Magazine article The Spectator

Heritage at Home with the Pre-Raphaelites

Magazine article The Spectator

Heritage at Home with the Pre-Raphaelites

Article excerpt

Wightwick Manor and Gardens, Wolverhampton Andrew Lloyd Webber cried when he first came to Wightwick Manor, and standing in the Great Parlour of this magnificent Victorian villa you can see what moved him to tears of joy. Lloyd Webber loves the PreRaphaelites (he's always had the common touch) and Wightwick is a living monument to the one artistic movement that England can truly call its own. There's William Morris wallpaper on the walls and Charles Kempe stained glass in the windows - and beneath the minstrels' gallery is Edward BurneJones's 'Love Among The Ruins' (which has this month travelled to London for the biggest Pre-Raphaelite exhibition since the 1980s).

Tate Britain's Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (on until 13 January) promises to be that rare thing, a blockbuster of a show devoted to an entirely English school of artists. Still frequently dismissed by smart sophisticates as sentimental chocolate box, the Pre-Raphaelites have actually aged far better than the modernist painters who usurped them. Their art still feels fresh and vital, and like all the best artworks you don't need to be an expert to enjoy them. The stories behind these pictures reward a lifetime's study, but above all, unlike so much modern art, they're primarily things of beauty.

The Tate's show will introduce these marvels to a new generation of enthusiasts, and remind the rest of us that the Victorian era was an age of grand passions, not just dowdy prudes.

But the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood didn't really make art for museums. More than any other movement, they painted pictures for domestic settings, and at Wightwick Manor you can see their artworks in the round, in harmony with the splendid decor that surrounds them. The first time this art made complete sense to me was when I saw it here, in situ. Naturally, it'll be a rare treat to see so many Pre-Raphaelites under one roof at the Tate, but the best place to see the Pre-Raphaelites as the Pre-Raphaelites themselves intended is here at Wightwick, just outside Wolverhampton, of all places.

Wightwick Manor was built in 1887 by Theodore Mander, a prosperous paint manufacturer. Inspired by a lecture on household aesthetics by Oscar Wilde, he furnished his new home from top to bottom from the showroom of Morris & Co. 'Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful, ' was William Morris's maxim. Wightwick was the best of both. Like the Pre-Raphaelite paintings on its walls, the building is both traditional and modern. The faux-medieval fixtures and fittings hide proper plumbing and central heating. The radiators are cunningly concealed behind hand-tooled wooden panelling. 'Love Among The Ruins' was illuminated by newfangled electric chandeliers (or electroilers, to give them their proper title). And though Burne-Jones's melancholy masterpiece is the one thing missing from the house this autumn, there are hundreds of Pre-Raphaelite treasures here, hidden away on the green edge of the Black Country.

Theodore left Wightwick to his eldest son, the Liberal MP Geoffrey Mander, and Geoffrey's second wife, Rosalie Glynn Grylls, transformed their home into an ad-hoc gallery. A prolific biographer of the Pre-Raphaelites, at a time when they'd fallen right out of fashion, she was also a shrewd collector of their work, snapping up a Millais selfportrait for £15, among (many) other things.

Sir Geoffrey gave their house to the National Trust in 1937, but the family carried on living here, and though Geoffrey died in 1962 and Rosalie in 1988, it still feels like a family home (rather than a stately home) today. …

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