In honor of the artist/writer/social activist/all-around creative genius William Morris’s birthday on March 24 of 1834, I’m remembering a visit to his home. He had a dream house: a house that actually appeared in his dreams. One day in 1871, he found the actual house, exactly as he had dreamed it, and immediately rented it for himself, his wife and two young children. The house, begun around 1594 and added to over the years, was Kelmscott Manor in farming country in Oxfordshire.
Morris was 37 years old, at the height of his very great powers. Frederick Hollyer photographed him later, in 1899, Public Domain.
He was not making a lot of money, though. So he shared the tenancy of Kelmscott with his close friend, the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He’s above, painted by George Frederic Watts, 1871, Public Domain.
In 1861, Rossetti had become a founding partner in Morris’s design firm, along with Ford Madox Brown, Philip Webb, Charles Faulkner, Peter Paul Marshall, and Edward Burne-Jones.
The house today is a picture of long-ago domestic bliss. Above is a wall hanging which Jane and William embroidered together, early in their marriage. In reaction to the beginning of the Industrial Age and the rise of capitalism, Morris and his friends looked back at an idealized Medieval Age, when life was simpler and beautiful things were hand-crafted. Morris adapted the design from one he found in a 14th-century French manuscript.
William’s overcoat hangs ready for a ramble on country lanes, soaking up the nature that inspired him.
It hangs next to a handpainted medieval-style settle, with a tall curved hood as a shelter from drafts. The settle was designed by Philip Webb, the architect and designer whose work included the country house Standen.
William Morris had met his future wife, 18-year-old Jane Burden, in Oxford. Her photo is by John Robert Parsons, 1865, Public Domain. Rossetti posed her for this photograph. Morris and his friends were mesmerized by Jane’s ethereal beauty and she immediately became their model and muse. Jane had grown up poor and uneducated. William Morris arranged a whirlwind education for her, which she thrived on. Before long, she could hold her own with the most sophisticated of Morris’s friends, and she was perfectly at home in society. They married in 1859.
Does this story sound familiar? Many people think Jane was the inspiration for George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion.”
The playwright was a friend and frequent visitor to the Morris family.
The illustration above shows Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Eliza Doolittle, 1913, Public Domain. The play became the source for the Broadway musical and movie “My Fair Lady.” Six degrees of Victorian separation!
Later, Jane admitted that she always liked Morris, but never actually loved him. This spelled trouble. No sooner had Morris settled his family in the house than he set off on an extended trip to Iceland to study the hero sagas.
He wrote and illustrated several books about Icelandic folklore over a period of two years, during which Jane was involved with Rossetti in the home they all shared.
According to a Kelmscott guidebook, Morris was being a gentleman by going off to Iceland: making himself scarce so that the relationship between Jane and his friend could run its course (which it did). In “Water Willow,” 1871, Rossetti painted Jane with the nearby Thames tributary, the boathouse, Kelmscott Manor and the village church in the background. The painting still hangs in the house; it was Jane’s favorite.
Rossetti was a bit of a ladies’ man, and Jane was irresistible. He painted her many times, before, during, and even after their liaison. The portrait above is “The Blue Silk Dress,” 1868. It still hangs in the house.
“Proserpine,” 1874, hangs in the Tate Britain gallery in London, Public Domain.
In spite of the turmoil in their love lives, the Morris family had many happy years in the house, and eventually Morris’s daughter May was able to buy it.
The house had cozy rooms for entertaining friends.
Naturally, the house was decorated with the designs of Morris and his friends.
The early designs were actually printed by hand on fabrics. Above are some of the original blocks used for printing. Some designs took a dozen or more different blocks.
The attics of the house, once the sleeping quarters for farm servants, were left plain, whitewashed, the sturdy beams exposed, with minimal furniture.
Morris loved the “medieval” look of the attics. He wrote, “I have spent, I know, a vast amount of time designing furniture and wallpaper, carpets and curtains…but I would prefer, for my part, to live with the plainest whitewashed walls and wooden chairs and tables.” (I’m not so sure I believe that, but it’s a nice thought, in keeping with Morris’s concern for working people and his longing for a simple life).
The garden was as important to Morris as the house.
It was never a manicured garden, but it was beautiful in all seasons. I saw it in spring, with tulips and bluebells.
William Morris lived in other houses during his lifetime, but Kelmscott was always his dream home.
The nearby village church, St. George’s, was begun in Norman times, in the eleventh century, with additions up to around 1430 but very minimal changes after that. When he lived at Kelmscott, William Morris founded the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings to protect just such buildings from over-enthusiastic Victorian “restorations.” After his death in 1896, William Morris was buried in the peaceful churchyard near his beloved Kelmscott.
Happy Birthday, dear William!