by Sandra Hutchinson
After being closed for three years, not necessarily because of Covid, but for a planned renovation, Kelmscott Manor, in the Cotswold region of England, reopened in the spring of 2022. I was thrilled to be able to visit the property in May. It is operated by the Society of Antiquaries of London.
William Morris, known as the father of the Arts and Crafts movement, leased the property in Oxfordshire for 25 years until his death in 1896. For the first several years of the tenancy, he jointly rented the property with his friend, the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Morris called Kelmscott Manor “heaven on earth,” and often visited, escaping the noise and chaos of London, and drawing creative inspiration from the rural setting.
A prolific designer of textiles, furnishings, decorative materials like tiles, Morris established his own furnishing and decorative arts firm called Morris & Co. in 1875. Many of his iconic designs, like Strawberry Thief and Willow Bough were inspired by the plants and trees that he found in the gardens and meadows at Kelmscott. Morris was consumed with the idea that the skill and creative expression in traditional craft production was being made obsolete by the mechanization of the Victorian age. He wrote, “Time was when the mystery and wonder of handicrafts were well acknowledged….when imagination and fancy mingled with all things made by man.”
William Morris also famously said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
Within the main house, many examples of work done by Morris’s own hand are on display. The original main house, built of Cotswold stone, dates from the 17th century. The tapestry on the left, below, was designed and worked by Morris in 1879. He had a loom installed in his bedroom at Kelmscott and recorded that it took him 516 hours to complete. He called this as both “ancanthus and vine” and “cabbage and vine.”
Below, the entry hall with its stone floor, and a closeup of the wall hangings.
The room below, called the Green Room, features hangings in textile designs named after streams that flow into the River Thames, such as “Kennet.”
Here’s a closeup of the textiles and tiles in the Green Room.
The tiles shown below were early products of the interior design firm called Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., which Morris established in 1961.
Morris’s bedroom is particularly interesting, with its hand-stitched bed hangings, sewn by Morris’s daughter, May. The poem stitched on the panels, written by Morris from the point of view of the bed, reads: The wind’s on the wold And the night is a-cold. And Thames runs chill Twixt mead and hill. But kind and dear Is the old house here And my heart is warm Midst winter’s harm. Rest then and rest And think of the best Twixt summer and spring When all birds Sing In the town of the tree; And ye lie in me And scarce dare move Lest earth and its love Should fade away Ere the full of the day. I am old and have seen Many things that have been Both grief and peace, And wane and increase, No tale I tell Of ill or well But this I say Night treadeth on day And for worst or best Right good is rest.
Here are a few more views of the massive bed with its hangings, below.
The tapestry room features the paining Spring by Brueghel, above the fireplace.
Here’s a sampling of wallpapers and textiles within the house:
Seemingly disparate patterns and colors somehow work in the house.
In the White Room, a painting of William Morris’s wife Jane by Rossetti, entitled Blue Silk Dress. It is said that Jane and Rossetti were deeply involved in a love affair.
The attic is open to the public and reached by climbing an unusual staircase. Early British photographer Frederick Evans photographed Kelmscott’s attic in 1896 upon Morris’s invitation.
Exiting the rear of the manor house, visitors find a courtyard with utility structures and a lovely garden.
As we were approaching Kelmscott Manor, I noticed a carving of William Morris on the exterior of a building we passed down the lane from the manor house.
There are other outbuildings to explore at Kelmscott Manor. You’re asked to park a short distance outside the small village of Kelmscott. You can either walk to the Manor or ride a funky little shuttle bus, shown below.
I did find the overall interpretation offered in the house to be lacking. There was some signage, but we did not find it to be particularly informative. While there were docents in the house, they didn’t offer any commentary until and unless asked by a visitor, and then we would discover that they had a lot of knowledge to share.
If you plan to visit, make sure to check the website here and consider ordering tickets ahead, as the property is a popular destination. It is open from April to October.
And don’t forget, while in London, to check out the William Morris designs on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Below, Willow Bough wallpaper, 1887, color print from wood blocks; and Strawberry Thief, furnishing fabric, 1883, inspired by thrushes stealing fruit in Morris’s garden.
Great article and appreciate the honest evaluation!
Thank you, Sandra. I was disappointed when I went there, but you got me interested. Wish I’d known to look for all these details at the time.
Very nice piece with great photos as always