As far as the theorists of the Arts and Crafts movement were concerned, the ideal country house should be a meeting of minds and skills, a communal effort on the lines of a medieval building project, in which designer, consumer and estate workforce collaborated to produce something which was not the individual vision of the architect-as-artist, but a collective expression of traditional domestic values.
That rarely happened. But at Rodmarton Manor in Gloucestershire, built between 1909 and 1929 for Claud and Margaret Biddulph, the dream was realised.
Rodmarton took twenty years to build because its architect, Ernest Barnsley, insisted on traditional working practices. No contractor was employed. All the stone and slate was quarried nearby and brought to the site by wagon, to be worked by local masons. Timber for beams and rafters was cut and seasoned on the estate; Barnsley wouldn’t allow planks to be shaped with a circular saw – that smacked of an industrial process, and came between the workman and his materials. So a sawpit was constructed on site, and two men slaved away sawing every single one with a two-handed saw. Metalwork was made by the local blacksmith; the Rodmarton foreman, a carpenter named Alfred Wright, acted as clerk of works; and the grounds were designed by Barnsley and laid out by the head gardener, William Scrubey.
The emphasis on local involvement continued inside the house, with furniture made by Alfred Wright’s joiners and designed by Ernest Barnsley, his brother Sidney and the cabinet-maker Peter Waals, who had worked as foreman for Gimson and the Barnsleys before setting up on his own at nearby Chalford. Wright’s workmen also produced oak panelling from drawings by the designer Alfred Powell, whose wife Louise contributed pottery and the decoration of a piano designed by Waals. The main hall was often given over to craft classes in canework, needlework and woodwork for the villagers, presided over by Margaret Bidulph. Members of the local Women’s Guild produced applique hangings.
There was a serious point to all this, which went far beyond a hankering after a mythical pre-industrial past. Rodmarton was an educational enterprise, a quiet attempt to change the world. If traditional crafts were dying out they must be revived; and their revival depended not on city-bred reformers, but on people like the Biddulphs’ masons and joiners, on the Rodmarton Women’s Guild. Give them the skills and the confidence to make beautiful things, and they would pass their knowledge on to others.
John Rothenstein, whose father William was a regular visitor to Rodmarton, once wrote that ‘a hundred people doing as the Biddulphs did would have gone far to transform the face of rural England.’ He was wrong. It would have taken more than a hundred thousand Biddulphs to turn back the tide of history. But they made a difference, and a small corner of Gloucestershire is so much richer because of it.
Rodmarton Manor is open to the public. Go and see it! http://www.rodmarton-manor.co.uk/