Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Winterbourne House and Gardens...

As time goes by, and I have a clearer idea of what I personally find aesthetically pleasing, I apply a form of selective vision to block out all that is visually unsettling – or just plain ugly. From there, I am free to play in my mind’s eye – imagining another version of reality around me, without the majority of the modern ‘improvements’ which are born of natural progress, pushed through by social and economic necessity. Sometimes, I get carried away in this game of mental photoshop and extend it to its very limits.
A liberal dose of artistic license includes a shameful glossing-over the harder aspects of life past and present and probably results in picture-postcard quaint, with a distinct whiff of gentrification, but there you have it... However, this readjusted reality it is an effective means of escaping dreary 21st century views. Landscapes with their urban development - all typically monopolized by concrete slabs, glass casing and plastic panels - are conveniently rearranged to the flights of fancy and fantasy. Some places, fortunately, require little visual tweaking and on my recent trip to Birmingham, I revisited one of these….
Winterbourne House and its extensive grounds is a perfect example of an Edwardian Arts and Crafts villa and botanic gardens. Often somewhat overshadowed by its better-known neighbour, the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Glasshouses, Winterbourne is set in the leafy suburb of Edgbaston, yet is surprising close to the city centre . So close, indeed, that across the lake can be seen the latest high-rise constructions… Suffice it to say that these were hastily banished from my line of vision! I wonder what John Nettlefold would say of these new towers of modernity, as the industrialist who commissioned the building of this elegant country estate and himself a pioneer in housing reform in Birmingham? The principals that he held dear in the realisation of Winterbourne were also key to his philosophy in town planning, later visible in Harbourne’s Moor Pool Estate. Inspired by Bournville, he sought to provide decent homes for the working classes with housing that would enhance quality of life.
Coming from a wealthy family and working at Guest, Keen & Nettlefold (GKN) – the world’s largest screw, nut and bolt manufacturer - it is probably safe to assume that Nettlefold and his wife Margaret already had a fairly decent quality of life. They were, in fact, second cousins from the Chamberlain family and wished to live in a home that reflected their vision and was in harmony with its natural setting. They opted for a design in the Arts and Crafts style and the house was built to incorporate all the latest amenities that modern technology could offer at the turn of the century; running hot water, electric lighting and telephones.
Built by Birmingham architect Joseph Lancaster Ball, Winterbourne was based on the simple, spacious layouts of 17th century farmhouses making the home light, comfortable and unfussy. This was a far cry from the heavy, dark upholstered interiors of the Victorian era, as was the house’s relationship with the gardens that surrounded it. Light, airy rooms, largely south-east facing, look onto the gardens and are flooded by natural light whilst the French doors on the ground floor open directly onto a terrace that once served as an extended living room. I could almost imagine hearing the clink of china and the noise of croquet being played out at teatime on the lawns!
One of the tenets of the Arts and Crafts movement was the use of simple, natural materials and local craftsmanship and Winterbourne house and outbuildings were indeed built of characteristic Brummie redbrick with casement windows. The decorative wall panels of the interiors were the work of George Bankart, a craftsman who led a revival of 16th and 17th century plasterwork in the region. These are all based on natural forms - plants and animals - and are in line with the movement’s use of flora and fauna in ornamentation, textiles and wallcovering, all exemplified, of course by the work of William Morris.
Throughout the home, there was a harmony between utility and beauty – again a key principal in Arts and Crafts design and a calm still seems to reign there today. When Winterbourne was finally restored to its former Edwardian glory in 2010 - after years serving as halls of residence and classrooms and then left empty – Morris wallpaper and Edwardian furnishings were used throughout to recapture the unique mood of the period.
I did wonder if it was actually quite so beautifully decorated back in its early days but that certainly wasn’t a major preoccupation for me as I walked along the spacious corridors, from room to room, imagining the life that Winterbourne’s inhabitants once led there -without any inevitable hardship, of course. For indeed, as any family, whatever their financial situation, the Nettlefolds did experience pain and loss. Not only did two of their eight children die, but John Nettlefold suffered a mental breakdown that probably led to the sale of Winterbourne in 1919.
Although the name Winterbourne is closely associated with the Nettlefolds for whom it had been specifically designed in 1903, when they left just 16 years later, it went on to belong to two subsequent families. The final occupant of Winterbourne - John MacDonald Nicolson - was a keen gardener who added additional features such as the Japanese bridge and the scree garden to the original grounds. Nevertheless, he maintained the harmony created by Margaret Nettlefold’s designs which had been inspired by the gardening theory of Gertrude Jekyll, with emphasis on utility and beauty.
Today, Winterbourne encompasses both house and grounds – it is no longer considered as separate entities, as had been the case on the death of the last owner, Nicolson, in 1944. Indeed, he had bequeathed house and garden to the University of Birmingham with the botanic garden becoming the main focus of the acquisition for research by the School of Botany.
As with the house, the seven-acre grounds have been restored to their former splendour and the garden was Grade II listed by English Heritage in 2008. So it is that we can walk around Winterborne today, across lawns, beside sandstone rock gardens, along woodland walks, and into greenhouses. We can wander next to the geometric patterns of the walled garden and find ourselves surrounded by ‘traditional’ English plants but then discover exotic species from all across the world.
Winterbourne now offers public events, alongside a variety of courses, talks and workshops. A simple visit to house and gardens is made all the more enjoyable by a trip to the café, serving all the usual teatime treats on a daily basis – on William Morris trays, no less. The latter can also be purchased in the shop, incidentally… The second-hand bookshop in one of the former outhouses also has a great selection of books and even the outside toilet was pretty.
All in all, Winterbourne was the perfect experience on a grey day at the end of August; in my head I was enjoying its sunlight spaces at the turn of the 19th century! Below is one of a series of linocut works by the artist Sarah Moss in 2018 - They Called it Winterbourne, inspired by a William Morris woodcut.

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