Following a friend’s wedding in the Cotswolds recently, we took the chance to visit the National Trust’s Snowshill Manor, near the lovely village of Broadway in Gloucestershire. The house, which belonged to the fine British eccentric and treasure seeker Charles P. Wade, is a place with a lot of history and a wonderful story.
Charles Wade was born into a wealthy, West Indian plantation owning, Suffolk family in 1883. He enjoyed what he described as an idyllic, perfect childhood, exploring the family estates and perhaps cycling across the flat, evocative countryside of east Anglia.
Charles’s father was called upon to manage the plantation in the West Indies and he took the whole family with him, with one exception. Seven year old Charles was left in England to go to school and live with his granny Spencer.
Granny Spencer was the archetypal Victorian grandmother and Charles’s carefree days of harmless mischief and adventure were over. He was forced to behave himself all week, without friends, robbed of the happy family life he had enjoyed and remembered so fondly in later life. His only diversion became the occasional opportunity to play with an ornament from Granny’s cabinet of curiosities.
This cabinet, full of antiques and strange trinkets, became the one ray of light in the life of this lonely little boy, and in Charles it sparked an obsession that would last his entire life. All of his pocket money went on items of craftmanship and beauty found at flea markets, antique stalls and country houses. Over his life, Charles built up a collection of more than 22,000 items of furniture, clothing, paintings, and many other pieces which reflected his interest in colour, design and good workmanship. His family motto was ‘Let nothing perish’, and he spent his inherited wealth doing just that.
In 1911 Charles, inherited the family wealth and began to consider how he could store his growing collection. It wasn’t until several years later that he came across a notice advertising the auction of Snowshill Manor, complete with surrounding estate and houses. The only problem was that when Charles saw the notice he was sitting amongst the trenches of the Great War battlefields and had no means of attending a Gloucestershire auction. All that he could do was hope that Snowshill stayed available and that he would survive the trenches and live to fulfil his dream.So it was not until 1919 that Charles turned up in the Cotswolds to find the unsold, unloved, uninhabitable Snowshill still up for sale. He bought the whole lot and set about renovating it.
Charles first restored the Manor House and laid out the gardens from 1920 to 1923. The Manor House was not for living in – it housed his staggering collection of antiques, while Charles lived in the small, dark cottage in the garden. Over the 1920s and 30s, Charles would be driven across the country to fairs, markets and country estates selling off the unfashionable family heirlooms. He collected pieces of every description and every nationality – so long as it displayed excellent design and craftmanship Charles would try to find a place for it. As the Snowshill website says, the manor is literally packed to the rafters with thousands of unusual objects – from tiny toys to splendid suits of Samurai armour.
It is very hard to do justice to what lies behind the doors of Snowshill Manor, a Tudor house with a half Georgian appearance. To my untrained eye, the collection was overwhelming and my impression of the collector was that he was a brilliant oddball, a classic British eccentric, and truly unique. However, his collection is too large to catalogue, comes with little explanation of the objects themselves, where they came from or how he got them. For many of the objects, the story of how they came to be in Britain alone is a fantastic story. Almost all of the 22,000 objects were bought in Britain, including the staggering amount of Japanese pieces, including several full sets of Samurai armour. This is the single largest collection of Samurai uniforms outside of Japan, in a small Gloucestershire mansion.
So, suffice to say, this is a wonderful place, an enormous Granny’s cabinet for the grown up Charles to walk through and marvel at the model ships, the armour and weapons, aristocratic portraits, hand made tools and so on and so on. If you’re ever in the area, do yourself a favour – hear a moving story and see a unique collection and a lifetime’s work.