On Easter Saturday I took my mum to Kelmscott Manor, William Morris’ home set in the heart of the Oxfordshire countryside. It was yet another treat for my mum’s 70th birthday as she had been wanting to go for ages and they even gave her a small fruit cake as a birthday present! It was quite possibly the most serene and wonderful days I have spent in a long time and I was so glad we went.
Now, before I continue, I need to confess something. If I ever have the pleasure of bumping into a mad man with a blue box (yes, I’m a Doctor Who obsessive!) the first era I would beg him to take me wouldn’t be what you’d expect. No, it wouldn’t be the 1930s, 40s or 50s, it would be the 1850s, at the very birth of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. I would do my damnedest to search out the one man in history that can literally make my heart skip a beat, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
So imagine my excitement when I read in Kelmscott Manor’s guide that not only did William Morris and his family live there but so did Rossetti! Cue squealy teenage behaviour!!
Right, now I’ve got that out of the way, back to the purpose of the post, to tell you about the lovely day we had.
The house itself, built around 1600, is stunningly beautiful, not too big and not too small, and has the most exquisite details everywhere for you to spot. I particularly loved these gorgeous wrought iron window catches which were in the shape of a fist holding a stick. They reminded me a little bit of the door knocker on the front door of Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey) which is a wolf holding a deer’s leg in its mouth. I love things like this, objects that look completely out of place where they are, but are actually something very useful.
As we started to explore our way around, the first set of drawings we came to were a series by another of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite artists, Edward Burne-Jones. These were dotted along the a dark corridor and in a sort of passage-through room which had William Morris’ coat hanging in the corner. Each of the twelve drawings represented a different sign of the zodiac. I was too overwhelmed by everything at this point to even think to see which one represented my sign, Scorpio.
There were wall hangings of Morris’ famous prints, like ‘The Strawberry Thief’ which was inspired by the thrushes that stole fruit from the Manor’s garden, and embroideries completed by his wife Jane and two daughters, May and Jenny, in every single room. It was like a shrine to their work. This one I had to take a photo of because it was called St Catherine (my real name minus the St!). The light’s terrible because, of course, you couldn’t use a flash at all.
Then we walked through to the White (Panelled) Room and I nearly fell on the floor. Taking pride of place on the left wall was this stunning painting by Rossetti called The Blue Silk Dress (1866-68). It’s a portrait of the beautifully enigmatic Jane Morris. She was a muse of the Pre-Raphaelites, often sitting for both Rossetti and Morris. She was illiterate when she met them but after becoming engaged to Morris, whom she expressed she wasn’t in love with, she was privately educated and ended up becoming a darling of the upper class. The novel Miss Brown by Vernon Lee, which became the inspiration for the play that My Fair Lady was based on, was rumoured to be inspired by her life.
I have a real affection for Jane, along with the PRB’s other models such as Rossetti’s wife Lizzie Siddal, Annie Miller who had a tempestuous off-and-on relationship with William Holman Hunt, Fanny Cornforth who was rather more voluptuous than the others and Effie Gray who was married to both John Ruskin and John Everett Millais.
Rossetti married Lizzie in May of 1860 but she died of laudanum poisoning just two years later after several long spells of bad health. After her death Fanny moved in with Rossetti as his house-keeper and she soon became his mistress until his death in 1882. Jane Morris and Rossetti also had a secret off-and-on relationship during this time, even when in 1871 Rossetti and the Morris’ moved to Kelmscott Manor. There are rumours that Morris was impotent and that actually his two children were those of Rossetti’s. Got to love a good Victorian scandal!!
These serene portraits of May and Jenny Morris, whose real names are Mary and Jane, are also by Rossetti. You can see their mother’s beauty in both of them. The drawing above of Jane was done just ten days after he met her in 1857. All these portraits were hung in a tiny room called the China Closet that had one wall filled with blue and white fine bone china plates. It was an odd little room that no one really had any idea of what it was really for.
The last room downstairs was the Green Room which was used as a sitting room during the Morris’ time. The name comes from the green paint that Morris decided to use on the walls. The oak chair on the right had a secret compartment in the seat where Jenny used to store her books.
The detailing of the hand carved staircase was just exquisite. It was a work of art in itself and it was amazing to think it had been there for over 400 years. I could just imagine the two girls running up and down it laughing and playing.
This teeny tiny bed was William’s (Jane’s was equally as short) and with its incredibly ornate features it must have dominated him. It really does blow my mind when I see bed’s like this. It makes you think just how short everyone must have been and I think I’m a short-arse!
The poem around the pelmet is called ‘For the Bed at Kelmscott’ and was written by Morris which May embroidered for him. She also designed the curtains that hang either side and made them along with some help from her friends. My god, this family was talented.
At the end of Morris’ bedroom is another room known as the Tapestry Room. When I read the description of this room I actually had to take a moment to myself to take it in. This was Rossetti’s studio. This was where he worked and created all those beautiful paintings. How I kept my composure I have no idea!
The large oak table in the middle of the room was never stained or varnished so that it could be used as a work table. I had visions of Rossetti sitting there hunched over a poem or a drawing getting frustrated at himself (as he often did) and then I spotted this. A paint palette, an actual real-life PRB paint palette. This was when I nearly lost it! I had to ask whose it was and the guide said that they weren’t sure. So I told her that in my mind it was Rossetti’s. I mean it had to be right?
After hyperventilating for a few minutes I calmed down enough to have a good look around the rest of the room. On either side of the fireplace stood a proud brass peacock, its surface pierced with thousands of tiny holes. The guide told us that they were used as incense burners from Persia. They originally lived in Kelmscott House, the Morris’ residence in Hammersmith.
Upon leaving Morris’ bedroom again you see this rather odd looking staircase leading up to the attic. It’s incredibly steep and really strange to walk on. I’m glad they had the rails there because they are so disconcerting and where you feel you naturally want to put your foot is not where it can actually go.
The attic, which was used as a play area and bedrooms for the two girls, was absolutely stunning and very big. It was fantastic to actually go up there and have a look around. In fact, I think I only spotted one door that said private on it, so it was great to be able to see so much of one house. I hate it when you go to a stately home and there are so many rooms and staircases blocked off.
At the front of the house there were two bedrooms, both accessed by their own private staircase and door. You had to crouch down to go into both and it felt like something out of Alice in Wonderland!
They were very simple, again with tiny beds, and were perfectly formed for the girls. The one on the left had a closet leading off of it, which you can see in the left of the photo. In here there were lots of leaflets and books that William Morris had written about Socialism which he became very deeply involved with. He gave speeches up and down the country about his beliefs and there was a pamphlet showing one he had done just down the road from the Manor in Lechlade.
To get out of the attic again you had to go through yet another tiny door which then opened up into yet another huge attic room. In here were lots of bits and pieces displayed in glass cabinets such as Jane’s shopping lists and recipe book. Finally we headed down a winding staircase, through the old kitchen (which had nothing in it) and out the front door.
Upon exiting we headed back around to the shop where I purchased a book called The Pre-Raphaelite Circle by Jan Marsh. I know mostly about the main players of the PRB but not the ones that never get a mention in the usual history books, so thought this could really help me to find out who they all were.
Our last stop was the tea rooms where we had the best cream teas I have had in a long time. The scones were just so crumbly and light. Whoever made them is a baking genius! Then we left and took a gentile walk back through the village time forgot (it seems so cut off from modern life) to the local church. Both Jane and William are buried in front of the entrance but you’d never know it just by looking. Their grave stones are covered in moss and the inscriptions have been worn away. But if you are interested in finding out which ones they are there is a helpful photo just inside the church (clever vicar!).
I would highly recommend anyone who is even remotely interested in art, William Morris, the PRB or just what life was like back in the late 1800s, to go and enjoy a day at Kelmscott Manor. It truly is a humbling, serene and blissful experience that makes you want to forget about your iPhone, your horrible commute to work and the manic bustle of everyday modern life.