George Bernard Shaw: reinventing Shaw’s Corner
PUBLISHED: 12:56 07 May 2019 | UPDATED: 13:29 08 May 2019
Credit: Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
Once, the world knocked at its door, now the sleepy National Trust home of GB Shaw is being reinvigorated with a fresh programme of events this spring and summer for all ages and interests
'I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to the future generations.' - GB Shaw
When playwright George Bernard Shaw left his remarkable Hertfordshire home to the National Trust, he didn't think about the practicalities of visitor numbers or parking. This year the trust is celebrating 80 years since Shaw won an Oscar for the screenplay of Pygmalion. With an intriguing new exhibition about the play, workshops, outdoor screenings and play readings as well as Easter egg hunts and children's birdsong trails, the trust is reinventing Shaw's Corner in Ayot St Lawrence as a must-visit destination for all ages. However, being one of the smaller trust properties, it can be challenging.
'He obviously didn't think about the logistics,' says Rebecca Whitmore, who looks after both visitors and volunteers at the property. 'We had to raze Shaw's beloved vegetable patch in order to install a car park, and we know that it was one of his key features in the garden.'
Rebecca used to work at the National Trust's Powis Castle in Wales, and has relocated to look after Shaw's Corner. She is telling me about the challenges of running a National Trust property in a small Hertfordshire village with no public transport. As well as managing the house, garden and shop, she does quite a bit of dusting and hovering as well.
'When they lived here, it was never meant to be open to the public,' says Rebecca. 'They' refers to Bernard Shaw (as he preferred to be known) and his wife Charlotte Payne-Townshend. The couple had a flat in London and rented then bought the detached Arts & Crafts villa in Ayot St Lawrence, which they lived in for 44 years. And while it was never open to the public, the world came knocking here anyway, with a who's who of the early 20th century finding their way through the village to the gates emblazoned 'Shaw's Corner' (you don't get to be arguably the world's most famous and rich artist of the period by shying away from self-promotion).
Before Charlotte died in 1943, and knowing that her husband planned to leave their home to the National Trust, she left instructions that her possessions shouldn't be part of the collection.
'But we're still going to bring out more stories of Charlotte,' says Rebecca, who is committed to throwing open the doors of Shaw's Corner to everyone. Charlotte was a translator, suffragist and philanthropist and a member of the Fabian Society. Her room is currently being used for the brand new and brilliantly curated Pygmalion exhibition.
Say 'Pygmalion' to many people, and thoughts immediately go to Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison in the 1964 film My Fair Lady. But the Shaw's Corner exhibition will give you a much fuller story, and it's fascinating. Shaw wrote the play in 1912, and it was first performed at Her Majesty's Theatre in London in 1914, with Mrs Patrick Campbell playing Eliza Doolittle. 'Mrs Pat' was a leading Edwardian British actress, and Shaw became infatuated with her.
Hungarian director Gabriel Pascal's 1938 film of Pygmalion used Shaw's adapted screenplay. Wendy Hiller played Eliza and Leslie Howard played Professor Henry Higgins. Shaw won an Academy Award for his screenplay the following year. The Oscar is on display in the exhibition. An outdoor screening of the original film will take place in the gardens in July.
The exhibition in Charlotte's bedroom - across the hall from her husband's - includes wonderful photographs of the 1914 performance and of both films. You can see Shaw at rehearsals at the London theatre, and if the fancy takes you, you can step up on the small stage and read out lines from Pygmalion.
Shaw's Corner may not have been on your radar as a destination for a family day out, but this year things are changing. The exhibition includes Pygmalion costumes and props for children and adults to try on, and this summer, there will even be Prof Higgins-style workshops on 'How to be a lady like Eliza'.
Throughout Easter, there are chocolate egg hunts, and if you have never been to Shaw's Corner, the gardens are a delight, full of birdsong (something Bernard Shaw loved about the house) and sculptures. At the bottom of the garden, well hidden by trees and flowers, is Shaw's wonderful rotating writing shed. There's a shiny vintage coffee and cake van in the car park and the shop is well stocked with plants, books and gifts including homewares sporting the William Morris 'honeysuckle' and 'strawberry thief' prints the Shaws enjoyed in their home (the Morris' were friends, and their daughter possibly more than friends - but that's another story you can find out about).
There are new bookable guided tours. I went on one, and was amazed by the knowledge of the volunteer guide who was also a gifted storyteller. Shaw's Corner is a house that had many famous visitors including Vivien Leigh, Danny Kaye, the Astors and Lawrence of Arabia (what is now the staff office was kept as his bedroom) and the remarkable collection of artefacts from the humblest to those with links to world leaders offers layer upon layer of history and tales.
In addition to the guided tours, there are new Arts & Crafts tours coming up this summer. And if you want to flex your own creativity, during May there are lino printing workshops with afternoon tea in the historic kitchen. Be inspired by the collection, then learn from an expert and have a go at your own artwork to take home.
While the house is an extremely Instagrammable destination for anyone with a penchant for Arts & Crafts, one of Rebecca Whitmore's preoccupations is sunlight. How do you protect the original Morris & Co textiles or the Jaeger rugs and famous suits (Shaw was a big fan of natural fibres for health reasons) on display?
'Light is one of the worst things,' she says, 'but you need it to see. It's finding that perfect balance between enjoying a room as Shaw would have enjoyed it and preserving it so that the next group of visitors can enjoy it at the same vibrancy.'
Spending time at Shaw's Corner gives the impression that the owners have just popped out. Shaw probably planned it this way - choosing what to leave behind in each room when he gave his house to the National Trust meant that he was curating his own story. Although some experts think the housekeeper may have had her own ideas just after Shaw's death - another twist in the tale.
Rebecca is keen to plunder the extensive photographic archives to tell new and different stories. Bernard Shaw was a pacifist, socialist, feminist and philanderer, but what many people don't know is that he was an early, keen and talented amateur photographer.
'It would be nice to show how he and Charlotte really lived here; to tell a different story through his own camera lens,' Rebecca says. 'At the moment you see what Shaw wanted you to see.'
Small, compared to the trust's grand estates, it may be but this gem of a place is packed to the rafters with great stories.
For entry details, events and National Trust membership, go to nationaltrust.org.uk/shaws-corner
10 facts about GB Shaw
- Born in Dublin July 26, 1856
- Co-founded the London School of Economics
- Teetotal and vegetarian
- Wrote in a garden shed
- Only man to win an Oscar and Nobel Prize
- Married Charlotte in 1898. They were both 41
- Wrote more than 60 plays
- Fell in love with Mrs Patrick Campbell, who played Eliza in the stage Pygmalion
- Founder member of the Fabian Society
- Died November 2, 1950