Tag Archives: William Morris

Kelmscott Manor: William Morris’s Dream House

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!

Arts and Crafts Perfection at Standen

If I could move into any house I wanted in the English countryside, I’d take Standen, near East Grinstead in Sussex.

The house has a complicated floor plan, built in stages. I’m not exactly sure what was older and what was newer. The final stage was to link the new building to the original farmhouse on the property, Great Hollybush (I’d have kept that name!)

It is not a particularly grand house–in fact, that is the point. It was built by the architect Philip Webb, a close friend of William Morris, in 1892-94.

The client, James Beale, was a very wealthy solicitor who had made his fortune in London. At age 50, Mr. Beale wanted a beautiful but functional second home in the country for his wife and their seven children. The children were already beginning to marry and move away, but Standen remained the gathering place for children and grandchildren for almost eighty years.

Philip Webb and William Morris had met in their twenties at Oxford. They immediately hit it off, and collaborated on projects for the rest of their working years.

I’d love to hire “The Firm” today. They were the very opposite of the sleek throw-away esthetic of IKEA. (Not that I don’t own plenty of practical IKEA stuff!)

James Beale was a hardworking, pragmatic, sober, simple-living family man. He wanted a comfortable family home, not a showplace. But he was willing to pay for quality.

His idea of luxury was a house big enough to contain the hijinks of his large family and lots of visitors.

The house is large and filled with daylight. The conservatory was a favorite place to lounge and read.

Billiards, anyone? The house had electric lighting from the beginning.

All the fixtures were specially designed, most of them by W. A. S. Benson, who trained under William Morris.

The effect is subtle but beautiful, even in daylight.

The Beales did not need any grand rooms for entertaining; they just wanted to relax and enjoy each other’s company.

Most of the textiles and wallpapers were William Morris designs.

Margaret Beale was creative and handy with any kind of needle.

She kept her children busy making things for the house.

One of the daughters, Maggie, never married. She stayed at Standen and became a skilled artist and designer in her own right.

Maggie’s studio is one of the most pleasant rooms in the house. It seems like she could breeze in at any moment with an idea for a painting or a sofa cushion.

My other favorite room is the Larkspur Bedroom, so named for the William Morris wallpaper. I like the built-in wardrobes and I LOVE the tub in front of the fire (the maids may not have loved lugging pails of water up and down stairs for it).

Mr. Beale and his architect were old-fashioned and a bit frugal. The floor with all the bedrooms had only two “necessary” rooms and one bathroom. (I think bedrooms still had chamber pots and maids still had to deal with them).

The family enjoyed their meals and they were big eaters. The children used to have contests to see who could pack on the most weight from a single meal. The family record was five pounds, put on by one of the boys. (The family dressed for dinner. I guess someone’s satin cummerbund must have felt a little tight after that epic meal).

The children had plenty of room outside to burn energy. There were flower beds and a kitchen garden and woodlands to explore.

Then as now, there were chickens right outside.

And the door was always open to the home the Beales created, where everything was useful or beautiful–or both.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Lord Nuffield ( the “Other” William Morris)

William Morris wanted to be a surgeon, but his working-class family could not dream of sending him to university. So at the age of 15 he was apprenticed to a bicycle repair shop.  After awhile, he politely requested a raise.  When his boss refused, he went down the street and opened his own repair shop. Soon he was building and selling superior bicycles, which he personally raced, winning national awards for distances from one to fifty miles. His bikes, with a distinctive gilt wheel, attracted customers from all over Great Britain.

He met his wife because she loved cycling too. As a side business, the enterprising Mr. Morris ran a taxi service.  Soon he was repairing taxis. It was just one step further to building his own car–simple and easy to repair. How hard could it be?


Soon he was selling huge numbers of Morris motorcars –and selling them at a price that middle-class and even working-class people could afford. Just as Henry Ford did in the United States, William Morris pioneered mass production, turning out fleets of fine affordable cars in ever-shorter times.

He was a master of marketing, too. He offered affordable car repair plans.  He published a colorful magazine that showed ordinary people tootling along the roads of Great Britain, enjoying excursions that were once reserved for the rich and their chauffeurs. But Mr. Morris gave away his money as quickly as he made it. All over Great Britain, self-made men were building stately homes that rivaled royal palaces. But Lord Nuffield gave most of his money to charities. He lived happily at his fairly modest home, Nuffield Place, now a National Trust property.


In gratitude for his philanthropy, the King “created” him Viscount. He became a close personal friend of both King and Queen. He took the name “Lord Nuffield” from the village near Oxford, where he had a home. On the eve of coronation in 1937, the Queen wrote him a sweet note of gratitude.

FullSizeRender (27)

Rather reluctantly, because they were modest people, Mr. Morris and his wife decked themselves out in the ermine-trimmed red velvet robes needed for the coronation.

When World War II broke out, the Morris factories had to meet the tremendous need for military vehicles. Soldiers set forth from England to battlegrounds all over the world in Morris vehicles. Lord Nuffield was too old to fight, but he saw another need: anesthesia for field hospitals.


Again, how hard could it be? In no time, he had designed a portable machine to administer ether. He gave away thousands of them. No longer did soldiers fresh off the battlefield have to endure excruciating pain in surgery.

The war ended at last. Then in the 1950s, there was an outbreak of poliomyelitis, in England as in the United States. Lord Morris designed and manufactured an iron lung. One of them is on display at Nuffield Place. It is hard to imagine life inside one of these machines, but the machine saved many lives. Lord Nuffield gave away over 5,000 of these machines to patients all over Britain and the Commonwealth. Polio victims could get through the worst stage of the disease. Without such a machine they died because they could not breathe. Many of them were able to recover. They might be left with some paralysis, but they were alive.

So William Morris, who richly deserved the title “Lord Nuffield,” ended up saving and improving countless lives. What would he have accomplished as a surgeon? Most likely he would have been equally creative and generous as a physician.

FullSizeRender (7)

England has hundreds of very grand castles, palaces and stately homes.  But one of my favorite sights is Nuffield Place, the fairly modest home where William Morris chose to live.

I wrote about Lord Nuffield and his home after a visit last fall, at https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2015/04/21/nuffield-place…-practical-man/

I’m off to England again soon.  If I can, I’d like to pay another visit to this inventive, practical, generous man’s home. Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Nuffield Place: Home of a Practical Man



Last month I visited the home of William Morris–not the Arts and Crafts genius, but another kind of genius.


He rose from poverty to invent and manufacture the Morris Minor motorcar, the British equivalent of Henry Ford’s Model T. He made an automobile affordable, for the first time, for the newly emerging middle class in Britain. Many families could even afford two of them.

He was “created” Lord Nuffield, making him a Peer of the Realm, because he was one of England’s greatest philanthropists besides being a fine inventor. He gave away the equivalent of over a billion dollars in today’s money.

He and his wife lived modestly in their beloved country home starting in 1933.  Lady Nuffield died, childless, in 1959. When Lord Nuffield died in 1963, he left their home to Nuffield College, which he had founded in nearby Oxford. The bequest stipulated that the house remain as they left it.


What did the college do with the house? They must have maintained it, at least. It’s very livable, with all the original bed linens, china and towels. Maybe it was used to house special guests. The house remained a time capsule until it was given to the National Trust and opened to the public in 2011. Now it’s one of my favorite NT properties, because it’s such a contrast with the conspicuous consumption I’ve grown to expect when I flash my NT pass.


Although he was a close personal friend of the King and Queen, Lord Nuffield liked nothing better than to go home to Nuffield Place, where he could tinker with his inventions and walk his Scottie dogs.

Nuffield Place is just one more reason to love driving around the English countryside with my trusty National Trust pass!