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Pre-Raphaelite Madness and Other Things

Updated: Nov 15

I’m picking up the tale where I left off last time. To set the scene, we tune in to Kenilworth, where we are taking care of the gorgeous-but-slightly-neurotic Burmese cat, Terry. (John and Andrea came and spirited Minou away, so we were deprived of her delightful company for the remainder of the sit.)

By now my appetite was whetted for Pre-Raphaelite delights! We struck out for Wightwick Manor (pronounced "Wittick"), a property under the care of the National Trust since 1937. It is said to be a rare surviving example of a house built and furnished under the influence of the Aesthetic movement and the Arts and Crafts movement. Ooh-la-la!

In 1999, the director of the National Trust described it as:

the most complete example of late nineteenth-century artistic taste ... one of the two or three places in the world you must visit if you are interested in William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement.

It has also been observed that, "in its way, [it is] one of the wonders of the world.”

The following 4:20 YouTube clip offers an introduction and helpful overview of the home: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Azo3SjdtZgg

Wightwick was built by Theodore Mander, a member of a family of successful 19th-century industrialists in the area. Theodore took copious notes at a local lecture that was given in 1884 by Oscar Wilde on the “House Beautiful,” who quoted William Morris:

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

Inspired, the homeowners decorated their interiors with designs by William Morris and his Arts and Crafts contemporaries. Interestingly, however, their Pre-Raphaelite collection was mostly assembled after the house was donated to the National Trust.

The design of the house looks like something from five centuries ago rather than a Victorian home less than 100 years old. Apparently the house was intended to feel quirky and give the impression it was an older house that evolved over time, enhanced by the individual personal touches of a family's idiosyncrasies.

Theodore’s son and heir persuaded the National Trust to accept the house in 1937, despite its being only 50 years old. Then he and his wife became live-in curators, opening the house to the public and expanding its inventory—in particular by acquiring a notable collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Most thrilling is that Wightwick has the work of 13 professional female artists on permanent public display, some of them nicknamed “the Pre-Raphaeladies.”

Descendants of the family still retain a private apartment on the upper level (unfortunately we were not allowed to see that area).

It ain’t the Birmingham Museum (see last week’s newsletter about my disappointment there), but this estate has Pre-Raphaelites in spades! The collection boasts over 70 works by Rossetti; 50 by Burne-Jones; 23 by Evelyn De Morgan, and 20 by Millais. They also have works by oft-overlooked Pre-Raphaelites, including Lizzy Siddal, Lucy Maddox Brown, and Simeon Solomon.

All of the soft furnishings, curtains, and wallpaper were acquired from the William Morris Company via either shop or catalog.

A cozy seating area inside the Great Hall appealed to me greatly.

During his 1884 lecture, Oscar Wilde described how

Most modern windows are much too large and glaring, the small, old windows just let in light enough, if you have big windows, let a portion of them be filled with stained glass.

The homeowners followed his guidance to the letter, inserting charming little bits of stained glass in the windows (many of them by Charles Kempe), and they were swoonworthy. I was drawn to these window roundels that were designed by Edward Burne-Jones featuring the visage of Homer on the left and Chaucer on the right.

An original page from The Kelmscott Chaucer was on display, which we were obliged to photograph Robin beside, given his ongoing love affair with Chaucer.

Upstairs, we stumbled over another giant tapestry. Except it’s not a tapestry! It’s a huge wool embroidery showing the "Three Graces" dancing together. It’s so wide we can’t squeeze it all into a single picture.

It turns out this piece won top prize for embroidery and fixed decoration in houses when it was shown at an exhibition in 1908.

Directly behind the house are additional buildings that were converted into a café, gift shop, and bookstore. One building, called the Malthouse Gallery, doubles as an art center.

The current exhibition on display is titled “Look Beneath the Lustre,” and celebrates the work of Evelyn and William de Morgan, a husband and wife pair of artists.

Evelyn was discouraged from becoming an artist, but was fortunate to have an uncle who supported her aspirations and helped ensure she got the training she needed. William likewise was discouraged, but he got bored attending the Royal Academy of Art and quit to join his friends William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones in designing stained glass and eventually ceramics. The house features many items of their artwork, and this special exhibition showcased their talents.

The work below, painted by Evelyn in 1916, is titled “Moonbeams Dipping into the Sea.” I love the gentle pastel colors and femininity it exudes. It’s possible Evelyn de Morgan could become my favorite Pre-Raphaelady.

Several works in the gallery are on loan from the V&A, and they are exquisite.

Both husband and wife produced glassware and ceramic tiles.

Robin was taken with this tilework, designed by William upon winning a commission from the P&O Steam Navigation Company to tile parts of 12 new passenger liners, adding to the opulence and glamor of first class travel during the Victorian era.

The scenes show imaginary landscapes that passengers might have seen while traveling, and they were charming.

We only had two hours to get through the manor, so we were a bit rushed. I would love to go through it again with a tour guide (and the chance to see upstairs!). It reminded me somewhat of the Barnes Museum in Philadelphia (before it became part of the Philadelphia Art Museum), with all of the artwork arranged in a domestic atmosphere rather than a sterile museum gallery with labels displayed alongside each work.

This delightful immersion in a Pre-Raphaelite-studded Arts & Crafts environment only served to whet our appetites for more! We resolved to return to Birmingham in order to visit the Barber Institute of Fine Arts on the campus of the University of Birmingham since BMAG said we could see Pre-Raphaelites there while theirs were in storage. (It was unclear whether they had loaned them to the Barber Institute while they were closed for repairs or what.)

The building that houses the Barber Institute is an Art Deco building that was opened in 1939 by Queen Mary. (Did I ever tell you I was a tour guide for three months on the RMS Queen Mary in Long Beach back in 1979?!)

Anyway, this was the first building ever purpose-built for the study of art history in the UK, so our curiosity was piqued. I would show you a picture of the exterior, but my camera failed to focus and the picture is impossibly fuzzy (sigh).

It turns out their mascot is a rhinoceros named “Miss Clara,” and she’s actually a rock star in her own right. Apparently a Dutch sea captain brought a rhinoceros to the Netherlands in 1741 and toured her extensively across Europe. As the first example to be seen in Europe since 1579, she caused a sensation!

Images of Miss Clara were printed, painted, modeled in ceramics, sculpted in marble, and fashioned from bronze (like this one).

We had a fantastic time here. The museum isn’t terribly large, but it was like paging through the art world’s Greatest Hits, starting with antiquities and moving forward in time. We gazed at works by Botticelli, Rubens, Van Dyck, Poussin, and Rubens, which progressed to van Gogh, Monet, Rodin, Degas, Gaugin, Gainsborough, Whistler, and Turner. We also viewed Beardsley and Gainsborough, followed by Odilon Redon, André Derain, Fernand Léger, and René Magritte. All delicious, right?!

Guess how many Pre-Raphaelites were on display. G’wan, guess!

There were two… and only the Rossetti is worth sharing here.

The painting’s title is “The Blue Bower,” and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s mistress was its model when it was painted in 1865.

I desperately wanted to complain about the dearth of Pre-Raphaelites based on that recommendation by BMAG, but honestly, we enjoyed the museum so much that it didn’t really bother us by the end.

Plus there was a bonus: they were holding a special exhibition of Brueghel, which is one of Robin’s favorite Old Masters.

They didn’t allow photography inside this exhibition, so you’ll simply have to take my word that it was charming (albeit rather small). But overall, I must say that our time spent at the Barber Institute was most satisfying.

I had some commitments the next day that kept me inside so I sent Robin off to the legendary Bletchley Park all by himself, a necessary pilgrimage for an IT aficionado.

His report of that trip can be found on his blog at the following link: http://robinwileytraining.com/stories/bletchley-park

The day following was my last chance to squeak in any sightseeing, so I made the most of it. I still had a bee in my bonnet for Pre-Raphaelites, so I dragged Robin back into Birmingham, paid that £8 smog fee again, and scampered off to visit a couple of churches featuring Pre-Raphaelite stained glass windows.

Our first destination was St. Mary the Virgin in Acocks Green. Its foundation stone was laid in October 1864.

Built in a Gothic Revival style, the church has a typical arrangement of nave, chancel, and sanctuary, and is conventionally oriented with its altar towards the east.

The unexpectedly ornate and elaborate reredos is carved from alabaster and was installed in 1903.

…But of course the reason we were visiting was to see this beautiful stained glass window made from a design by Edward Burne-Jones. It is lovely, although it doesn’t hold a candle to the remarkable window by him in the rear of Birmingham Cathedral. However, an amazing tale was shared about it.

A bomb crashed through the church roof in December 1940 and exploded, blowing out the east window and all the other stained glass in the church, along with many of the decorations in the chancel, leaving a large hole in the floor. As it happened, the east window glass fragments landed on the grass in the churchyard and were mostly intact, so Reverend Philip Kelly called for parishioners to bring buckets, and together they collected the pieces.

These buckets were placed in a horse-drawn cart and transported 20 miles north to Lichfield Cathedral, where they were deposited in the crypt for safekeeping.

After the war was over, the pieces were carefully reassembled and the window reinstalled. Miraculously, all the pieces were recovered except for a small triangular piece near the foot of an angel. The story goes that this 1 piece went missing (was possibly stolen), and it was never found. A piece of plain glass was inserted in its place.

But the story doesn’t end there! In the early 21st century, a gardener working in the churchyard found the missing shard of glass hiding in the grass, and it’s now kept in a drawer in the vestry. One of the church wardens retrieved it for us to look at.

I think they should get a small display box and mount it prominently in the church somewhere, alongside a placard telling its remarkable story.

The bomb damage inflicted on one column still remains, a stark reminder of that tragic period of history.

We felt subdued as we departed this church, preoccupied by thoughts about the destruction and damage left in the wake of a world war.

Still, we pressed onward to view the final church on our list: St. Martin in the Bullring.

Isn’t that an interesting name? The most ancient of Birmingham's churches, this was the original parish church of Birmingham, and it stands near the well-known Bullring shopping center.

The present Victorian church was built in 1873 on the site of a 13th-century predecessor.

This side entry gives you an idea of the gorgeous carvings and gargoyles that are found studding the exterior of this building. I was enchanted by many of them.

The church interior features an open timber roof with large carvings of angels, and the lovely stained glass window behind the altar is a recreation of the original window that was destroyed during WWII.

The carved reredos beneath the window is an alabaster sculpture depicting scenes from the end of Christ’s life: the last supper, the entry into Jerusalem, the cleansing of the temple, the agony in Gethsemane, and the kiss of betrayal. It is a remarkable work.

But, once again, we were here for the Pre-Raphaelite window, which is found in the South Transept. It too was designed by Burne-Jones and manufactured by William Morris. Installed in 1877, it is one of the earliest examples of the work of these Pre-Raphaelite masters.

The lower panes represent the annunciation, the coming of the magi, the crucifixion, and the Lord’s burial. Above them are Old Testament figures of Moses, Elijah, Melchizedek, David, and Solomon. At the top in the center stands Christ with the four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Like St. Mary’s, this window also has a remarkable story to tell. On April 10, 1941, the church council decided, in an extraordinary lapse, that if it were destroyed it could be replaced. The Bishop of Birmingham, Dr. William Barnes, became angry with the church for not working to protect its treasures. He was so annoyed that he ordered them to preserve it.

The window was promptly removed, carefully packed into boxes, and laid in the south porch, ready to be transported and safely stored in the cellars of the College of Arts and Crafts. That same night, bombs fell, destroying every other window in the church—meaning it survived the blitz by a matter of hours. Can you believe it?

After exploring the church, we wandered around the “bullring” a bit and explored various stalls hawking their goods. Then it was time to head for home so we could clean and make the home sparkle before the owners returned.

It was heartbreaking to say goodbye to Terry… we really wanted to wave a magic wand and make all his anxiety vanish forever. We hope the love and attention we lavished on him went some way toward comforting him and helping him to feel safe once more.

I confess! We were sorely tempted to catnap him and bring him with us. And it seemed like he wanted to go with us too.

What we do know is that we must have done a few things right, because John and Andrea left us a sterling review:

I continue to hold Terry in my heart, all the while nursing a sentimental hope that we may get to care for him (and possibly Minou) again someday.

Next week I’ll tell you about our new location! (New location, new adventures, I say.)

warmly, -Dr. Vicky Jo

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