News From Nowhere

7th August 2009

Kelmscott Manor was the hideaway country home of William Morris, the ‘patron saint’ of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Alan Jamieson went to explore a unique rural retreat.

If you have a beautiful wife who is enjoying a passionate love affair with a close friend, it might seem a good idea (however liberal and progressive your views) to whisk her away from London to an isolated farmhouse deep in the Oxfordshire countryside. In 1871, William Morris – poet, artist, writer, designer, businessman and socialist (to name but a few of his many accomplishments) – did just that. Kelmscott, an Elizabethan limestone manor house on the banks of the Thames, seemed an ideal refuge.

“Please be happy, Janey,” wrote Morris, as he left her there and cleared off to explore the wilds of Iceland. (Iceland? And he thought Kelmscott too chilly.)

Janey’s lover, the poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, promptly moved into the house (he was, after all, co-signatory on the lease…) and stayed there, off and on, for three years until, after a quarrel with local anglers, he returned to London.

Kelmscott was William Morris’s country retreat for the next 25 years. He even used a line drawing of the Manor as the frontispiece to his 1890 novel News from Nowhere. Morris came each summer, winters being too bleak in his opinion, and was eventually buried in the nearby churchyard in 1896. His younger daughter May, an active socialist, continued to live at Kelmscott – summers and winters – with a companion, a local landgirl called Frances Lobb, until 1938.

You can visit this unique house on selected days throughout summer. It’s a truly inspiring experience… you dip into the way of life of a great artist-designer, whose patterns and styles still catch the eye of buyers in the textile and wallpaper departments of the Oxford Street emporia. Many of the furnishings at Kelmscott, such as beds, tiles, carpets and embroideries, were brought from Morris’s London house; you can see for yourself the origins – and results – of his inspiration.

Strolling around the house is like entering a 1890s time-warp, although there are elements of Tudor – Morrisonian-Tudor – too. Fabrics and paper patterns hang on almost every wall and his wife’s embroidery lies on beds and tables. One unfinished piece shows Janey, the erring wife, as Queen Guinevere. Quite appropriate, really.

Furniture is simple, spindly and looks uncomfortable. In the parlour and halls are home-woven tapestries and cushion covers – some by William himself, others by his wife and daughters – and there’s a wooden settle with painted leather panels, as hard and rigid now as it was in 1879. Hanging on the door is Morris’s wool overcoat; sensibly, he probably never took it off.

The ‘Green Room’ is hung round with chintz designed by the great man in 1883 and tiles, chairs and sofas are in the famous Morris blue. Another small 17th century room is dominated by a rustic Breughel scene, and the famous Rossetti portrait of Jane Morris in a blue silk dress. In the drawing room, with its original 1670 fireplace, are more drawings, together with pictures of the complicated Morris-Rossetti ‘amitie amoureuse’.

Up a wooden staircase is Mrs Morris’s bedroom with the unique willow wallpaper, now reproduced in many an aspiring ‘homewares’ catalogue. Every visitor stops to gaze at the 1893 copy of Rossetti’s famous Water Willow portrait of Jane; the original is in the Delaware Art Museum in the USA. The same willow pattern is used for the hangings on the four-poster mahogany bed in which William was born in 1834.

William’s own bedroom has another fine bed, a 17th century oak four-poster, decorated with colourful hangings embroidered by his daughter May with the text of a Morris poem. On the walls are woodblock prints and line drawings, all tremendously evocative. Next door the Tapestry Room (Morris called tapestry ‘the noblest of the weaving arts’), has gently faded 17th century drapes depicting the life of Samson, and, as elsewhere, curtains of a heavy-weave wool fabric designed by Morris. The writing desk at which William composed poetry (not now widely read) has Rossetti’s paint box perched on it. Next to it is a black armchair, the prototype of one that was put into production by Morris’s own furniture company and widely sold abroad: in America it earned the unremarkable title of the ‘Morris chair’, but it sold in tens of thousands.

Another staircase leads to attics with single wooden beds and more fabric displays. You have to use your imagination here, to visualise warmly-dressed Victorian ladies gazing at table displays of garden flowers and neat arrangements of birds’ feathers as they stitched away, hour after hour. On show is their work: a Sunflower embroidery, for example, later manufactured into curtains for thousands of homes. In the attics, too, are tiles, and towel horses, washstands and dressing tables, designed by Morris and Ford Madox Brown, and reproduced for sale by ‘the Firm’: Morris & Co.

Life at Kelmscott must have been Spartan, with no heating and the constant risk of river floods. At the end of the delightful garden with barns and a dovecot is a reminder of the practical: an earth lavatory with three seats, all in a row.

Afterwards, walk up the road to the church of St George, which escaped the Reformation and has remained almost unaltered since 1640. In the churchyard is the Morris family grave. They lie for ever in the ground that nurtured them for so many years…

Kelmscott Manor is near Faringdon, Oxfordshire, about 90 minutes
drive from the local area, and difficult to access other than by car.
See www.kelmscottmanor.co.uk for opening hours, or call 01367 252486.

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