Behind the door of an old Worcestershire manor, The Lady discoveres a rare and precious collection of unusual artefacts
In the middle of a village in a valley in the heart of the Cotswolds, where gates are painted in tasteful shades of Farrow & Ball, sits Snowshill, a perfect old manor house of creamy stone with leaded windows. But step inside, and you’re in for a big surprise.
In the crepuscular light of the small, panelled rooms is an extraordinary jumble of Chinese furniture and ornaments, Japanese Samurai armour, Venetian cabinets, clothes from the 18th and 19th centuries, together with toys, handmade carts and bicycles from the same period.
Snowshill Manor now belongs to the National Trust and was never lived in by the man who gave it to them – Charles Paget Wade. He inherited a fortune from his family’s sugar plantation in St Kitts and bought the property in 1919, purely to house his collection, which continued to grow until his death in 1956. Wade’s criteria were that things should be handcrafted with a pleasing element of colour and design.
There are no tasteful pairs of fine English furniture here. The word eclectic is rather overused today, but the furnishings can only be described in these terms. When the property was left to the National Trust, Charles Wade specified that nothing should be rearranged.
In the Turquoise Hall, a black lacquer and gold Chinese secretaire, full of oriental curiosities, stands next to a red tortoiseshell Venetian cabinet below a pierced Moroccan lantern. In the next room is a clutter of model boats and tusk drums, with a Victorian silver tea urn to one side. In the attic is a collection of pennyfarthing bicycles and early velocipedes (four-wheel wooden vehicles with pedals in the centre used by postmen). Toys and clothes from the same period are on show in an adjacent room.
Wade’s passion for collecting started as a boy. On Sunday mornings his grandmother allowed him to play with wax angels, a miniature Buddha, a compass and other artefacts in her Chinese cabinet. By all accounts Wade was a loner and not a sporting child. His pleasure was derived from these treasures. ‘He was interested in how things worked and he trained as an architect, designing some of Hampstead Garden Suburb,’ explains Colin Davidson, visitor services manager at Snowshill. Wade was curious and intrepid: ‘I went up obscure yards to old inns, long disused scrap yards, old malting mills and barns,’ he wrote in his diary.
Extraordinarily, 95 per cent of Wade’s oriental and Italian treasures were found in England – he bought one Chinese cabinet in Worcester market for just £3. He was negotiating for one piece of furniture when he spied an open trunk in the garden stuffed with Samurai dress and masks. ‘Take them away,’ implored the wife of the man he was doing business with. (Charles Wade was once arrested in London’s Oxford Street for wearing a suit of armour, but told the police that it was the only way he could carry it.)
Wade did eventually get married, in 1946, to Mary, a clergyman’s daughter (he was 63, she was 44) but the marriage was not happy. They lived in a cottage adjacent to the house with no heating or electricity, described by Wade’s mother as ‘very medieval’. His wife was made to sleep in a Tudor box bed surrounded by religious artefacts – Wade wasn’t particularly devout, but it was in homage to the property that had originally belonged to Winchcombe Abbey. The only cooking facilities were an open fire or a primus stove and the couple had to share an outside loo with all the visitors to the manor. Not surprisingly, his wife preferred to spend her time in St Kitts. When Wade died, she moved to a hotel in Broadway until her death in 1999.
Nequid Pereat (Let Nothing Perish) was Wade’s motto beneath his coat of arms. Snowshill Manor is fascinating, not least because he bought and collected so much everyday stuff that would have otherwise been destroyed, placing it alongside other more exquisite items.
The ‘housework’ in the old manor is relentless, but ordinary dusters could cause damage to the artefacts, so assistants use special brushes made of pony or hog’s hair. Careful conservation is key to preserving the treasures that Charles Wade left to the nation.
Snowshill Manor and Gardens, Snowshill, near Broadway, Worcestershire WR12 7JU, is open April to October: 01386-842814, www.nationaltrust.org.uk
Daily tip from the lady archive
"It is not always she who appears most kindly in her interest who is the safe sharer of sacred (maybe sorrowful) secrets! Charming manners do not always connote sincerity of heart!”The Lady. In Confidence. 4th April, 1918