Owlpen and the Cotswold Arts & Crafts movement
OWLPEN is not an Arts and Crafts house, but rarer, remoter Tudor, where architectural development stops dead in 1616. Its later layers of accretion — very early Georgian and Cotswold Arts and Crafts — are understated and reabsorbed, yet add disproportionately to its substance and interest.
The house owes its survival to the late nineteenth-century reassessment of the vernacular styles of early houses under the inspiration of the Arts and Crafts movement. The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne wrote to his friend the artist-craftsman William Morris in 1894, praising ‘the ruinous little old manor-house’ of Owlpen and its hanging gardens of yew trees as ‘a paradise incomparable on earth’. So it became an icon of the Arts and Crafts movement.
Owlpen’s sympathetic resuscitation by Norman Jewson a generation later, in 1926, after lying derelict for close on 100 years, harnessed the principles of conservative repair first promulgated by William Morris and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB). Morris had founded the Society in 1877, placing a new emphasis, which Owlpen exemplifies, on the careful conservation of a vanishing ‘heritage’. This has been one of the most fruitful legacies of the Arts and Crafts movement, continuing to impel a vital world-wide industry. Jewson had trained in the conservation of old buidings with William Weir, working at Magdalene College, Oxford, and Salle Church in his native Norfolk.
The Victorian dream-houses — such as the Mander house at Wightwick Manor in Staffordshire — with their picturesque revival of details and precious, self-conscious historicism, tend towards swagger, grandeur and a churchy gloom. But the following generation of Ernest Gimson, evident at Owlpen, was preaching a “cleaner” and more committed honesty; the direct practice of craft. There was no pretence of ‘stylism’: “solid realities … not names and dreams”. Gimson was “the greatest of the English architect-designers” (according to Nikolaus Pevsner), and one of the great furniture designers of the English tradition, whose surviving work is apparently “rarer than Chippendale”.
Norman Jewson, who worked at Owlpen, was in turn Gimson’s outstanding pupil. Gimson was Jewson’s miglior fabbro, his mentor and “better craftsman”. And Jewson was “in many ways the greatest of all Gimson’s followers” (Leicester Museums Catalogue, 1969), of a generation of architects who combined sound knowledge and sureness of touch with intense poetic feeling.
John Cornforth wrote that Owlpen was one of a distinct group of early houses restored in the ‘twenties. A dreamy feeling of escapism is evident, where Jewson was alive to the sense of enchantment, catching the spirit of place, as well as texture and period. For aftercomers like Christopher Hussey, Owlpen was a dream made real, crystallizing the spirit of the secret valleys of the Cotswolds, and preserving something of a dream’s lovely unreality.
Many commentators find that today “Owlpen is the quintessence of the ‘old English’ style” (John Sales, Shell Guide, 1990), where “workmanship of different dates co-exists harmoniously, and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century furnishings blend easily with later things in the manner prized by the Arts and Crafts movement” (Geoffrey Tyack, 1994). Most of the family things at Owlpen were made long before the Arts and Crafts movement, but the house contains representative and developing collections of some less familiar ‘Cotswold Group’ items. For Owlpen is one of few Cotswold houses where the spirit of this movement may be seen — and experienced — by the public outside a museum, and in something approaching an original context.