A visit to Kelmscott Manor is a changing experience. In the last few years, the volunteers seem to have gone up a notch in their knowledge, the salads easily compete with the jacket potatoes (when available), and the shop has a sophisticated well-chosen set of wares. But more importantly, the exhibitions are becoming ever insightful, and along with the recent introduction of photography (sans flash) they are a signal of Kelmscott acknowledging the modern visitors curatorial expectations and experience, also exemplified by the unfolding plans for a new visitors area due to the ever growing numbers visiting the Manor – which currently only opens twice a week.
Kelmscott Manor, as no doubt anyone reading this will know, was the home to William Morris, poet, socialist, book collector, wallpaper maker, loser in love etc. Originally the site was called Lower Farm and was built circa 1600 for a man called Thomas Turner, who is said to have been a successful yeoman farmer. It remained in the hands of the Turner family, and in 1864 one James Turner purchased the lordship of the manor whereupon it became renamed ‘Kelmscott Manor’, as it still remains.
Kelmscott is situated near the pretty village of Lechlade at the southern edge of the beautiful Cotswolds (a seemingly ever growing part of Gloucestershire). It is an estate which boats a large 12.5 acres of land and it has numerous buildings aside from the manor house and its garden: several historic barns, a dovecot, stabling, and five cottages. Out of the estate, 13 of its buildings are listed (one Grade I, four Grade II* and eight Grade II).
In 1869 a cousin Charles Hobbs took on the farm buildings but offered up the house for rent. In 1871, Morris took on a three year lease with his friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and it then remained in the family as a rental until 1913, when Jane was finally able to buy the house. When the daughter, May Morris, died in 1938, the house was bequeathed to Oxford University, but since 1962 it has been in hands of the Society of Antiquaries of London.
The identity of Kelmscott is now forever Morrisian. It has not just the frenetic energy of Morris emblazoned throughout, but the boundless energy of his daughter May, and the perhaps less than salubrious myth of his wife Jane’s love affair with Rossetti.
Whilst Morris described it as ‘a heaven on earth’ the house must have soon became a source of pleasure mixed with pain. The landscape, the weeping willows, the river side view were a peaceful paradise compared to the more emotional landscape of those who lived there. Hanging in the Panelled (White) Room is what is now considered to mark the start of the affair, The Blue Silk Dress (1868, Kelmscott Manor) which was begun prior to the lease but hangs ominously over what should have been a marital home, not an extra-marital one.
The Latin inscription of the painting acknowledges William Morris, but kotows to Jane who was ‘Famous for her poet husband, and most famous for her face, finally let her be famous for my picture!’ This recalls Algernon Charles Swinburne’s infamous line that “The idea of his [Morris] marrying her is insane. To kiss her feet is the utmost man should think of doing.” The relationship Jane and Rossetti is legendary, despite the actual intimacy of the relationship being unclear.
The inscription gives precedence to Jane, and not Morris, perhaps inevitably so, but it also tells us much about the characters and the nature of Kelmscott. Rossetti directed the props, e.g. the dress which he designed, and Jane, being a talented seamstress and embroiderer, made the dress, and suggested the gold jewellery which she posed in for the painting. Their correspondence shows Jane, not as a passive female, but as an active participant in the composition of the painting. Significantly and perhaps conflictingly, the portrait also shows the remarkable series of pictures of Jane Rossetti would embark upon as much as it marks the downward decline of his mental health.
The White Room is a particularly lovely room and it houses three simple Morris patterned chairs in front of a fire place, above which hangs the Rossetti owned Brueghel the Elder, Spring (1632, Kelmscott Manor). The work is a wonderful example of a Brueghel painting and is indicative of Rossetti’s interest in the natural world, as well as being representative of the interests his 1849 trip to Europe inspired, when he became particularly effected by works by Brueghel, Dieric Bouts, and many other Flemish masters.
Nearby this beautiful painting is the China Closet which displays much of Morris’ blue and white ceramics, such as was de rigueur for that period (particularly Rossetti and Whistler who were interested in anything Chinese and seemingly ‘exotic’). The original use of the room is unknown, however, the shelving was designed by Philip Webb a Pre-Raphaelite associate, Morris’ business partner, and architect of great renown and importance to the group. Webb was very close friends with Morris and a watercolour of his study can be found in Jane’s bedroom (Thomas Rooke’s Study at Caxton’s).
In the corner of this room is one of the finest drawings of Jane Morris you will ever see: Rossetti, Jane Burden (before her marriage in 1859) (1857, Kelmscott Manor). Unfortunately, you won’t be able to photograph it well due to the reflective glass and awkward lighting in the room but I suggest you study it long and close and imprint it into your mind for it shows beauty, youth, talent and tenderness, and perhaps just the beginnings of enchantment.
Despite Rossetti not being the man of the house, his hand is upon it. In the North (Garden) Hall you will find his Pembroke Table and chest which he left behind: Rossetti’s shadow remains a silent intruder upon the Morris’ through the pairing of his wares with the hooded settle Webb designed for the Morrises in 1859, when they were first married. Also in this North Hall is Morris’ top-coat, a heavy black affair that has something of the funerary about it.
The landscape of this house reaches far back to the Turner’s as well as indicating the lives and loves of the Pre-Raphaelites. In the Old Hall is a seventeenth century oak table and chairs which belonged to the Turner Family and it sits alongside the rush-seated ‘Sussex’ hairs also designed by Webb. The House, like that of Morris’ Red House in Kent, is a working living piece of art: from the table mates made by May Morris, to the wallpaper, tapestries, tiles, and paintings. The way the house is designed and decorated highlights a whole way of life, and a communal one at that. Some of the Socialist tendencies of Morris can be interpreted in amongst the finely wrought patterns, as can a Ruskinian theophany of Pre-Raphaelite naturalism. The major names, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Webb, Madox Brown, all contributed to creating this space whether that was in designing chairs (a Rossetti and Brown also did) or lamp fittings, collecting china and books, producing drawings and tapestries, or planting flowers. May and Jane’s role was also significant, this was one community where traditional gender roles flexed and bent more than was typical in the nineteenth century.
Morris’ intentions for the house were to create a restful place, although Morris himself was never a restful person. When Morris died in 1896 at the age of sixty-two, his physician declared that the cause was “simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men.” Nonetheless, he sought and perhaps even fought to create a home which was calming. The Green Room was painted with a colour that Morris mixed and described as being ‘restful to the eyes’ and ‘neither cold nor rank’. Sadly The Green Room is no longer green. I believe there was also flood damage from 2007 which caused damage to the flooring (which means it has been treated and repaired in this room). The property also suffered again in the 2014 floods due to its proximity to the Thames.
The staircase leading to Jane and Morris’ individual bedrooms was also painted green although Oxford University removed this during the tenure of their ownership and it is now stripped and waxed to bare wood. The convex mirror on the staircase belonged to Rossetti and is perhaps an item that is easily overlooked in terms of its significance. However, the mirror unveils a wealth of interests and influences for its direct reference to Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait (1434, National Gallery). The mirror in the Arnolfini can be found as a feature in many of Rossetti’s drawings and paintings, as well as in Hunt’s.
Upstairs you enter the green willow patterned room that was Jane’s bedroom. The wallpaper is a modern reproduction but is no doubt inspired by the willow trees near the house. The same trees which also inspired Rossetti and are forever captured in his painting of Jane Water Willow (1871, Delaware) – you will note the distant view of Kelmscott in the background of the painting. The copy in this room is a version by Charles Fairfax Murray painted in 1893. There is also a painting of Jane in her later years nearby the bed.
There are significant items in this room: the bed is the one that Morris was born in, the ‘Homestead and the Forest’ cot quilt (1900) was designed by May and embroidered by Jane and is a recent acquisition, and Marie Spartali Stillman’s Feeding Doves in Kitchen Yard (1904, Kelmscott).
Stillman’s painting is also referred to as The Backyard, Kelmscott and was painted by her when she visited Kelmscott. The figure in the painting is thought to be Emily Panting, May’s housekeeper, and the girl on the right carrying a basin is the housemaid, Henrietta Carter. Stillman was a great friend of the family and a famed ‘Pre-Raphaelite stunner’. Her work is growing in recognition and in 2016, an exhibition dedicated to Spartali’s work was put on at the Watts Gallery.
Also in the room is a beautiful medieval style jewel case. It is possible it belonged to Elizabeth Siddal originally, although it was later in Jane’s possession. Although a highly decorative piece, only approximately half of the fourteen panels have still got their original decoration. One of the scenes shows two lovers by a rose trellis, and is thought by scholars to derive from the early 15th century Poems of Christine de Pisan manuscript in the British Museum. These personal details make the house feel like a home, not a museum, despite the occasional protective display cases, and the carefully laid thistles.
In Morris’ bedroom, is another four poster bed which Morris seems to have enjoyed snuggling in when ‘the night is cold and the Thames runs chill’. There is little privacy in the house though, and to the modern mind, the lack of privacy seems unusual. One has to walk through Morris’ bedroom to enter what is called The Tapestry Room where guests would have spent their evenings being entertained, or entertaining.
The bed’s pelmet was decorated by Jane and incorporates some of his poetry from A Garden by the Sea (167). In this room is a sketch of Morris done just after his death, although Morris actually died in his London home, Kelmscott House.
The bookcase in the room was designed by Webb for Kelmscott House although in this setting it now displays books of those who influenced Morris, including Dickens, Ruskin, Scott etc. In this room you will also see the importance of Dürer, who, like Van Eyck, had a great impact upon the Pre-Raphaelites – one which is still not yet fully analysed. The print of particular import is Melencolia I (originally engraved in 1514) which is rather dismissed on the side wall as you enter The Tapestry Room.
On doing just that you will find a room mixed with tapestries, heavy furniture and Persian and Islamic design. The tapestries are seventeenth century and depict the Samson narrative. They have been cut to fit the room and are recorded as having been in situ since 1734. Morris did not particularly value them saying they had ‘no artistic value, but now faded into pleasant grey ones which harmonised thoroughly well with the quiet of the place’ and it is hard not to agree.
The two brass peacocks, possibly for incense burning, are particularly eye catching. There is also a Persian carpet and tiles in the room which compliment Morris’ interest in Iznik designs.
The room was initially Rossetti’s studio, illustrated by the paint box on the writing desk in the room. Rossetti’s presence in the room feels negligible, but it was certainly not the case during his actual time living there. Whilst Morris wandered off to Iceland to write his sagas, Rossetti lived almost continuously at Kelmscott for nearly two years (from autumn 1872 until summer 1874). Morris’ hot tempered personality bore the intensity of Jane and Rossetti’s relationship well, mostly by absenting himself from them. However, it must have weighed upon him for he was at the point of giving up the tenancy when he wrote to Rossetti in April 1874, saying:
My dear Gabriel.
I send herewith the £17.10 to you. As to the future though I will ask you to look upon me as off my share & not to look upon me as shabby for that, since you (may)have fairly taken to living at Kelmscott, which I suppose either of us thought the other would do when we first began the joint possession of the house; for the rest I am both too poor &, by compulsion of poverty, too busy to be able to use it much in any case and I am very glad if you find it useful & pleasant to you’.
This letter effectively cut off Rossetti’s unconstrained access to Jane, and reasserted his own position as husband, which he further did by retracing their honeymoon on a trip to Bruges, somewhere Rossetti was particularly fond of. It is perhaps this letter which prompted Rossetti to return to London which he did in July that year.
Morris, the poverty stricken Morris!, retrieved the lease and so the story continued although the lines of propriety had been firmly redrawn.
Upstairs again is a wonderful space, The Attics, which, as Morris himself reported, were a great place for children. The rooms remain plain, as Morris insisted they were beautiful enough as they were, and so they remain. Only a few examples of simple Webb and Brown designed green furniture can be found, but somehow in amongst the vast space, one can hear the voices of those who once ran around playing and hiding.
As a museum space this offers you very little, but as am imaginary space it offers the visitor much. As you come back down there is a small room which houses various exhibitions that further the understanding of how Kelmscott was used and who by. The final room within the house is the Old Kitchen, which remains simple and sparse such as Morris (perhaps at odds with your expectations) suggested. Morris wrote to his friend Edward Carpenter saying that he preferred ‘to live with the plainest whitewashed walls and wooden chairs and tables’ and thus we find the kitchen, the heart of the home.
Morris’ life was a busy and productive one, and despite his stormy personality he was loved by many. The village reflects his great achievements and you can find a Memorial Hall (1934) and Cottages (1902) in his honour, alongside a plaque of Morris. If you walk further into the village you come to St. George’s Church and here lie the Morrises, William, Jane, Jenny and May in a simple Viking styled tomb designed by none other than Morris’ friend, Philip Webb. It is a quiet tomb, without pomp and it is even hidden by an oddly placed bush, but it reminds us of Morris’ desire for simplicity. Perhaps this placement is deliberately to obscure, in order not to have a pomp and ceremony that Morris may not have approved of? It certainly makes our approach to Morris slower and more deliberate, as we blindly follow the desire lines uncertain of who we will find.
Images via National Museum’s Liverpool, British Museum, Society of Antiquaries of London, and my own collection.
 Rossetti exhibited this at the Arundel Society Exhibition in 1866 as the Cultivation of Tulips
 See Elizabeth Prettejohn et al, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (London: Thames and Hudson, 2004), p. 227