A site for the study of twentieth century British children’s books, particularly historical fiction, and their relationship to social change
Clive Barnes

A visit to Snowshill Manor: Arts and Crafts and Twentieth Century Children’s Literature

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Snowshill Manor, near Burford, Glos.

Well, that’s a rather too encompassing and ambitious a title for the following rather random thoughts about some connections between the Arts and Crafts movement and some children’s authors in the late twentieth century prompted by a visit to Snowshill Manor, Charles Paget Wade’s house in the Cotswolds now owned by the National Trust.

At first sight Charles  Wade seems to be an archetypal British eccentric: an inveterate collector from a monied background who bought a dilapidated manor house after the First World primarily as a place to house the huge number of apparently random objects that he had already acquired and which he continued to augment until his death in 1956. Actually, as the National Trust guidebook makes clear, he was closely associated with the Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the twentieth century and his collecting was, to an extent, guided by its principles. He was trained as an architect and was, from the evidence of his sketches and paintings on display at Snowshill, an accomplished draughtsman and artist. However, most of his time after his move to Snowshill seems to have been spent in augmenting and organising his collection, repairing and restoring many of his acquisitions and constructing models of his own, including an entire model village which he erected in his garden.

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Model village in storage waiting to be re-erected in the garden: a home for Mary Norton’s Borrowers?

Although visited by a number of literary luminaries in his lifetime, among them Virginia Woolf, J.B.Priestley and John Betjeman, he seems to have had no direct connections with any writers of fiction for children. However, he did have an interest in childhood. Each of the Manor’s rooms was given a name, a colour scheme and featured a range of artefacts that Wade felt belonged together, although sometimes the associations may not be immediately obvious. The room devoted to childhood objects – nursery furniture and toys – he named “Seventh Heaven”, a state “only to be attained in childhood, before schools and schoolmasters have been able to destroy the greatest of all treasures, imagination.” And this attitude, the coupling of imagination with childhood and setting it against formal education, clearly connects him with many children’s writers. His distrust of didacticism is reflected in the provision of almost no information about specific objects in his collection. None of them are labelled, resisting the impression of a museum or archive, although it seems clear that the interest of many of them was at least partly to do with their age or exotic origin.

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From the Music Room: Seraphim

Given Wade’s explicit dislike of didacticism it is a little ironic that the strongest direct connection of his collection with a classic work for children is a series of non- fiction books. Wade was trained as an architect, and may have rubbed shoulders with C.H.B. Quennell when they were both working, although in different practices, on the design and building of Hampstead Garden Suburb before the First World War. The Quennells began the publication of their series of histories of everyday things in 1917, just before Wade bought the Manor, and many of Wade’s treasures are, indeed, everyday things from the past. There is a room of musical instruments and a collection of bicycles, for instance. Alongside the bicycles, on wall shelves, there is a specially commissioned set of models of regional farm carts which could well have figured in a later Quennell volume. And, through the Quennells, Snowshill Manor connects to the work of Cynthia Harnett (see previous blog).

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A few of the hundred wheels in the Snowshill roof space

The strongest association with a writer of children’s fiction, however, is with Lucy Boston, the owner of a manor house on the other side of England. Boston, too, had restored her house according to Arts and Crafts principles. If she couldn’t afford to fill her house with interesting objects like Wade, her Green Knowe books show the same fascination with old and exotic artefacts; and, like Wade, she regarded her gardens as an integral part of the Manor’s identity. She, too, identified imagination with childhood and, most strikingly, both she and Wade resisted the comforts provided by twentieth century technology, preferring open fires and candle light to central   heating and electricity.

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More wheels: spinning and weaving paraphenalia in Top Gallant

Wade did not live in the Manor itself but in a former bake house in the garden. He had a living room, a bathroom, a bedroom, where he slept in a Tudor box-bed, and a workshop, where he seems to have spent most of his time. His living room is described as a kitchen, probably because of its large open fire and a number of kitchen utensils and cooking aids on display, including spit roasting cages, but there was apparently no cooking done there or anywhere in the Manor. His housekeeper prepared his breakfast in the workshop and brought in any other meals. Water was pumped from a spring and used to supply only the bathroom in Wade’s living quarters. There was a single “thunderbox” toilet in the garden. The only exception to his antipathy to modern conveniences was a battery charged radio which he tolerated for the sake of news broadcasts. While Wade took his antipathy to modern technology and the mass produced to extremes, and his eclectic enthusiasm for every kind of craftsmanship is simply overwhelming, the atmosphere at Snowshill recalls that of Boston’s Green Knowe. This is particularly in the way that Wade set himself apart from the domestic lives of most of his contemporaries, just as Mrs Oldknow does in the Green Knowe stories; and he, too, lived alone for much of his life, marrying in 1946 when he was 63.

Snowshill Manor is a fascinating place, even if, unlike me, your mind doesn’t immediately make connections with children’s books. It shows an unbridled aspect of Arts and Crafts enthusiasm for the past that you don’t find at any other Arts and Crafts home: for instance, William Morris’s Kelmscott Manor to the southeast of Snowshill. Snowshill has no direct significance in the history of children’s literature but in the connections it does make it reminds us of how children’s books have been shaped by wider social and cultural developments: in the case of Boston and Harnett, influences that were apparent only half a century after the heyday of the Arts and Crafts movement.