Saturday, 27 April 2019

Whitaker Wright and the Peasants

I recently read Ultimate Folly: The Rises and Falls of Whitaker Wright the World's Most Shameless Swindler (Macrory, Henry, Biteback Publishing, London, 2018) about Wright who lived at Lea Park, Witley.  Wright is famous for having an underwater glass ballroom in the lake and for committing suicide in the Royal Courts of Justice after being sentenced for fraud by cyanide pill.  Whilst Wright was local to the Haslemere Peasant Arts, I had not anticipated any overlap in their lives despite the Kings living at Sandhouse, literally down the road from Lea Park.  However, I was rather taken aback when I read this amongst the description of Wright's house, purchased in Witley in 1896.

"With money no object, he bought two large tracts of land to the west of the village, paying £150,000 for the Lea Park estate, which included the nineteenth-century manor house, and a further £100,000 for the adjacent South Park Farm estate.  This gave him a total of 9,000 acres, or a little over 14 square miles...the acquisition gave him ownership of two local beauty spots, Hindhead Common and the Devil's Punch Bowl...A London architect, Paxton Hood Watson, was contracted to turn the existing manor house into a pleasure palace, and royal warrant-holders George Jackson and Sons, who had carried out work at Buckingham Palace and Sandringham, were entrusted with the ornamental plasterwork.  Edwin Lutyens, who had been brought up in the neighbouring village of Thursley...was asked to design some lakeside buildings....

"...Under Paxton Watson's direction, two wings were added to the existing half-timbered manor house at the stupendous cost of £400,000.  The end of the new west wing was adorned with a vast conservatory, which alone cost £10,000 (around £1 million in today's money). ...At the far end of the house - a walk of several minutes along more than 500 ft of corridors adorned with hunting trophies, suits of armour and ceremonial swords -...a domed observatory...Between these two great embellishments were thirty-two bedrooms, eleven bathrooms, seventeen cloakrooms, seven receptions rooms and numerous courtyards paved in white marble and beautified  with Moorish arches." (Macrory, p.98)

The house and grounds were clearly "fit for an Oriental prince" which had been Wright's ambition.  It is incredible to think that such a sumptuous residence could exist in this quiet corner of Surrey.  As I read on, I was more amazed:

"The most sumptuous of the upstairs apartments was the so-called bridal suite, formed of two rooms, each 74ft long and 54ft wide...It had thirty windows, and was adorned with moulded ceilings, tall mirrors, oriental carpets and an array of antique Chinese and Japanese furniture.  The walls were hung with Japanese silk pictures patterned with foliage on an ivory background.  The dressing table, all 32 square feet of it, was covered with a tapestry embroidered with the words 'Love Maketh a Feast With Most or Least."(ibid.)

This distinctive phrase is on a tapestry held at the Haslemere Educational Museum, and was illustrated in The Craftsman (Stewart, Dick, 'Handicrafts of English peasants at Haslemere', pp.589-595, August 1907).  Reading the words in these versions the phrase is actually 'With Most of Least, Love Maketh a Feast'.  I have not seen a reference made to a 32 square foot version of this.

It seems extraordinary that someone who epitomised all that the Haslemere Peasants rallied against appeared to have in the heart of his home a piece of peasant tapestry that preached a very different message.  

Peasant Tapestry, The Craftsman, August 1907

1 comment:

  1. Blimey - he didn't do things by halves did he? That sounds like a fascinating book and I will have to put it on my wish list I think. Fancy that distinctive link to the smaller tapestry made by the Haslemere Peasant Arts folk.


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