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August 22, 2011updated 25 Jan 2016 6:13pm

A Minor Key

By Clive Aslet

Though modest and unassuming, Nuffield Place, lately acquired by the National Trust, provides a fascinating insight into the life and mind of a great English philanthropist, says Clive Aslet
ONE OF THE star exhibits at Nuffield Place, an Oxfordshire country house that has just been acquired by the National Trust, is a box-like apparatus, the length of a human being, which has the appearance, homespun yet clinical, of a torture chamber on wheels. There can’t be another house in the country which has such a contraption, although at one time quite a few hospitals did.

The patient lay in the cabinet, his head in a collar, while an electric pump alternately created and released a vacuum. It was called the iron lung; polio sufferers would be put into one to make them breathe, until they could do so by themselves (assuming that state was ever reached; sometimes it wasn’t and they had to stay in the iron lung for years). Along the sides are a series of portholes, which are opened and shut — and here is a clue to the man who owned Nuffield Place — by a car door handle.

Viscount Nuffield began life as William Morris: not the boisterously creative inspiration of the Arts and Crafts movement but the founder of Morris Motors, in the days when Britain still made things, including the immensely successful Morris Minor and Mini. The iron lung appealed to his practical bent, and when Morris Motors made him one of the richest people in Europe he offered to provide one to any hospital throughout the British Empire.

And that was only a tiny instance of the philanthropy to which he devoted his huge personal fortune. Having established his works at Cowley, on the outskirts of Oxford, where he’d grown up, he endowed a chair of medicine at Oxford University, and then gave it a college (he had wanted it to focus on engineering, and lost interest when the authorities insisted on social science). He set up the Nuffield Foundation to support medicine and make educational grants. The scale of his benevolence gives him a place in the pantheon of great philanthropists, where he can rub shoulders with Carnegie and Bill Gates.

I rather like Morris, in so far as one can know him from photographs. A strong, square face, wavy hair brushed back from the forehead; the robust physique that was a sign of farming stock; even when he is wearing a top hat, his features crinkle into a cheeky grin. He had been a sportsman as a young man, using his success as a cyclist to publicise the bicycles he made.  

Nuffield Place had been designed, in grey brick trimmed with red, by Oswald Milne, a pupil of Lutyens. It was what Country Life called a ‘small country house’. Morris and his wife Elizabeth were content to leave it more or less as it was, their only significant addition being a billiard room, which messes up Milne’s carefully composed entrance front. There was a garden but no landed estate — certainly no shooting.

Inside, the charm of the house is its ordinariness. The pair could not be accused of having pronounced aesthetic tastes. They surrounded themselves with the sort of things one’s grandparents liked: comfortable armchairs, upholstered in machine-made tapestry; a veneered cocktail cabinet whose top opens out to present an array of cut-glass tumblers and decanters; floral chintz; tea sets decorated with roses.

Equally of its time is the naked display of smoking equipment — pipes, ashtrays, a patent dispenser of matches which light as you tug them out of a ring. There may be the occasional Lalique vase, turned into a table lamp, but the television cabinet is now far more of a curiosity: redolent of an era in which it was considered not quite decent to display a small rectangle of greenish glass in your drawing room.

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Blotches on the carpets bear witness to a succession of Scottish terriers, and it seems that the square grey panels covering the floor of Morris’s bedroom were offcuts from the Cowley works. This is the key to the house. It shows Morris as a man who loved gadgets. Dying in 1963, he lived into the Space Age, when the future seemed to lie in sun lamps, and the Qray radioactive compress that combined ‘the curative effects of radioactivity and heat’. Electricity was an enchantment, powering a novelty such as an exercise horse (a kind of grown-up rocking horse, with a proper saddle). But this was a pre-microchip world in which machines could still be understood.

The glory of Nuffield Place is the big cupboard in Morris’s bedroom that opens out to reveal an Aladdin’s cave of tools, old clocks, ink bottles, Morris’s appendix (pickled), miniature anvils, screwdrivers, keys. Spare a thought for Elizabeth, left alone in her own bedroom (they were not a close couple), with only her sewing box for company. Viscount Nuffield, having switched on the reading light over his pillow, could beguile the watches of the night by tinkering with an old clock.

Nuffield Place is an extraordinary social document, impregnated with the personality of a great and generous man. The National Trust now needs £600,000 so that it can be shown to the public. Is there a philanthropist who could step forward? 

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