|An illustrated edition of |
News From Nowhere or An Epoch of Rest
Being some chapters from a Utopian Romance by William Morris
Photograph from the UIOWA online resource
Every now and then I still have to pinch myself to think that the ordinary California girl who was a confirmed anglophile by the age of 9 is really living here amongst all the things which she loved, castles, Shakespeare, Arthur Rackham, Alice and William Morris. Each time that I visit Kelmscott Manor the old house on The Thames which captivated the pre-Raphaelites I feel blessed.
|The front of Kelmscott Manor as it is today|
It is no surprise that much has been written about Kelmscott Manor. The house is a beautiful Grade 1 listed Tudor farmhouse adjacent to the River Thames that dates from 1570. It was a star in the life of William Morris, writer, designer and socialist. He, his family and his circle of friends were all captivated by it and the spell continues to enchant all who visit. William found the house to use as the summer retreat of his family. He rented it from 1871 until his death in 1896 at which time his widow Jane continued to live in the house with his daughters May and Jenny. Jane purchased it in 1913. When May Morris died in 1938 she wanted to ensure her Father's legacy would be preserved so she bequeathed the house to Oxford University who she thought could allow public access. The University were unable to preserve the house as 'a museum piece' and passed it and the manor to the Society of Antiquaries in 1962, who still own and manage it.
So great was Williams love for Kelmscott Manor that when he found his London house, at Hammersmith, he named it Kelmscott House. He considered it so natural in its setting as to be almost organic, it looked to him as if it had "grown up out of the soil"; and with "quaint garrets amongst great timbers of the roof where of old times the tillers and herdsmen slept".
You can read about the history of Kelmscott Manor, who built it and lived in it before and after the Morris family, in my links at the bottom of the page.
The village of Kelmscott is in an idyllic setting which we know from his writing of it contributed to William falling in love with it. It lies hidden from the everyday noise of modern life and being there
you cannot help but feel that you have stepped back in time. Such is the tranquillity of this part of the Cotswolds countryside with the river Thames running behind it that it is shocking when you come upon a coach whose passengers are visiting the Morris family home. The village has a lovely old pub, The Plough, and many beautifully built stone cottages.
When you visit you park about a 10 minute walk from the manor and wind your way down to Kelmscott past sites with Morris family connections. On the day that we visited we were greeted at the car park by a handsome black cat who strolled across the car park to see us. He was very affectionate and with no prompting at all leapt into our car and settled himself down for a nap!
|A Kelmscott village cat in our car|
The first building you come to is the William Morris Memorial Hall designed by Ernest Gimson and his pupil Norman Jewson. The hall was opened by May Morris in 1934 which was the centenary of William Morris. The Kelmscott Manor website tells us that George Bernard Shaw delivered the opening address and the then Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald (the first ever Labour prime Minister) arrived, un-announced and had difficulty gaining entry to the packed hall!
|William Morris Memorial Hall, Kelmscott. View of rear elevation. |
Designed by Ernest Gimson (1864-1919), but not built until after his death.
The building was commissioned by May Morris, daughter of William Morris (1834-1896).
The Hall was officially opened by George Bernard Shaw in October 1934.
© Copyright Julian Osley and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
A little further along the walk you will come to two lovely stone semi detached cottages which Jane Morris asked Philip Webb to design in the memory of William in 1902. They and their gardens are picture perfect and adorned by a carved stone plaque designed by George Jack of William under a tree in the meadow at Kelmscott Manor.
|The William Morris Memorial Cottages|
|The plaque of William in the meadow at Kelmscott|
|The gate and garden of the cottages to the side of Kelmscott Manor|
Further on are two 1914 cottages by Ernest Gimson, a disciple of William, commissioned by May Morris in memory of her Mother. The left-hand one she designated the village school teacher's house.
In June the gardens are at their best and it is a must to visit then to imagine how they looked when William lived there. There are two paintings in the house by family friend Maria Euphrosyne Spartali, later Stillman. It has not been confirmed who the girl is in this painting of the Long Walk in full bloom, but it is thought to be May Morris. I love the jewel like quality of this painting.
|The Long Walk painted by Marie Stillman|
We took hundreds of photos of the glorious blooms and their haunting scent filled the air as we walked down the Long Walk and through the grasses.
The gardeners maintain a wildness which would have been here when William was, and they are returning the yew hedge guardian to it's former form - the Dragon Fafnir. It is not yet finished but you can see the shape of the Dragon forming!
|The Dragon Fafnir is returning!|
So, on to the manor house itself. The trust who keep it have curated items which were in the house when William lived there, and also from his other houses, Red House and Kelmscott House. There are embroideries made by Jane, May and Jenny and William himself and pottery which he collected. The walls are covered in Morris designs and the wooden and flagstone floors are adorned by hand made carpets. Some of Rossetti's things remain there, as if he has only gone for one of his travels to Italy collecting works of art, decorated pieces of furniture and a few hearts of fair maidens along the way.
It does not feel like a museum, although due to the large numbers who now visit the house, you are not allowed to touch anything or to take photographs in the house.
Items are laid out in a way which makes you expect Jane or the children to walk through any minute.
Lots of thought has gone into how items are displayed. These curated and displayed items make the visit poignant and you pause longer than normal to save them in your memory. On a simple coat hook in the parlour hangs William's long woollen winter coat. We had to contain ourselves not to touch it.
There is too much to recount each room here, but perhaps we can do other more detailed posts about them later. The minute you enter your senses are sharpened to every detail.
Downstairs is so stunning it is hard to take it all in during the time allowed to visit each setting. There are helpful guides in every room who have further details on anything you want to know more about.
|The Green Room from Kelmscott Manor own collection|
The flood damage of a few years ago means that the flooring has been replaced in The Green Room but the old tapestries, the Delft tiled fireplace and the wonderful heavy oak table designed by Philip Webb remain. The window seats here are for stopping and sitting while you admire the room and the views. Kennet chintz, an 1883 Morris design is hung on the walls. Laying on top of an old oak chest are two wood printing blocks used by Morris to print the Kennet design onto fabric.
|Kennet designed by William Morris|
|The Panelled (or White) Room |
the Turner crest is sculpted in relief on the fireplace
from Country Life images
In the white panelled Drawing Room fireplace dates to 1670, and 18th century painted wooden panelling reflects the light from the large leaded windows which streams into the room. This part of the house is an extension done by the previous owners. Here you find one of the house's real art treasures, Jane Morris, age 20, posing in a dress she made herself for the Rossetti painting The Blue Silk Dress.
Depending upon what time you are in this room the light plays upon the painting and alters the shade of the dress, and her hair. But her eyes are always the same. Sorrowful.
|The Blue Silk Dress, 1898 (oil on canvas)|
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
If you can tear yourself away you go up the ancient heavy oak staircase which is believed to have been original to the house from the time when the previous owners The Turners lived there in the 1600s, and you are in the bedrooms of Jane to the right and William to the left. Through William's bedroom is the Tapestry Room which was where Rossetti lived and worked. It feels as if you are intruding, an air of a light melancholy hangs in the air and it must have been strange for William to sleep while Rossetti painted away in the room above his.
|The oak stairs from Country Life picture library|
|The Tapestry Room looking back through to William's bedroom.|
|May Morris in the Tapestry Room.|
The table designed by Philip Webb remains there today.
|The other end of the Tapestry Room|
with the old thread bare chaise lounge
and the Cabinet of Curiosities.
From here you go up to the very large attics on an amazing modern staircase which allows people to pass without taking up a great deal of space. It is not certain what was once here, it is thought it was a
steep kind of ladder which only the servants and later the children used, as at the other end of the house is a very old (and now quite wonderfully wonky!) staircase which winds it's way down into what was once the original kitchens.
|One side of the Attics leading into the little garrets, |
from Country Life images
The attic is perhaps the most magical place in the house with it's ancient bleached beams, wide Elm and Oak floorboards and the small garrets which were variably used by weavers (in the time of the previous tenants and owners The Turners in the 1640s) or servants and the children whose bedrooms now house dark green painted furniture designed by William. The guides tell you stories of how the children used to climb out of the old leaden windows onto the roof and run about playing. It is hard to imagine any child being allowed so much freedom today, and it is a pity I think.
|Kelmscott South Attic|
from Bridgeman Art images
Turning right you pass into the South Attics and displays of Morris connected items and books of William's designs, fabrics and wallpapers which you can touch and examine closely. This is a wonderful idea so that the public can see and feel closer to many designs not available to the general public. By a small window there is an old door, either from the garden or from one of the doorways in the house which has been painted with figures, a swan and a lake which for some reason every time that I see it brings to mind Shakespeare's Midsummer Nights Dream. On one visit there a guide told me that the door had been painted for a party for the children, and I had assumed that they meant May and Jenny, William and Jane's daughters. When we asked again on this visit though the guide had a look at the guidebook for that room which said that the door had been painted in the 1940s during the time an artist had rented the house after May had died. There was no mention of the children and I am still left thinking the origins of the door and the painting are a mystery. But a lovely one.
The house has been well curated, laid out and maintained by the trust who are now responsible for it and you can see that they struggle constantly to keep a balance between the fragility of the house and
it's artefacts, and the ever growing number of people who wish to visit. Not being able to take photographs in the house, or to touch the many precious items on display does take away from the experience of being 'at one' with the spirit of William Morris, but it is understandable that the foremost responsibility of the trust is to preserve his legacy.
|The gift shop in one of the old barns|
The gift shop is well stocked with books, post cards, tapestries and fabric items. It is hard to resist and we did not even try!
There are several moods that prevail through the house and gardens. In the attic I was sure that we caught, high on the breeze, the sounds of children laughing while in other places it felt as if the house missed those who had once found it, drawn comfort from it and spent so many years and much effort preserving it. Although it is a very real home and it has a humble and loving spirit, overall you have a feeling that you are in the presence of immense talent and skill the like of which is not often seen.
|May Morning, Jane Morris,|
taken by J. Robert Parsons.
|Jane Morris as a soulful and sensuous Proserpine from Roman mythology, |
painted by Rossetti. Proserpine was kidnapped by the god Pluto and trapped in the
underworld after eating seeds from a pomegranate,
which she holds to her mouth in the painting.
|This photograph shows Jane Morris, in dignified old age with her two daughters.|
May's older sister, Jenny, had been a very bright, scholarly child, but when she was a teenager
she developed epilepsy. In the 19th century the illness was treated with drugs that tended to
dull the mind of the patient. Jenny spent most of her life as an invalid.
It was on May that the hopes of the family fell.
CAGM1991.1016.31.1 From the Emery Walker Library.
From the Arts and Crafts Museum Cheltenham
As you come back downstairs you half expect to hear the rustle of silk as Jane passes down the hallway. You feel reluctant to leave the house and it's spirits behind. You think you might just like to sit awhile in the Drawing Room where the incredible light falls on the painting of Jane in that dress and plays with shadows in her hair. But you must go now and so you cast a longing look down the hall towards the Green Room where there is the large old table designed by master craftsman and Morris friend Phillip Webb. You imagine, just for a moment, that William is there, bent over his books, pen in hand, but looking out the window at the gardens and beyond to the Thames which he loved so much.
|William in his study, |
From the Kelmscott Manor collection
No visit to Kelmscott Manor is complete without paying a visit to St. George's Church, the only medieval building in Kelmscott. It is situated on your way back to the car park, to the left. William, Jane, May and Jenny are buried in a simple grave away from the masses and near an old tree. It speaks volumes that this man who changed the way we think about our houses and whose vision and courage returned us to nature chose not a great monument in some city cemetery where thousands could come to pay homage to him, but a quiet leafy backwater in the English countryside to quietly rest his soul.
Kelmscott Manor website is HERE:
The Society of Antiquaries of London is HERE:
Country Life image library is HERE:
Bridgeman Art Gallery is HERE:
the website of the William Morris Society UK, at kelmscott House, Hammersmith is HERE
Notes From Nowhere at The University of Iowa is HERE: