The experience of visiting the old manor at Owlpen today is for many enhanced, or curiosity aroused, by the family clutter, still accumulating, there assembled. The Mander family have long been inveterate collectors. As Mark Girouard writes, they were part of "a large body of cultivated upper middle-class families who read their Ruskin and Morris and expressed their artistic tastes in their houses" (The Victorian Country House).
Charles II Benjamin Mander (1819–78) was an amateur artist who helped found the first public art school in England in 1852. He travelled widely in Italy, and would improve the old masters in his collection "to their great gain". He purchased The Mount in Tettenhall Wood, Staffordshire, in 1862.
Wightwick Manor was a neighbouring house, given to the National Trust by Sir Geoffrey Mander in 1937. It still shows the family's early patronage of the Arts and Crafts movement and of the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. Today it is seen as a tour de force of civilized taste and one of the most representative late Victorian country houses in the country.
The collection at Owlpen is much more modest as a typical country house mélange formed by diverse inheritances and acquisitions, a galimatias of styles and periods. It derives largely from that of Charles Benjamin's son, Sir Charles Tertius Mander (1852–1929), the first baronet, and his wife Mary le Mesurier, Lady Mander (1859-1951).
Mary Mander was described by Edward Ould, architect of both The Mount and Wightwick, a little obsequiously, as having "more taste than any lady I have met". Her collections were voraciously catholic, if indiscriminate. Hundreds of objets — fans, enamels, Rockingham, Spode and Staffordshire china, Chinese and Delft blue-and-white porcelain, maiolica and faience, china cats, textiles and needlework, lace, beadwork, dolls, domestic brass, tobacco boxes and curios — cluttered every surface, as well as accumulated books, the usual Jacobean, late Stuart and Georgian furniture, pictures, Caucasian and Persian rugs and family silver. All was listed in her annotated inventories, with prices paid to dealers for seemingly untransportable items culled on energetic travels in places as scattered as Taormina, Granada, Cairo, Tunis, Khartoum, Fez, Cuba and Brazil, many long before the First World War. All was displayed in a context of 'Old English' fittings and materials, with ceilings by Leonard Shuffrey and heraldic glass by Bryans and Webb to Ould's 55-foot English Renaissance Library. This grand Edwardian living hall was modelled on Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire, "a magnificent ruin" which made a deep impression also on Jewson, the architect of Owlpen's restoration.
Queen Mary visited the Manders at The Mount in 1939, when she was presented with an obligatory white tortoiseshell fan, with Mary written on the shaft, and an enamel needle-case. The Princess Royal also visited, as well as many public figures. Lloyd George was her guest when he announced the General Election campaign in November 1918, visiting Wolverhampton to be given the honorary freedom of the Borough.
Most of these things—and others more masculine, like old wine, guns, game trophies and prizes, scientific gadgets, presentation keys and trowels, official uniforms, carriages, White steam cars, and a Canadian horse-drawn sleigh—were dispersed after her death at a three-day sale in 1952. Many items found their way to Wightwick and to Midland public collections, or were divided among contentious heirs, furnishing several family houses.
Her children, too, were keen collectors. Gerald Poynton Mander was a donnish antiquarian, bibliophile and Midland historian, an asthmatic dilettante who rose for afternoon tea. He settled first at Ludstone Hall and collected from undergraduate days: incunabula and books by rare Midland printers (on which he wrote a standard monograph), miniatures and enamels, many of them left to the Wolverhampton Museum—and prints, including the Griggs etching of Owlpen.
His spinster sister, Daisy Mander, read, travelled and collected compulsively. Her dolls she left to the Bantock Museum; many of her textiles and needlework (which she practised) are at Owlpen. On her death in 1968, she left thousands of books (many also at Owlpen) and some fifty packing-cases of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century porcelain. Sir Charles IV Arthur Mander, the second baronet, lived at Kilsall Hall, Shropshire. A man of talent and charm, he devoted himself to public causes, county affairs and charity work, as well as industry. His wife, Monica Mander, left the baskets collected all over the world to the Bantock Museum.
Owlpen retains items from these sources and many others, from connected families in Germany, Mexico and Sweden, like fitting a quart into a pint pot. At Owlpen are many of the family papers from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, some of which were published in the family histories. With the archive of Daunts and de Olepennes, quaint medieval documents and deeds which reveal little of the personalities behind them, there is an illuminating survey of the lives of squires, merchant industrialists and country gentry spanning eight hundred years.
A burglary in 1992 removed many items-including all the clocks, silver, cabinets and the only 'good' pictures—and display is difficult. The series of family portraits complements those now at Wightwick. Charles Tertius Mander's swagger portrait by Hon. John Collier in the uniform of the yeomanry (1897) and Mary Mander's pair to it by
Besides firebacks and antlers, only the painted cloths have remained in the manor house throughout. The present owners have sorted and catalogued and been lucky to add much, notably items associated with the house and the work of Ernest Gimson and his circle—Norman Jewson, the brothers Sidney and Ernest Barnsley and Fred Griggs—in the great Cotswold Arts and Crafts revival. Today there is Arts and Crafts furniture from their personal collections, from the late David Verey's Arlington Mill Museum collection at Bibury, dispersed in 1995, and an archive of notebooks, drawings and ephemera.
Such Cotswold Arts and Crafts treasures mix happily with simple early oak and walnut furniture, family pictures, and paintings and sculpture, often by friends. And still thousands of books, including the original copies of Morris and Ruskin which inspired the Manders more than a century ago.