Charles Paget Wade and the Underthing

I got to spend a few days with Andy and his wife Gaby and their exciting new dog, Iwa. I don’t get to see them as often as I should, but since they’ve now moved rather closer to Castle Langridge we’re going to correct that. And since they’re in the Cotswolds I got to peer at a whole bunch of things. Mostly things built of yellow stone, admittedly. It is a source of never-ending pleasure that despite twenty-three years of conversation we still never run out of things to talk about. There is almost nothing more delightful than spending an afternoon over a pint arguing about what technological innovation you’d take back to Elizabethan England. (This is a harder question than you’d think. Sure, you can take your iPhone back and a solar charger, and it’d be an incredibly powerful computer, but what would they use it for? They can do all the maths that they need; it’s just slower. Maybe you’d build a dynamo and gift them electricity, but where would you get the magnets from? Imagine this interspersed with excellent beer from the Volunteer and you have a flavour of it.)

There were also some Rollright Stones, as guided by Julian Cope’s finest-guidebook-ever The Modern Antiquarian. But that’s not the thing.

The thing is Snowshill Manor. There was a bloke and his name was Charles Paget Wade. Did some painting (at which he was not half bad), did some architecting (also not bad), wrote some poetry. And also inherited a dumper truck full of money by virtue of his family’s sugar plantations in the West Indies. This money he used to assemble an exceedingly diverse collection of Stuff, which you can now go and see by looking around Snowshill. What’s fascinating about this is that he didn’t just amass the Stuff into a big pile and then donate the house to the National Trust as a museum to hold it. Every room in the house was individually curated by him; this room for these objects, that room for those, what he called “an attractive set of rooms pictorially”. There’s some rhyme and some reason — one of the upstairs rooms is full of clanking, rigid, iron bicycles, and another full of suits of samurai armour — but mostly they’re things he just felt fitted together somehow. He’s like Auri from the Kingkiller Chronicles; this room cries out for this thing to be in it. (If you’ve read the first two Kingkiller books but haven’t read The Slow Regard of Silent Things, go and read it and know more of Auri than you currently do.) There’s a room with a few swords, and a clock that doesn’t work, and a folding table, and a box with an enormously ornate lock and a set of lawn bowls, and a cabinet containing a set of spectacles and a picture of his grandmother and a ball carved from ivory inside which is a second ball carved from the same piece of ivory inside which is yet another ball. The rhyme and the reason were all in his head, I think. I like to imagine that sometimes he’d wake up in his strange bedroom with its huge carved crucifix at four in the morning and scurry into the house to carefully carry a blue Japanese vase from the Meridian Room into Zenity and then sit back, quietly satisfied that the cosmic balance was somehow improved. Or to study a lacquered cabinet for an hour and a half and then tentatively shift it an inch to the left, so it sits there just so. So it’s right. I don’t know if the order, the placing, the detail of the collection actually speaks as loudly to anyone as it spoke to him, and it doesn’t matter. You could spend the rest of your life hearing the stories about everything there and never get off the ground floor.

Take that room of samurai armour, for example. One of the remarkable things about the collection (there are so many remarkable things about the collection) is that rather a lot of it is Oriental — Japanese or Chinese, mainly — but Wade never went to China or Japan. A good proportion of the objects came from other stately homes, selling off items after the First World War — whether because none of the family were left, or for financial reasons, or maybe just that the occupants came home and didn’t want it all any more. The armour is a case in point; Wade needed some plumbing done on the house and went off to chat to a plumber’s merchant about it, where he found a box of scrap metal. Since the bloke was the Lord High Emperor of looking for objects that caught his fancy, he had a look through this discarded pile and found in it… about fifteen suits of samurai armour. (A large box, to be sure.) So he asked the merchant what the score was, and was told: oh, those, yeah, take them if you want them.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen to me all that much.

Outside that room, just hanging on the wall, is the door from a carriage; one of the ones with the large wheels, all pulled by horses. Like the cabs that Sherlock Holmes rode in, or that the Queen takes to coronations. It was monogrammed ECC, and had one of those coats of arms where you just know that the family have been around for a while because two different shields have been quartered in it and then it’s been quartered again. After some entirely baseless speculation we discovered that it was owned by Countess Cowper. She married Lord Palmerston; her brother was William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, who was another Prime Minister and had the Australian city named after him; his wife was Lady Caroline Lamb, who infamously described Byron as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”. History is all intertwined around itself.

None of the clocks in the house work. Apparently at one point Wade had a guest over who glanced at a clock and assumed she had plenty of time to catch her train. Of course, she missed it, and on hearing from him that of course the clocks don’t tell the right time, she was not best pleased. Not sure who it was. Virginia Woolf, or someone like that.

There is too much stuff. He can’t possibly have kept it all in his head. You can’t possibly keep it all in, walking around. Visitors ought to be banned from going into more than three or four rooms; by the time you’ve got halfway through it’s just impossible to give each place the attention it deserves. There are hardly any paintings; Wade liked actual things, not drawings or representations. It’s not an art gallery. It’s a craftsmanship gallery; Wade sought out things that were made, that showed beauty or artistry or ingenuity in their construction. Objects, not drawings; stuff that demonstrates human creation at work. The house is like walking around inside his head, I think. (“Sometimes I think the asylum is a head. We’re inside a huge head that dreams us all into being. Perhaps it’s your head, Batman.”)

Next time you’re near Evesham, go visit.

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  • Birmingham.IO responded at twitter.com Stuart Langridge: Charles Paget Wade and the Underthing by @sil buff.ly/2yrPj2j #PlanetBirmingham
  • Andrew Spencer responded at twitter.com This is superb. Thank you.
  • Charles Roper responded at ... (twitter.com)
  • Thomas Meehan responded at ... (twitter.com)
  • Stuart Langridge responded at twitter.com I have just discovered that @snowshillmanor are actually on Twitter; if I'd known that I'd have tagged them directly. Hopefully this will do
  • Snowshill Manor NT responded at twitter.com Love the phrase -" its a craftsmanship gallery"! thanks for this Stuart!
  • Will Cooke responded at ... (plus.google.com)