Painting of Wade by Maurice Codner, 1939
Why are some National Trust Houses heavily trafficked while others are not? I have often puzzled over this question.
A grand house in London that has just been featured in a huge blockbuster film is empty. A smallish manor owned by a relatively unknown eccentric and situated well off the beaten path is packed to the gills.
When I decided to visit Snowshill Manor in the Cotswolds, I had an image of myself noodling through the ephemera and kicking the dust around with a few other like-minded odd-ducks –– I mean, the NT guide described a house, “packed to the rafters with thousands of unusual objects” that were “laid out with creative flair” –– artful hoarding wouldn’t draw crowds, right?
Wrong –– I had to wait an hour to get in because there were so many people. I was shocked, delighted and disappointed all at once. Delighted by what I found inside the house – an absolute treasure of artfully arranged collections –– disappointed because there were so many people it was hard to move around let alone take pictures. At one point I threw my hands up, stashed the camera and decided to enjoy the show, squeezing into small rooms to view all the little details of thousands of pieces, photos be damned. The place is magical and the man who created it was an exceptionally eccentric genius of collection and display.
Painting of Wade by Thomas Roberts, 1910
It seems there are a great many out there who feel a certain affinity to fellow travelers on the Rue Excentrique. The man behind Snowshill Manor was a Class-A, solid gold eccentric. I was completely charmed. As Queen Mary said when she visited Snowshill, “Wade was the most remarkable part of the collection.” Virginia Wolfe called him a necromancer!
Charles Paget Wade was born in 1883. His life trajectory took an unexpected turn when his parents stashed him at his severe Victorian grandmother’s house. As it turned out, she had strict and rather unorthodox ideas about raising Charles –– she did not believe he should play with other children or even alone in a traditional toys-&-athletics sort of way.
Grandmother Spencer’s Cantonese cabinet, NT photo
Yet the austere environment had an unusual bright spot –– a Cantonese cabinet that Wade called a ‘Heavenly Palace of faraway Cathay’ full of ‘old family relics of interest and value’ that his grandmother only opened for him to investigate on Sundays. It inspired him to begin his collecting career when he was just 7. He took to fabricating devilishly well-constructed and creative displays for his collections as well as drawing and sketching up a storm to entertain himself. The odd upbringing forced him into his imagination –– for him, objects were both playmates and playthings. Perhaps the fact that he was denied a normal childhood kept him forever tied to it. Wade confided to the great architect Edwin Lutyens that he “had never grown up".
He didn’t care for school (he later called schools ‘Graveyards of Imagination’ and ‘Factories of Boredom’), but he found he enjoyed building things. He began stopping at a local woodworker’s shop after school and learned how to build and repair –– a hobby that he enjoyed nearly as much as he did collecting interesting objects (often repairing items himself in his workroom at the house). Between 1900 and 1910 he had collected 594 objects. By 1940 it was 5,000 objects, by his death his collection had grown to 22,000 specimens! Given his predilection for construction and reverence for color, line, form and function it was natural that he became an architect and illustrator.
When his father died in 1911, Charles inherited a goodly income from the family’s sugar plantations in St Kitts. He gave up working to devote himself to collecting and puttering. He stashed his collections at his mother’s house during his WWI army service but had it in his mind to procure a permanent home for his much loved objects as soon as his duties permitted.
Snowshill Manor exterior
He saw a Country Life ad for Snowshill Manor while the war was still on and couldn’t get it out of his mind. He ended up buying the ruined but un-updated Snowshill for £3,500 in 1919. He saw it as a perfect frame for his collections.
Exterior of studio
Three years, 28 workmen and a good deal of expense later, the manor was completed but Wade never intended to live there. Instead, Wade lived in a separate Priest House –– saving the Manor House for his collections. He had no desire to modernize –– there was no plumbing or electricity on the property (he allowed a battery powered radio during WWII). He did love to entertain there and proudly shared his marvelous rooms with thousands of visitors every year.
Snowshill was very much done to his personal taste. He hated bare rooms and said he was “miserable in such surroundings and wanted a room full of interesting things.” He certainly got it. In a book called The Collector's Voice: Critical Readings in the Practice of Collecting the authors proffered, “ His theory was that a careful choice and combination of items could provide ‘a harmonious background and a perfect sense of restfulness’. His taste suggests a strongly nostalgic, escapist motivation in his aesthetic; he believed furniture should blend into the background, and that metals should be displayed in a subdued light. Further to this, he disliked rooms with windows in more than one wall and eschewed the use of electricity.”
Wade wrote a book about his life and collections called Days Far Away (which is sadly out of print). From the book we learn he began with English objects but then cast his net to the continent for color “I gather the golds, vermilions and blues of Spain and Italy, the colors of Persia and the Far East. There the three essentials of shape, colour and craftsmanship are attained to the fullest with the added attraction of another world.” He added, "how much more interesting any object becomes with sufficient knowledge to suggest how it was made, where and when, what its purpose was...."
JB PriestleyIn An English Journey, author J.B. Priestley said of the completed vision of Snowshill Manor, “The house itself had a Gothic craziness. There was no sense, though infinite charm, in its assembled oddity of roofs, gables, windows, doorways”. Priestley saw the Manor as “ancient dim paneled rooms, in which there were collections of spinning wheels, sedan chairs, model wagons, weapons, old musical instruments … and blazing lacquer from Peking”. Wade’s workshop was “a set of queer, ramshackle rooms [containing] tools and implements of every kind, coats of arms, skulls, black letter folios, painted saints, colossal tomes of plain song, swords and daggers, wooden platters and I know not what else.” Priestley went on to say of Wade, "He was, in fact, one of the last of a famous company, the eccentric English country gentry, the odd and delightful fellows who have lived just as they pleased, who have built follies, held fantastic beliefs, and laid mad wagers."
Wade’s drawing of his workroom, NT Collection
His collections were terribly unique. He built a model of a whole fishing port called "Wolfs Cove". He collected “records of vanished craftsmanship” and loved tinkering with and repairing his acquisitions. Rooms full of vintage bikes, spinning wheels, toys, globes, weapons, Japanese armor and tools as well as odd furniture and antique clothing were all displayed at Snowshill Manor.
Brian Haughton, who writes about folklore and hauntings (Ann's room has a ghost), described the unusual way the rooms came by their names, "The names of the rooms in the house were chosen by Wade, and usually bear some relation to their contents, decoration, or their position in the house. So there are names like 'Seventh Heaven' on the top floor, 'Meridian' in the centre of the house, 'Dragon' - named after the roaring fire that Wade would usually have burning in what was probably the great fireplace of the medieval hall, and 'Hundred Wheels' containing objects mainly connected with transport. The 'Green Room' contains an incredible collection of twenty-six suits of Japanese Samurai armour, dating from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, gathered from various parts of England between 1940 and 1945. "
Wade’s coat of arms
Japanese Armor Room -- dark and dramatic
Children’s Room with a baby walker in the foreground
Ghostly Anne’s Room where a former inhabitant of the house perished
Chest in Anne's Room
Wade in Cromwellian Garb
Haughton said of Wade, “He was extremely fond of dressing up using old costumes from amongst his vast collection, and visitors to his strange Cotswolds’ manor house, including John Betjeman, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene and J.B. Priestley, were often persuaded to perform amateur dramatics in 'Dragon', one of the rooms in the manor house, or in the garden....” By the time he was done, he had collected over 4000 costume pieces.
Photos of a piece from the Charles Paget Wade Collection from the Historical Costume blog
The Dragon Room
The Dragon Room
The Dragon room was set up for dining. All sorts of cooking implements were displayed but very little cooking was done there. Wade liked the idea of being authentically old-style and his cooks wanted modern conveniences so would cook off-site. I think Wade was more of a ‘eat to live’ rather than a ‘live to eat’ kind of guy. He kept odd hours and would often tinker in his workroom for days at a time, eating as he worked (when he remembered to eat).
Priest House kitchen
Priest House kitchen
Priest House kitchen
A woman named Mrs. Hands made Wade breakfast in the workshop kitchen or Wade make his own coffee and eggs on a spirit lamp served with “large slabs of bread” but Wade seemed to enjoy snacking on guava jam or honey most of all.
Wade’s room in the Priest’s house
When I thought about what to make, something for Mr. Wade’s breakfast seemed the perfect choice. There’s an old Welsh egg dish called Wyau Ynys Mon or Anglesey Eggs made with poached or sliced boiled eggs on mashed potatoes with leeks, and a cheddar-y cheese sauce broiled bubbling and browned over the top –– it fits the bill perfectly –– served with a "slab of bread" as Mr. Wade would have liked it. It is simple, delicious and hearty. I could see myself cuddled in my box-bed on a cold morning enjoying this on my breakfast tray. I would love to live at Snowshill Manor.
"Old am I, so very old,
Here centuries have been.
Mysteries my walls enfold,
None know deeds I have seen."
Charles Paget Wade
The recipe is a mix of a few I’ve seen but mostly from Jane Grigson.
Anglesey Eggs for 2 (4 light portions)
3/4 -1 pound potatoes (about 3-4, I used yukon gold)
2 medium size leeks (white and light green parts only)
2-3 oz butter (depending on how rich you want it to be)
1 heaping T flour
1 c hot milk
4 hard-boiled eggs (or poached eggs)
2 oz plus 2 T cheddar cheese
pinch of nutmeg
pinch of cayenne
1 t of dry mustard
S&P to taste
Boil the potatoes in their jackets, cool a bit and then peel and rice them.
Trim and clean the leeks and slice them. Stew them in a covered pan over low heat with a bit of water and 1 oz butter. When tender, take out a few slices for garnish then crush the rest in their “not abundant’ juices or puree them –– they will have the texture of rich and creamy mayonnaise when pureed.
Make the cheese sauce by melting 1 oz butter and cooking the flour for a minute. Add the milk slowly, stirring all the while. Cook at a low heat for at least 10 minutes, 20 is better. Strain to make smooth. Add the spices and pepper to taste. Set aside, covered.
Turn on broiler.
Add the rest of the butter to the potatoes and leeks and blend. Add salt and pepper to taste. When ready, place this in an ovenproof dish, creating an indentation for the eggs and keep warm (I used individual dishes, a round low casserole would work as well). You can be fancy and pipe them in or press like a pie crust. Add 2 oz of the cheese to the white sauce and stir till dissolved. Check for seasonings and add salt if needed (cheddar can be salty). Slice the eggs into quarters if using hard boiled eggs. Place sliced or poached eggs in the middle of the potatoes in the indentation and pour the cheese sauce over it. Sprinkle the rest of the cheese over the top and broil on high till browned and bubbling. Sprinkle the reserved leeks and herbs like parsley, thyme, marjoram etc. over the top.
Do visit Marie Telling's heroic piece in BUZZFEED about 44 Classic French Dishes to Try Before You Die HERE.There are 3 dishes from Lostpastremembered in the series, so I am pleased as punch!