Excerpt from the July/August issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.
In 1931, John Betjeman visited Wolf’s Cove, a small fishing village which, as he reported in the Architectural Review the following year, “depends entirely on his expedition”. His tale of local color continued to cover everything from the atmosphere of local pubs (old men ignored Admiral Benbow’s cheap brandy in favor of Lord Nelson’s ‘clean and well-polished wooden walls’ 18th century), to the local eccentric, M.P. Morton Shand, a devout Anglo-Catholic who had “refused to allow the railway within a mile and a half of the village”. Readers may have sensed something odd in the accompanying black-and-white photographs, but Betjeman booked the payoff until the end. In fact, Wolf’s Cove was a very small village: “every house, horse, piece of rolling stock, smack, tug, barge, gritstone pier, shroud, window, sign, bridge, cart, and trailer were made by Mr. Charles P Wade, the Architect’ – and the whole thing was built to half an inch scale.
The construction of the world of Betjeman entered entirely into the mind of the creator of the village. The collecting instinct of Charles Paget Wade (1883–1956), an independent and wealthy scion of a St. Kitts sugar merchant family, had first been sparked in childhood by the lacquered Cantonese cabinet of treasures miniatures of his grandmother: a Christmas angel, a pair of glasses, music boxes, shells and butterflies. As a young architect in the early decades of the 20th century, he had spent his evenings creating painstakingly annotated views of ‘Alconbury’, a fictional abbey and nunnery dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, whose graveyard included his own epitaph : ‘This is Lyeth a certain Charles Wade, a little-known architect.
Wade is best known today, but primarily for the huge collection of items – including bicycles, instruments, boxes, clocks, costumes and 26 samurai suits of armor – that he assembled into something unique. ‘a gesamkunstwerk at Snowshill Manor, his home in rural Gloucestershire, between the purchase of the 16th century building in 1919 and his death in 1956. The rooms at Snowshill were miniature worlds in themselves, with appropriately fantastical names, including Nadir, Dragon, Salamander, Meridian and Zenith. The founding element of Wade’s collection, “Granny Spencer’s Cabinet”, inherited after the death of her grandmother, is displayed at the Zenith alongside a group of Cantonese shrines.
Wolf’s Cove, Wade’s “Cornish fishing village”, was his own creation. Tiny buildings of materials ranging from wood and plaster to burlap and straw were arranged around a “harbour” in the garden’s fish pond, which featured a lower dock and a harbor wall. A multitude of miniature objects complete the scene: hooked lobster pots, wooden barrels and winches, twine fishing floats and laundry hanging out to dry. Despite the apparent protests of MP Morton Shand, the village was served by a railway line and a canal ran under the line in an underground tunnel. However, as Betjeman acknowledged, the village was dominated by its complex luggers, schooners and longboats, Wade’s personal hymns to the craft of shipbuilder. Even the name, “Wolf’s Cove”, is an apparent allusion to a ship, the words having already appeared on the bow of a “tar-blackened hulk” rotting in the water of Ipswich harbour, which Wade had sketched in her youth.
Along with Snowshill itself, Wolf’s Cove was soon open informally to onlookers, which numbered between 500 and 700 a year throughout the 1920s and 1930s. In addition to Betjeman, they included Virginia Woolf (who was unimpressed ), Queen Mary (who apparently was) and writer Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis, who would go on to create the candy-colored Italianate village of Portmeirion, North Wales. (for which Wade designed a small cottage). Snowshill was given to the National Trust in 1951 and in the 1970s Wolf’s Cove, which had always wintered indoors, entered the house permanently, partially redisplayed as a painting in a room called Occidens . In 2010 the Trust launched a project to recreate Wade’s vision within the original garden setting. Some 50 replica buildings had been completed by 2018, and work is now focused on recreating the population of wooden figures sitting, standing and smoking around the edge of the harbour, dressed primarily (but not exclusively) in 18th century clothing. .
There is a clear connection between Wolf’s Cove and Wade’s professional training. Although he practiced only briefly between his election to the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1907 and the death of his father in 1911 (which left him most of the family sugar fortune), Wade spent most of his architectural career working on another visionary settlement, Hampstead Garden Suburb in North London. Initiated by social reformer Henrietta Barnett, it was originally conceived as a (mostly) working class community combining the presence of modern amenities with the absence of noise, crowding and pollution of modern city life. Access to the metropolis was provided by the new Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway (now known as the Northern Line). The Garden Suburb’s supervising architects, Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker, had previously worked at Letchworth on the first realization of the so-called Garden City concept originally proposed by Ebenezer Howard in 1898 as a means of “restoring[ing] the people to the land”. The project was therefore part of an emerging tradition of idealistic urbanism that considered well-designed spaces as mechanisms for community cohesion. In particular, pubs have been replaced by green spaces and town halls.
Wade shared with Unwin and Parker an interest in the English Arts and Crafts movement and in the architecture of European medieval towns. This was most vividly achieved in his design of the ‘Great Wall’ marking the boundary between the Garden Suburb and the Heath, designed in reference to the medieval fortifications of Rothenburg in Bavaria. It is also visible in the buildings he created around the same time for ‘Fladbury’, a 1:24 scale town, putatively in the Cotswolds but actually set in the garden of his rented house, No. 9 Temple Fortune Hill. This set of movable buildings in an English vernacular style was designed for the amusement of a friend’s daughter, Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Murray. A contemporary photograph shows him lying in front of an attentive child of seven or eight, whose serious face is framed by two long pigtails.
By purchasing Snowshill, Wade appears to have simply picked up the small buildings and taken them to Gloucestershire, where they were reconfigured and transformed. The Fladbury station building became Wolf’s Cove Farm, the new station was named Fladbury Mere, and the Cotswolds (perhaps now considered too close) gave way to Cornwall.
While the Hampstead Garden Suburb represents an early 20th-century continuation of the model town, Fladbury – and, by extension, Wolf’s Cove – is generally cited as the earliest example of a “model village”, in the sense of a miniature settlement , usually somewhere between 1:10 and 1:12 scale, which transforms its visitors into today’s Gullivers in Lilliput (Swift’s novel, which also uses 1:12 scale, forming their point of reference almost universal). As with many early 20th century settlements, including Hampstead Garden Suburb, they often grew alongside the railway. Fladbury’s centerpiece was a train layout partly purchased from model makers Bassett-Lowke, who had begun making model railways in the late 1890s. “Every boy a locomotive superintendent!” proclaimed an advertisement in 1909 – but although the delighted middle-class boys duly appear in catalogs as gigantic figures presiding over vast transport infrastructure, the invitation was equally appealing to their fathers and uncles. Three years before the publication of Betjeman’s article in the Architectural Review, the first informal visitors had begun to flock to Bekonscot in Beaconsfield, a fully electrified town in a man-made landscape. This was created from bags of topsoil and precast cement by suburban accountant Roland Callingham, who, on finding his rapidly expanding Bassett-Lowke Railroad banished from the house by his exasperated wife, ‘designed the ‘idea to design and build a perfect piece of country’ in the garden.
By the time of Wade’s death in the 1950s, his vision of a small world of idealized communal living had become such a lucrative business prospect that entrepreneurial modellers were establishing multi-site miniature empires, catering to a boom in domestic tourism and to an increasingly established model. -village vocabulary.
Depending on the size of the site, visitors could expect to see a church (usually hosting a wedding), a castle, a hotel, a mansion, a college, a green (with the compulsory game of cricket) and (in direct contrast to Barnett and Howard’s vision) several pubs. It was a nostalgic vision of an imaginary England – rural, white and seemingly free of conflict or dissent – on an appealingly controllable scale. Unlike architects’ renderings of the idealized city, the miniature villages are experiential: visitors move through them with the buildings on their knees, periodically adopting Betty Murray’s awkward squat over Fladbury. Indeed, their success hinges on using the (now comically oversized) individual body as a measure of scale. For Wade, that was probably part of the appeal: in miniature, everything is handmade. Ships and even the railroad (the ultimate product of mechanized industry) can be redesigned as handicrafts; vehicles both for miniaturized expedition and for creative imagination. Contemporary photographs of Wolf’s Cove show its creator scaling the harbor wall, a colossus poised precariously on the water, making small adjustments to the world below.
Excerpt from the July/August issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.