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.

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