Nuffield Place is the former home of William Morris, but before you dash down there expecting decorative wallpapers and tales of slightly barmy artists, please be aware that this is not the William Morris of the Arts & Crafts movement, but instead the man who made his fortune through the Morris car company and later became an important philanthropist and supporter of education.
It was actually quite fitting that my journey to Nuffield Place was delayed through having to follow a convoy of four ancient ice cream vans (yes, you did read that correctly!) along the Oxfordshire roads. I am definitely no motor expert so I have no inkling as to the make or model of these slow-moving roadblocks, and it’s highly unlikely they were old enough to be Morris vans, but that would have been very serendipitous.
William Morris established the Morris car business in 1912 so by the time he bought Nuffield Place (then called Merrow Mount) in 1933, he was already an extremely wealthy man. He certainly helped to put Nuffield on the map as he took the name Lord Nuffield when he was created a baron in 1934 and later used the name in lots of his charitable ventures. Considering the size of his fortune, though, Nuffield Place is perhaps a rather more modest home than you might expect. Built in the Arts & Crafts style (we can’t get away from the other William Morris completely), the house is an understated, four-bedroom residence with a four-acre garden within a nine-acre estate. It was built in 1914 for a shipping magnate and was designed by Oswald Partridge Milne, perhaps best known for Coleton Fishacre, another house in National Trust ownership.
Lord and Lady Nuffield lived here together for 26 years between 1933 and 1959, with Lord Nuffield staying on a further 4 years after the loss of his wife before passing away himself in 1963. The house had an interesting history after this, having been bequeathed to Nuffield College, which was established in 1937 as one of several educational foundations funded by Lord Nuffield. I found some extra information about the history of the house in a room next to the shop and it appears that Nuffield College was largely responsible for maintaining the house as something of a time capsule in Morris’ memory. It seems that they tried to give the house to the National Trust once before but the Trust declined and it wasn’t until 2010 – after a fundraising effort raised an adequate endowment – that the transfer was successfully made.
Nuffield Place only opened to the public in 2012 and it is perhaps still something of a work in progress. Restoration of the gardens is well underway and they looked lovely, despite the dreary and drizzly weather on my visit, while the house is well presented and it feels as if Lord and Lady Nuffield may return at any moment (wondering why there are lots of strangers roaming their bedrooms!). However, it is the visitor facilities that still need most attention. They are very small and are slightly crammed into a more modern extension at the east end of the house. It felt odd to be browsing the shop in what was probably once a bedroom, while the ladies toilet is a former bathroom – complete with bath – so that was a change from the usual lined-up cubicles. The tearoom is also very small and I’m afraid my pre-prepared sandwich was a bit soggy. Hopefully, somewhere down the line, Nuffield will have the funds to create better facilities that are more tailor-made to the purpose.
Getting back to the house, the description of it as a time capsule is particularly apt. It really did feel as if I’d been dropped into a house of the 1930s, albeit one with all the ‘modern’ luxuries, including wireless radios, turntable record players and even an early coffee maker (the great grandfather of the Nespresso machine!) Another novelty is the electric exercise horse, made specifically for Lord Nuffield. It occurred to me as slightly ironic that a man who started his working life making bicycles would come up with the idea for an exercise HORSE! He might have missed a trick there!
The Art Deco bathrooms are also very much of their time, with some interesting tiling and colour schemes. All in all, though, the decoration at Nuffield is relatively modest and unostentatious, and it is very much a home rather than a showcase of the Morris wealth. Neither Lord nor Lady Nuffield slept in the largest bedroom available in their own house, opting for smaller rooms to the west that are joined by a light sun room with views of the garden. It is thought that Lady Nuffield slept with her bed at an angle so that she could see the views from the window while she breakfasted in bed, dipping into the newspaper to identify new charitable causes for her husband to espouse. He, meanwhile, may have been up half the night tinkering away in a mini workshop located in his bedroom cupboard!
This is hardly what you might expect of a Lord and Lady with a vast fortune to hand. But having made that fortune, William Morris then turned to giving a lot of it away. In 1936, he floated much of the stock in his company to raise further funds and then dedicated his time to finding the best targets for those funds. Overall, he is said to have donated no less than £30 million (equivalent to £700 million today) during his lifetime, contributing to the worlds of medicine and education as well as many other causes.
I must admit that Nuffield Place didn’t exactly blow me away – it was just too modern and lacking in any special impact – but as is so often the case I came away having learnt something new, this time about a man whose influence has extended well beyond his own lifetime and across many different walks of life, from the manufacture and sale of cars to the use of anaesthetics. But if you like art and antiques and prefer exhibits that date back more than a century, Nuffield is perhaps not for you.
Highlights: The biographical aspects
Refreshments: Cheese & chutney sandwich, crisps, apple and elderflower juice
Purchase(s): Guidebook and garden guidebook