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The romantic rulebreakers at Wightwick Manor

The interior of Wightwick Manor, West Midlands, featuring a superb collection of William Morris fabrics and wallpapers and Pre-Raphaelite paintings alongside de Morgan tiles
See Pre-Raphaelite paintings alongside de Morgan ceramics and William Morris fabrics and wallpapers | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Wightwick Manor celebrates the art and creativity of romantic rulebreakers working in the mid to late 1800s. When you visit you can see the influence and talent of such people as Christina Rosetti, May Morris, Evelyn De Morgan, Simeon Solomon and Oscar Wilde. Find out more about them and their influence on the design and decoration at Wightwick.

The Manders at Wightwick

The design and décor at Wightwick Manor was created by two generations of the Mander family. Theodore and Flora Mander, who had the house designed in an ‘Old English’ style by architect Edward Ould and built 1887-1893. And their son, Geoffrey Mander, who inherited Wightwick in 1904 and alongside his first wife, Florence, and second wife, Rosalie, filled the house with beautiful things.

From the 1870s the Manders were vocal supporters of women’s suffrage; held Suffragist meetings at their home; fought in parliament for women’s rights, especially for female domestic servants; and collected the work of 11 professional female artists. They were influenced by and supported the work of the romantic rulebreakers of the time who were often working for gender equality and fighting prejudice through their artistic endeavours.

The home the Manders created at Wightwick followed the principles of the Aesthetic Movement and was filled with art and objects associated with William Morris, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts movement. They had a passion for this art and for telling the stories of the artists.

Oscar Wilde

On 10 March 1884, in the audience of the Free Library Lecture Hall in Wolverhampton, Theodore Mander sat taking notes. The lecturer, Oscar Wilde, was the leader of the new Aesthetic Movement, a movement he described as a principle and not a style.

Theodore listened while Wilde spoke about this movement which encompassed education, art, furniture, fashion, architecture, literature and many other aspects of expression. He made notes about colours, textures, materials and children’s education.

'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.’

- Oscar Wilde, in his ‘The House Beautiful’ lecture, 1884

‘The house beautiful’

In 1887, three years after attending Wilde’s lecture, Theodore was building Wightwick Manor inspired by what he’d heard, and we can see the principles of the Aesthetic Movement within the interiors he chose.

The visitor staircase at Wightwick Manor, West Midlands, featuring Indian rush-work below the dado rail and William Morris' Willow Bough pattern wallpaper above
Wilde's lecture on Aestheticism can be seen to influence the decoration choices | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

‘You will want a joyous paper on the wall, full of flowers and pleasing designs, but the dado should not be of paper but either of wood or some beautiful Japanese mattings.’

- Oscar Wilde, in his lecture on Aestheticism, 1884

For example, the visitor staircase at Wightwick features Indian rush-work below the dado rail and William Morris’ Willow Bough pattern wallpaper above. Stained glass can be seen in lots of the windows at Wightwick, many designed by pre-eminent Victorian glass designer Charles Kempe, such as those in the Drawing Room.

A man condemned

In 1895, two years after the building work had finished at Wightwick, and over ten years since Wilde gave ‘The House Beautiful’ lecture which inspired the Manor, Wilde was on trial because of his sexuality.

Wilde was charged for committing acts of ‘gross indecency’ with other men and sentenced to two years of hard labour under the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885). This act made all gay activity between men, even in private, a criminal offence. These charges effected so many in the period the act became known as ‘The Blackmailer’s Charter’.

After his imprisonment, Wilde never saw his wife or sons again. His time in jail irrevocably effected his health and lead to his death a few years later at the age of 46.

As a member of the LGBTQ community Wilde endured prejudice, oppression and the loss of his freedom. Wightwick Manor is in part a legacy of visionaries like Oscar Wilde, a place where we can both remember the hardships he faced but also enjoy the physical manifestation of his ideas.

Simeon Solomon

As a gay, Jewish artist who suffered with mental health problems he faced much controversy. In the Honeysuckle Room at Wightwick you can see a collection of his drawings, created during the 1870s – 90s. Behind these androgynous drawings are Simeon’s story of persecution and perseverance and how the prejudice he faced affected his career.

The Honeysuckle Room at Wightwick Manor, West Midlands, featuring art by Simeon Solomon and Evelyn De Morgan
Honeysuckle Room featuring art by Simeon Solomon and Evelyn De Morgan | © National Trust / John Pittwood

Christina Rosetti

Christina Rosetti, sister of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, was a famous poet. Her poetry, including Goblin Market, explore themes of lesbian desire and intimacy.

It was not unusual for women in the Victorian period to have passionate friendships, and female same-sex relationships did not arouse the same censure as male ones and were never ruled illegal. However women were expected to get married and have children which didn't always fit with a woman’s life choices.

You can see two drawings of Christina on display in the Dining Room at Wightwick, both are by her brother, Dante Gabriel Rosetti.

Evelyn De Morgan

Despite her mutually supportive marriage to William, Evelyn De Morgan had a passionate friendship with her muse Jane Hales, whom she often used as her semi-clothed model in numerous artworks on the walls at Wightwick. Hales is buried next to Evelyn and her husband in Brookwood Cemetery near Woking.

May Morris

The daughter of William Morris, May was Director of the embroidery department at Morris & Co. and founded the Women’s Guild of Arts in 1907. She lived at Kelmscott Manor with Miss Lobb for decades and together they ‘motored’ to Wightwick to meet Geoffrey and Rosalie Mander in 1937. The collection at Wightwick includes some of her embroidery and paintings which hang on the Pomegranate Passage.

Prejudice and Pride

Discover more about the work of these artists and creatives, and the prejudice they faced during their lifetime in this video, created by Simona Piantieri and Michele D’Acosta in 2017.

Close view of the fireplace in the Acanthus Room at Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton. The quotation is from "In Memoriam" By Tennyson.

Wightwick's collections

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Wightwick Manor on the National Trust Collections website.

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Volunteer opportunities at Wightwick Manor 

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