocks are still keeping time on some public buildings. There are also ceramic plaques like this one attached to the lychgate to the churchyard at Cogges, telling us that the gate itself was built in Jubilee year. The 1880s and 1890s were a great age of ceramic decoration on buildings – terracotta sunflowers and sprigs of foliage were a favourite motif of builders constructing houses, especially the larger than average houses of well to do streets in the suburbs. A builder could buy standard sunflower or foliage tiles or order bespoke panels bearing house names and insert them into the walls as the courses of bricks went up.

This Jubilee plaque is on a still larger scale. A profile portrait of the monarch, like one from a coin or a postage stamp, is surrounded by a roundel, a band containing her title ‘Empress of India’ and a border naming her other principal domains, from Gibraltar to New Zealand. Lions and crowns fill up the remaining spaces, as if we needed the imperial idea to be emphasised still further.

A number of these plaques survive on buildings in Great Britain and, for all I know, in the countries of what was then the British Empire. They were made, I believe, at Stanley Brothers Brick and Tile Works in Nuneaton. This one on a lychgate would have been seen every Sunday by those going to church. Others, I’m sure were on still more prominent buildings on High Streets in major towns. As we know from recent decades, British people still know how to celebrate a jubilee, but in its memorialisation of empire and dominion, this commemoration belongs to another age.

Friday, May 3, 2024

Shaldon, Devon

Reuse it!

In the list of things that need to be done but which are better put off till tomorrow, book-weeding is near the top. When bookpiles stealthily grow like silent stalagmites on the bedroom floor, it’s an indication that there’s no let-up in the book-buying. My shelves of English architectural history, of English literature, of books about places, music, art, keep growing. And the Resident Wise Woman is adding to the accumulation with her collection of contemporary poetry. Our house is not of infinite size. It’s not even large. So occasionally, I try to go through my shelves, weed out some volumes I think I no longer need, and make room for the recent acquisitions.

The few that make it off the shelves and into cardboard boxes go either to second-hand booksellers or – mostly these days – to charity shops. That way, I feel better about things by telling myself I’m doing some good with these rejected treasures. There has been the odd one – usually an obsessively re-read book that has actually fallen to pieces – that has had to go into the fortnightly recycling collection. But on the whole, if my redundant books eventually reach new homes, that’s a plus as far as I’m concerned. Re-use is better than recycling.

It’s similar with redundant buildings. If a building is no longer needed for its original purpose, there’s often an impulse to demolish it and start again. But often it’s far less wasteful to find a new user who’ll take it on, fill it with activity, and maintain it. Years ago I wrote a trio of books to accompanying the BBC’s series Restoration, about rescuing historic buildings that were empty, abandoned, or at risk. I quickly realised that the key step in this process was working out what each structure’s new use could be.

The buildings in those programmes ranged from large country houses to modest workshops. But none of them was as modest as a telephone kiosk. Red telephone boxes are vanishing from Britain’s streets. They’re out of touch with the times now we all have mobile phones and some of them are hardly used at all.

The telephone box was brilliantly designed by Giles Gilbert Scott. Its curving roof, glazed doors and sides, its sign, and its red paint make it instantly recognisable – it’s almost as powerful symbol of our country as a Union Jack or the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament. The red box is ideal for its intended purpose. It must have seemed that such a tiny structure could do little else if it was ever found to be redundant. And yet the truth has proved very different. Communities that want to save their telephone boxes have found all sorts of uses for them – miniature libraries or art galleries, places to house defibrillators, village information hubs, mini-museums, even planters . I’d need quite a few telephone boxes to house even the books I ought to get rid of. But when I saw this box in Shaldon, with its shelf of books, I was impressed. It’s a charity shop in little, with a bit of this, a bit of that, books included, to raise money for a local good cause. Creative re-use exemplified.* When I passed it a while back, both the idea and its realisation shed some welcome light on a dull and rainy day.

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* With the exception of the clunky font used for the signage, which could be much better.