Memory Palace: Snowshill Manor And The Mind Of Charles Paget Wade

Snowshill Manor seems, at first glance, to be just another one of those National Trust sites that attract coach parties, couples of a certain age and bored families looking for a bit of culture before the kids drag them off to the play farm up the lane. It’s a rambling sixteenth-century country house, set in attractive gardens. Pretty, but pretty unremarkable.

Or it would be, were it not for the gentleman that owned it through a chunk of the twentieth century–artist, artisan and obsessive collector Charles Paget Wade. Scion of a family made rich through sugar estates in the West Indies, he bought the Manor House after serving time in the trenches during World War One.

He was at that point already a keen curator of a collection with the broadest remit possible–anything that caught his eyes as having artistic merit or exhibiting a certain level of craftsmanship in its creation.

Wade refitted the Manor in an Arts and Crafts style, a discipline in which he was skilled and fluent. He set about turning Snowshill Manor into the showcase for his obsessions, creating themed rooms filled to the eaves with his finds.

This is what makes the place so fascinating. Wade was an artist, and believed in drama, mood and excitement. When he handed over care of the place to the National Trust, he insisted that they do as little as possible to the interior, to preserve the effect he had worked so assiduously to create.

Snowshill Manor is not your typical NT experience, then. There are no labels, little in the way of explanation as to why the rooms are the way they are. Volunteers are on hand if needs be, but for the most part you are left alone to wander… and wonder.

As you move from room to room, the feeling becomes ever more disorientating and claustrophobic. There is reason and design to the collection, but the sheer weight of visual load becomes ever more difficult to bear. There are 22,000 objects collected in the 22 rooms of the Manor. There is a room dedicated to musical instruments. One to bicycles, particularly boneshakers and penny farthings. There is a room full of samurai armour.

The collection is so huge that Wade was forced to move out, relocating to the adjoining Priest’s House. I’d love to say that it offers a respite to the onslaught. If anything, it’s even more deranged. Here is Wade’s bedroom. Imagine waking up every morning to this.

It’s impossible to take everything in. You begin to hallucinate, as the space reconfigures around you, your perception rewriting with every new burst of stimuli. I have never felt so strongly the impression of being watched, of being gently guided towards a place that I didn’t necessarily want to go. Some of the rooms were roped off. The official story was that there were not enough volunteers that day. I feel more that they couldn’t have people wandering in there without some form of protection.

Wade was without any argument a man that understood the theatre of his collection, and there’s a performance at play. You’re sent on a labyrinthine route around the house, traversing a maze that becomes a jigsaw puzzle that becomes, ultimately, a trip through the corridors of Wade’s own head.

Or is Wade wandering through yours? There’s a strong feeling that the trickster left more of himself in Swanshill Manor than the National Trust is letting on. Is the place haunted? Hard to say. Would I care to spend a night here alone? You couldn’t pay me enough.

Charles Paget Wade reveals himself, briefly.
Charles Paget Wade reveals himself, briefly.

I make the place sound like the work of a isolated madman, yet Wade was personable and popular. He was visited by J.B. Priestley, Virginia Woolf and even royalty–Queen Mary stepped over the threshold. I can understand why artists would be charmed and amused by the sheer volume of the place. But there’s also a sense of relief when you find one last turn finally spits you out into the gardens, and you can feel the horizon open up again, and you realise how much the walls and ceilings have been closing in around you.

Snowshill Manor is a remarkable place, something close to a nightmare tucked into a crook of road close to some of the Cotswold’s prettiest towns and villages. Un-nerving and energising in equal measure, it’s a house possessed (and I don’t use that word lightly, Readership) with its own very particular character. I recommend a visit. Make sure you bring friends.

Snowshill Manor is open for most of the year. For more, check the NT site: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/snowshill-manor-and-garden

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The Best Of 2014

Who does a best of the year show before the year’s up? Not us, hombre! We’ve made sure 2014 is good and dead before we drop our verdict.

Join Rob and Clive. with Speakeasy playmates Graham Williams, Keith Eyles, Chris Rogers, Simon Aitken, Neil Myers, Dominic Wade and Stuart Wright in our epic exploration of the art and events that made 2014 the fourteenth year of the 21st century.

Settle in. This is gonna be a long trip.

Download the podcast here (right click)

Hit The North

The Northumberland Coast. Border country. North of here, and you're dealing with rebellious Scots. It is a place where the air and light are pure, where the skies are a riot of stars at night. The people are warm and generous. The food has the tang of the sea air, and the richness of the fertile land from which it has been harvested. And the sights… well, I'll let you judge for yourselves.

Seahouses harbour, Northumberland
On watch, Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland
The Keep, Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland

 
Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland

 

Andrew Burton, Light Vessel, Cragside, Northumberland.

 

Imogen Cloët, Illumine, The Dinig Room, Cragside House, Northumberland

 

Imogen Cloët, Illumine (detail), The Dining Room, Cragside House, Northumberland
Green Man, Cragside, Northumberland

 

Cragside Through The Trees
Owl Spirit, Cragside, Northumberland
Bridge, Berwick, Northumberland

 

The King In The North, Cragside, Northumberland

We are in The North, and in this point in proceedings, I don't wanna go back.

 

Bruges: Art, Architecture And Mortality

Bruges is a curious town. It's almost a bubble: a city that's also a World Heritage Site, a place that is home to hundreds of thousands of people, yet contains more functional medieval buildings per square foot than nearly any other urban centre on the planet. Ringed by a canal and a four-lane highway, Bruges is a place out of time, and one that embraces that most modern of money-making activities: tourism.

It is, without a doubt, an astonishingly pretty town. Centred on the town square, the Markt, Bruges is stuffed with ancient churches, beautiful statuary, imposing public buildings and many, many low-ceilinged dim little bars. Everywhere's walkable or, if you like, it's even quicker to whizz around on a bike. The canals that cut through the city are well worth a boat tour explore, giving you a different perspective on a place that offers new camera-fodder with every corner. There are many bridges but one, overlooking a weeping willow, is one of the most photographed sites in Europe. Cars are tolerated but, in the civilised fashion of most towns in the Low Countries, they're viewed as second-class citizens: on the narrow, winding streets of Bruges, the motor car is a liability.

 

The town is almost an gallery in itself, a lasting tribute to the explosion of artistic invention that came out of Belgium and Holland in the 14th and 15th centuries. The work of the Flemish Primitives and the sacred art that came before it is celebrated in the Groeninge Museum, which houses a wealth of local masterpieces. Medieval art has always been a bit of a slog for me, to be honest: shonky anatomy, static, lifelike poses and occasionally shocking bursts of violence. The Death Of Marcus Lucinius Crassus by Lancellot Blondeel is a sweetly rendered pastoral scene with… hang on, what's that in the corner? Ah, there's Crassus, tied to a rough framework of branches, having hot lead poured into his screaming maw. The surrealists at the end of the show are more to my tastes, with pride of place going to a Magritte. His calm, dry wit is a welcome tonic to the shrieking gilt-caked lunacy of the Flemish masters.

A ticket to the Groeninge Museum also gets you into the Arentshaus, and I can't recommend this highly enough. Home to works by Frank Brangwyn, a member of the Arts And Crafts movement in the UK who studied under William Morris, I instantly felt at home. His etchings, prints and linocuts have a fluid, joyful muscularity that manages to blend a sympathy with the human condition with a celebration of the everyday achievements of the working man. As a comics fan, I was reminded of Joe Kubert and Barry Windsor-Smith. As an art-lover, I was brought almost to tears by his astonishing series of lithographs depicting the passion and crucifiction of Christ. A must-see, to my mind. Also visit the garden, which contains four statues of the Horsemen Of The Apocalypse. Armoured, insectile and terrifying, they're part Terminator, part Dark Judge, all mean.

 

A five minute walk brings you to The Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church Of Our Lady), which houses a Michelangelo Mother And Child in marble. Her calm serenity is breath-taking, and seems a perfect fit in a building that, while imposing, serves as an engine of faith to the Roman Catholic community that use it on a daily basis. There's nothing uppity about Michelangelo's Madonna. She and her child are at peace with the world.

 

 

Modern art gets more of a showing than you might expect in an old town like Bruges. The old St. John's Hospital, next door to the Church Of Our Lady, has a permanent exhibition of Picasso and his contemporaries (featuring, at the time of writing, a showing of Andy Warhols). There's a Dali museum on the Markt, and a cluster of sharp-edged modern statues on t'Zand, to the west of the centre. This is also home to the new Concert Hall and, while we were visiting, a big screen showing Belgium's first World Cup match. The big square was full to bursting with football fans in black, red and yellow, draped in flags and wearing foam afros. An example, perhaps, of an art happening for and by the people.

I haven't mentioned comics yet. How silly of me. The Belgians love their comics–how could they not in the birthpace of the sainted Hèrge? On this visit we sadly didn't make it to Brussels, which wears its love of the Ninth Art firmly on its sleeve, to the point of hosting a Museum Of Comics History. But Bruges has its own little corner of comics nirvana; De Striep, on Kaeterinastrass. On the outside it looks a little underwhelming, but once inside the place opens up like a puzzlebox. There's a gigantic range of bande desineé in Belgian, French and yes, even English. Upstairs houses a great range of prints and artbooks, and the secondhand shelves at the back are a treasure-trove of goodies. If you're a comic fan, you owe it to yourself to visit and support De Striep. I certainly found it tough to drag myself away.

 

As I said at the start, Bruges is a curious place. It's easy to buy chocolate, yet surprisingly tough to get a pint of milk. The bars are full every night, yet there's no real sign of trouble even late at night. If anything, the streets are eerily quiet after hours. Apart from one sanctioned underpass on the way to the train station, there's no graffiti or street art to be seen. Possibly the odd sticker on a lamp-post. It's very clean and very friendly. You do get the feeling that there's an element of theme park about the whole place, particularly at weekends when coach parties and school trips descend and the streets clog.

Nevertheless, it's a fun place to visit, with plenty to see and admire. It's perfect for a long weekend, and very romantic. Just make sure to leave room in your luggage for the chocs and beer that you'll need to bring back with you.

 

TLC has posted an evocative Flickr set of our travels: check it out.