Rooms of One’s Own: Kelmscott Manor
"Morris threw himself into his life"
Icon Press republish Adrian Mourby’s remarkable travel book, Rooms of One’s Own, for the first time in paperback in July.
For Rooms of One’s Own Adrian visited 50 places where great works of literature were written, including several in Oxfordshire.
Here is his account of tracking down William Morris at Kelmscott Manor.
There can be few writer residences as satisfying as Kelmscott Manor, where William Morris lived from 1871 until his death.
Yet it is one almost wholly without revelations. We want a bit of a surprise when we visit a writer’s room, I think. We want to learn something unexpected. Morris, a man of remarkable energies, threw himself into his life, working as an artist, designer, poet, novelist, translator and printer. While Thomas Hardy and Gerard Manley Hopkins – his almost exact contemporaries – took the novel and poetry towards Modernism, Morris took Britain back to the misty Middle Ages.
Kelmscott Manor, built in 1570, looks like a setting for one of Morris’ books. The polymath did most of his writing here, having given up painting by 1862. Among books written at Kelmscott were The Story of Sigurd the Volsung (1877), Hopes and Fears for Art (1882), A Tale of the House of the Wolfings (1889), Poems by the Way (1891), News from Nowhere (1890), and The Wood Beyond the World (1894). He also wrote a number of translations – The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Beowulf, and Old French Romances. His work was widely read. These days, when the words ‘William Morris’ are almost always followed by ‘design’, ‘style’ or ‘wallpaper’, it is salutary to realise that in his lifetime Morris was better known as a writer.
William Morris’ pursuit of a purer world that looked medieval but practised socialism was helped by his being born into a wealthy family. He could afford to follow his dreams and live where he wanted. Morris was accompanied on these adventures by his wife Jane, whose beauty he fell for while a student at Oxford, and by the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who spent most of his adult life in love with Jane and was incapable of painting any subject well apart from her. Jane Morris became the face of Pre-Raphaelite beauty. Her large dark eyes, long nose, full lips and resolute chin can be seen everywhere in Victorian art, in book illustrations, in paintings, even in stained glass. The ideal – for both men and women – was to look like Jane Morris. Thanks to the adoration she inspired in the Pre-Raphaelite movement, there are even graphics accompanying newspaper reports of the Boer War in South Africa in which the heroic young subalterns all look like Jane.
Theirs was a strange ménage. By the time the three of them arrived at Kelmscott Manor, Morris had already built the innovatory neo-Gothic Red House in Kent and moved from there to Queen Square in Bloomsbury, where his design business, Morris & Co., prospered. He then decided he wanted to bring his children up in the country. Kelmscott, a limestone Elizabethan manor house, was perfect and he took a joint tenancy with Rossetti.
Arriving at Kelmscott the day the RAF were doing a series of public displays at nearby Brize Norton, I couldn’t miss the dramatic contrast between the Red Arrows overhead and the pink roses over William Morris’ door, disturbing his medieval idyll. The house is owned by the Society of Antiquaries and it’s opened only on Wednesdays and Saturdays. After Morris’ death, Jane bought Kelmscott and offered to leave it to Oxford University if they would preserve it as a museum. The University declined, so it went to the Antiquaries.
Inside the manor house were pictures and decorative works by Morris, Burne-Jones and Rossetti as well as Philip Webb (architect of the Red House). The whole building looked like a showcase for William Morris design in its furniture, textiles, paintings, carpets, and ceramics. The walls were covered with Morris’ take on medieval tapestries, and the four-poster beds were draped with them too. His trellis wallpaper and oakleaf motif fabrics were everywhere. Looking at the fireplaces and casements that had not been modified by Morris, I got the feeling that when he moved in, the house might have resembled a nineteenth century vicarage out of George Eliot, but the Morrises took it back to Chaucer’s time.
It was all very pretty and full of people recognising the originals of their cushion covers or curtains, but it was just what I expected. The only surprising element was in the outhouses, where my wife and I found a converted farm building containing a triple lavatory where three people could sit simultaneously – with or without plumbing (I did not check).
Of all of Morris’ design innovations, this was the most unlikely. It was difficult to imagine it being used by this middle-class Victorian household, so I found it particularly delightful to come across a caricature that Osbert Lancaster had penned of Rossetti, Jane, and Morris sitting on the lavatories, the men with their trousers round their ankles and Morris furrowing his brow as he tries to read La Roumant de la Rose in the original French.
William Morris has become one of those great unread writers now, like Charles Kingsley and Vita Sackville-West. He achieved a remarkable amount in his 62 years. In addition to his writings and design business, he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings to guard against the philistinism that accompanied Victorian notions of progress. He founded the Socialist League to work for greater social justice, and the Kelmscott Press to publish beautifully illustrated, limited-edition books. And of course, he gave us the ‘William Morris’ look which still sells around the world. Before we left, I bought a William Morris mug lettered with one of his best known declarations.
‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’ Prescient words at a time of Victorian clutter and worth remembering today. But tellingly, I did not buy a copy of Hopes and Fears for Art, in which Morris made that statement. I hoped he’d forgive me.
In July 2018 Icon will be republishing Rooms with a View, the sequel to Rooms of One’s Own for the first time in paperback.
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