Witley Court is a country house in Worcestershire which was largely gutted by fire in 1937. Although the house is still a ruin, English Heritage, who acquired the property in the 1980’s, have been working to restore the historically important gardens. In addition Great Witley Church, which is attached to the house, fortunately escaped the fire; it is a quite extraordinary creation to find in rural Worcestershire and well worth repeated visits.
I have probably discussed this before but it is worth re-iterating what a comparatively excellent organisation English Heritage is; my comparison point is primarily against the National Trust, but also against the majority of houses which remain in private ownership. It is because of this that EH is about the only organisation we are now members of, despite the fact that we certainly do not pay enough visits to their properties to make our membership financially worth-while. This superiority lies partly in the physical provisions – of decent toilet facilities, good signing, disabled access and so on, but more importantly in the fact that they work hard on the provision of a proper historical context with reasonable perspective, rather than gushing adulation of the minor aristocracy. This is evidenced at Witley in the fine guidebook. In the 17th and 18th centuries Witley was the property of the Foley family whose wealth originated with Richard Foley of Dudley, who was a very early iron industrialist – he stole the design of a nail making machine in Sweden by ‘pretending to be half-witted’. His son augmented the family fortune by supplying cannon and ballistics in the English Revolution. So the family fortunes derived from industrial espionage and arms manufacture (plus ca change). As so often happened in the 18thC the Foleys gradually moved out of industry into land, and while mid-18thC Foleys were responsible for the Church, later ones were a set of wastrels and gamblers, in particular Thomas Foley VI who was dubbed ‘Lord Balloon’ after a disastrous balloon accident in the gardens of his London house. The contemporary Royal Register noted that he ‘by a most rapid course of debauchery, extravagance and gambling, involved himself in a state of distress from the misery and disgrace of which he can never be extricated’ (this is the kind of social reality which tends not to find its way into National Trust, let alone private, guidebooks). Although his successor restored the fortunes of the Foleys by marrying an heiress and then employed John Nash to do some work on Witley, his son (Foley VIII) was forced to sell Witley in 1833 for £900,000 (about £48 million! today).
The purchaser possessed wealth which made the Foleys look like paupers; they were the Ward family, Earls of Dudley (co-incidentally the first Foley’s iron-works had also been based in Dudley). The guidebook goes into some detail on the basis of their tremendous wealth. In the first place they owned many industrial concerns – collieries, iron-works, chemical factories and a railway construction business – mostly in South Staffordshire and the Black Country. Secondly they owned, by 1883, 25,000 acres in England and Wales. And third they owned plantations in Jamaica which had of course been made profitable originally by slave labour (at the time of abolition there were 270 slaves on the principal plantation alone). At the height of the families prosperity in the 1880’s the family owned properties (residences) in London (2), Cheshire, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Boulougne, Nice, Rome, Vienna and Jamaica – in addition of course to Witley itself. Their annual income was £123,000 (about £7 million today) a sum exceeded by only 6 other noblemen in the country. It is worth cataloguing this opulence just to remind ourselves of the extraordinary wealth and power of some Victorian families. This was wealth on a Palliser scale although the family were by no means an ancient one. Part of this wealth went into the complete remodelling of Witley on the Italianate style made popular by Victoria – Nash’s neoclassical exterior was destroyed (an act of Victorian cultural vandalism which thanks to the fire no longer seems apparent). Elaborate gardens were designed by leading garden-designer W A Nesfield. Life at Witley was ‘correspondingly opulent and reached a zenith in the 1890’s when the prince of Wales (Edward VII to be) was a regular attender, in particular at the shooting parties where immense slaughter would take place. The guidebook quotes a Mrs Berkeley who was also a guest ‘One side of the gay life I loathed, the game question. The battues, the wholesale slaughter of tame birds driven into a corner, the crowd of keepers, the destroyed crops, the ravaged pastureland, and what all these things meant to the farmers on the estate’. There was of course a massive staff of servants. But all this lavish expenditure combined with falling industrial profits meant that this lifestyle could not be maintained. By 1913 the estate was mortgaged and pictures sold. Finally in 1920 Witley was sold to another industrialist, Sir Herbert Smith, a carpet manufacturer who had done well out of WW1. He was known as Piggy on account of his corpulence, but only lived in the south-west corner of the house, which is possibly why no lives were lost in the 1937 fire (the guidebook has some reminiscences by a Mrs Lorna Harrold who lived on the Witleyestate; she remarked ‘After Lady Dudley died Sir Herbert Smith bought the Court. He used to have a big Rolls Royce and he would go through the village every day in his top hat. He had a lot of money but he wasn’t a gentleman’. Poor Piggy! This kind of statement and attitude is one which one sometimes assumes to be almost fictional – whether in Trollopian definitions of gentlemen, or in the exact social distinctions of some Golden Age mystery writers; it is good – or at least informative – to be reminded that such absurd attitudes and extraordinary English class awareness did, in fact, exist).
In terms of what now remains at Witley the most obvious testament to Victorian opulence and taste is the great Perseus and Andromeda fountain which has now been restored to full working order; part of the reason for our visit was to see it in action…..
It is certainly a testament to extravagance and opulence and wealth, which looks fine in the setting for which it was designed (it is something of relief that Bing Crosby’splan to purchase it for a golf course in Palm Springs came to nothing, elitist though such comment may be – in a way it would be appropriate there I suppose) whatever questions there may be about its ultimate artistic merit. As a whole Witley Court certainly provides visual pleasures but they are of a pastoral kind; the house itself is now a sic transit gloria mundi kind of experience….
Another reason for our visit to Witley on that specific weekend was that it was hosting an ‘event’ on the theme of the Suffragette movement – this turned out to be a short (half-hour) playlet relating the experiences of an upper-class Suffragette and a maid-servant during the early part of the movement. A third male actor played various roles as required. There were a number of songs from the period and the basic history was well covered. Again it was not a major artistic achievement by any means but it was very good to see English Heritage trying to expand the ‘Living History’ movement beyond its usual ‘boys with toys’ (battle re-enactments) displays. Too often the impression given by the Living History events is that History consists of warfare – which is of course true for some periods of English (or any other nation’s) history but excludes far more than it includes. This was an imaginative attempt to widen the focus and in a progressive direction to boot.
In comparison to the foregoing Great Witleychurch is an undoubted artistic wonder. The exterior, which is pleasant but unprepossessing gives one absolutely no idea what awaits inside and it is the unexpectedness which first takes the breath away. Those familiar with English Church visiting and the vista of grey stone are likely to be astonished when they see the interior…..
It was created in the mid-18thC by James Gibbs who incorporated the magnificent ceiling panels by Antonio Bellucio and ten windows by the London glass -painter Joshua Price. The elaborate vaulting on the ceiling is actually in papier mache (then a recent innovation) rather than plaster.
Both panels and glass are magnificent. But the strange thing about Great Witley Church is that all this baroque beauty and extravagance does not in fact feel very religious. I am not sure whether this is a result of my English Protestant upbringing which provides some sub-conscious link between architectural plainness and religion (a connection maintained by much Church visiting). I know that both Roman Catholic and High Church Anglican Churches (of the kind which may be found at Walsingham in Norfolk for instance) make me very uncomfortable – The Stations of the Cross etc. but it is not because I feel they are religious – rather that I am subliminally programmed by my sub-conscious to find them heretical, and indeed ideologically and theologically (absurd though it may be for an atheist to claim the latter) objectionable. And actually were I to be religious I have no doubt that I would be very Low church indeed! The churches in which I have felt most uncomfortable in terms of their impressing their religiosity on me have been small, very Protestant field chapels in Shropshire and Galloway; a very old and bare crypt in Yorkshire. In Great Witley however I can just stand and admire the whole Baroque artistry and the glory of the panels and windows.
Perhaps though my reaction is connected to some feeling that Great Witley Church is really a testament to human skill and creativity and has little to do with the divine. It is a very 18thC creation – light and air and proportion, but also colour and imagination. Whatever the case it is definitely for me a 5 star Church (as opposed to Jenkins who gives it 4 – but then there is nothing whatever of the Gothic in Witley!).
A view from the Long Mynd to the Stiperstones