Orpheus returns from twilight zone: European money helps restore Victorian house inspired by the ideas of William Morris. Oliver Gillie reports

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The Independent Online
ORPHEUS now stands proudly playing his lyre above the fireplace in the great parlour at Wightwick Manor near Wolverhampton. For years the figure, sculpted in a plaster bas relief by Charles Kempe in the early 1890s, was covered with smoky grime, but this has now been washed away by the loving application of a mild detergent laced with a little ammonia.

Wightwick Manor, inspired by the ideas of William Morris, the designer, is exceptional because its late Victorian style has been preserved without modification. Now the National Trust is spending pounds 450,000 on restoration and improvements to the structure with pounds 156,000 of the money provided by the Black Country programme of the European Regional Development Fund.

So Orpheus, sculpted in nouveau Elizabethan style, can now be seen to have a bright red tunic and be cavorting in a green glade with a toy-like cow, deer, goat and bear. Other panels forming a frieze around the parlour have also been cleaned and now the scenes from Orpheus's descent to the underworld can be clearly seen. A quotation stands out boldly on the wall:

When Orpheus strikes the trembling lyre

The wolf and lamb around him trip,

The bears in awkward measures leap

And tigers mingle in the dance.

The words come from A song for Saint Cecilia's day at Oxford by Joseph Addison, but some difficult literary detective work has been necessary to track down the source of a dozen other quotations in the house.

The former owner of the manor, the Liberal MP Sir Geoffrey Mander, had the quotations painted on the walls to give the house a certain poetic resonance for his guests. But he wanted the words to stand on their own and be accepted for their inherent value so he did not ascribe them to an author.

The main guest bedroom, called the oak room, is being restored to its original form with a boudoir separated off by an oaken balustrade and a screened dressing room hung with original William Morris fabrics. While using these lavish facilities the troubled mind may be pricked by the words of Macbeth painted on the bedroom wall:

. . . innocent sleep

Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care

The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath,

Balm of hurt minds. . .

Outside, where the EU is helping towards repairs of the peach house and a pergola, the poets' garden contains cuttings taken from the gardens of famous literary figures which are being re-established: shrubs from Dickens's garden at Gad's Hill in Kent, Staphylea and Kerria japonica from William Morris's garden at Kelmscot manor, Oxfordshire, and other plants from Tennyson's garden on the Isle of Wight.

But no provenance is needed to reinforce the elegant geometrical topiary in the formal garden laid out by Thomas Hayton Mawson in 1904. The house and garden will not be open again until May. Then people may visit this gem of the Arts and Crafts movement and find, as the Mander family hoped to do, the rest and calm that will refresh the wearied limbs and compose the troubled spirit.

(Photographs omitted)