A few weeks ago I joined two of my oldest friends -- harpist/composer/filmmaker Elizabeth-Jane Baldry and artist Marja Lee Kruÿt -- for a road trip to Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, the country house of William and Jane Morris, their children...and, for a time, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It wasn't my first visit to the beautiful old place, but I hadn't been back in several years and we wanted to catch the exhibition there on Mary Lobb, the companion (and probable partner) of May Morris, the youngest of the Morris daughters.
There are so many reasons to love Kelmscott: the quiet loveliness of its riverside setting; the timeless atmosphere created by corbels and gables of golden Cotswold stone; the garden of trees, fruits, and flowers which inspired so many Morris designs; and the drama of the lives that unfolded here in the waning years of the 19th century.
The following passage from Jan Marsh's excellent book The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood gives a taste of what those years were like:
"Kelmscott so fitted Morris' character and enthusiasms that the house has ever since been indelibly associated with his name -- and not without reason, since it played a major role in both his life and his vision of a post-industrial and socialist utopia. It is often forgotten that its first purpose was a holiday home for Jane, the girls and Gabriel. [Jane Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti had fallen in love at some point in the late 1860s.] Much as Morris liked the house, it was Jane who elected to spend most time there, and who succeeded at the very end of her life in purchasing the property. Whether it was leased with the intention of providing a retreat to share with Gabriel without causing gossip is a nice point that cannot now be resolved; certainly a join tenancy between Morris and Gabriel was the only way she and Gabriel could sleep under the same roof together without scandal."
"Morris gave one explanation in a letter to Faulkner. 'I have been looking about for a house for the wife and kids,' he wrote, describing Kelmscott and adding, 'I am going down there again on Saturday with Rossetti and my wife: Rossetti because he thinks of sharing it with us if the thing seems likely.' Gabriel presented the plan a bit differently. 'Morris and I been had for some little time in search of a place to take jointly in the country,' he told his uncle, 'when this one was discovered in a house-agent's catalogue -- the last place one would have expected to furnish such an out-of-the-world commodity.'
Rossetti moved into Kelmscott Manor in the summer of 1871, followed by Morris, Jane, and their daughters Jenny and May -- Morris staying just long enough to settle his family in, and then departing for an extensive trip through the wilds of Iceland.
"It is hard to believe," writes Marsh, "that the arrangement was not deliberate."
"Divorce," she explains, "was out of the question for Jane, as it was only possible by proving she had committed adultery and that Morris had not condoned her behaviour. There was no such thing as mutual divorce, and the respondent was denied access to the children, on the grounds of moral corruption and ritual punishment; as a divorcee Jane would have lost Jenny and May as well as her reputation as a respectable woman. In addition the scandal would have made remarriage to Gabriel difficult and dangerous, threatening his career and earning power. This is not to say that she considered this option; rather she adopted the best alternative.
"Her behaviour, and her husband's, puzzled and disturned many of her contemporaries, and later commentators found the arrangement at Kelmscott to be outside the agreed bounds of propriety, but could not, nevertheless, identify anything manifestly improper about it....
"It seems undeniable," Marsh continues, "that Kelmscott was meant as a place where Jane and Gabriel could be together, and that Morris, reluctantly, agreed. Their excitement at the forthcoming holiday is evident in Gabriel's letters during June; among other plans he ordered a complete set of William Scott's novels for Jane to read in the country. As for Morris, the repeated words from Iceland, 'Please dear Janey be happy,' suggest he was well aware of what Kelmscott meant to her."
Kelmscott village, off the beaten track even now, was extremely remote in the 1870s.
"All services and supplies had to be ordered from Lechlade or Farringdon," writes Marsh, "and there was little local transport or through traffic. Installed in her new domain at the end of the first week of July 1871, Jane set about furnishings and improvements. 'I am getting the fireplace set straight in the dining room, the one with the broken mantleshelf,' she wrote to Phillip Webb, back in London, asking him to send six dozen tiles from the firm's workshop in Queen's Square: 'Will they look best of various patterns or all alike? They must be all blue. The mantleshelf is stone I find, so I am making the masons scrape off the former drab paint. The next thing to be thought of is a grate.' "
"Rossetti and Jane spent the summer very pleasantly. A punt was acquired for outings on the river, and a pony-and-trap was considered. In the evenings, there was reading and embroidery. Gabriel wrote some new poems, painted a replica of Beata Beatrix, did chalk drawings of Jenny and May and a picture of Jane called Water Willow, showing the river, the punt, the church, and the manor in the background. It is one of the sweetest, softest, calmest, and least mannered of his paintings of her, quite without the brooding intensity of other studies and subjects, and seems to reflect happy days at Kelmscott.
"In the autumn, Morris returned from Iceland, "bringing with him a pony named Mouse for his daughters to ride. He stayed only a night or two, taking the punt on the river for a day's fishing and prompting Gabriel to a cartoon illustrating these lines:
Enter skald, moored in a punt
And jacks and tenches exeunt."
When winter came, Gabriel and Jane returned to their respective homes in the city, and the house (cold and damp at that time of year) was shut up until spring.
The lovers saw each other (more circumspectly) in London, and made plans for the months ahead -- but their summer idyll was never to be repeated. Gabriel's mental health, always unstable, took a turn for the worst that winter under a combination of pressures: lingering guilt over the death of his wife (she had overdosed on laudanum, either accidently or deliberately); the social tensions caused by his relationship with Jane; a pointed attack on his work by poet and critic Robert Buchanan; and an addiction to chloral, a sedative prone to causing paranoia and hallucinations. Although friends prevented him from contacting Jane during the first bad months of his breakdown (many unfairly blaming her), by September he was back at Kelmscott, and lived there for the next two years.
Jane continued to love Gabriel -- but could no longer spend long periods of time with him, her attempts to nurse him back to health thwarted by chloral at every turn. Morris rarely ventured to Kelmscott himself since Gabriel had become a permanent fixture -- and by 1874 Morris had enough, withdrawing his share of the rent for the house. It wasn't long after that, however, that Gabriel's mental health spiraled down even further, requiring his return to London (where he was looked after by his other long-time model and mistress, Fanny Cornforth).
Now the Morris family took over the manor and the old house began to fulfill Morris' dream: becoming a true country home for Jane and the children, a source of inspiration for his writing and design, and a place where their artist and socialist friends could gather together to work, play, and inspire each other to change the world through art, beauty, craftwork, stories, and education for all.
Morris and Jane grew close again, having weathered many trials together, and Kelmscott was their joint work of art: an ever-changing canvas on which to explore ideas of Romantic design and Romantic living.
After Morris died in 1896, Jane managed to purchase the house outright and lived there with her daughters until her own death, almost twenty years later. The couple are buried together in a simple grave at the edge of the Kelmscott churchyard.
Kelmscott then passed to Jenny and May. Jenny was, sadly, a life-long invalid; but May followed in her father's footsteps, becoming a textile artist and designer in her own right, and a leading member of the local socialist party. With her bold, cheerful friend Mary Lobb at her side, May made her own journeys to Iceland, went on rough camping expeditions around the British Isles, raised goats and other animals, and worked hard to preserve her parents' legacy -- all while creating influential art and craftwork of her own.
There is currently an exhibition on May's work and life at The Red House in London, running until January 2018 and well worth seeing.
Although the Pre-Raphaelite house aesthetic looks quaintly old-fashioned to us now, it is important to remember how fresh and modern it looked at the end of the 19th century, when most Victorian homes were dark, fussy, and overstuffed with furniture, draeries, and decorative objects. By comparison to High Victorian interiors, Morris design was simple, clear, well-crafted, inspired by patterns found in the natural world, and celebrated craft-workers and artisans (potters, dyers, tile painters, metal-workers, etc.), elevated to the status of artists -- which was not then common.
Morris didn't quite achieve his dream of making beautiful objects for the home accessible to everyone. His innovative firm, Morris & Co, made gorgeous objects indeed -- but the slow hand-crafting methods Morris championed (and his socialist obligation to pay his labour force well) resulted in high price tags for his goods. His hand-blocked wallpapers, hand-embroidered textiles, hand-painted furniture, and hand-printed books were simply beyond the reach of most. It was up to the next generation of artists in the Arts & Crafts movement (Gustav Stickley, for example) to take Morris' original vision of Art for All into the world...but that's a story for another day.
This one is at an end.
"If I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of Art and the thing most to be longed for, I should answer: A beautiful House."
- William Morris
"When we can get beyond that smoky world, there, out in the country we may still see the works of our fathers yet alive amidst the very nature they were wrought into, and of which they are so completely a part: for there indeed if anywhere, in the English country, in the days when people cared about such things, was there a full sympathy between the works of man, and the land they were made for."
- William Morris
This post is dedicated, with thanks, to my road-trip companions, Marja and Elizabeth-Jane.
The passage quoted above is from The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood by Jan Marsh (St. Martin's Press, 1985); all rights reserved by the author. The various photographs and artworks are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) For more information on the Pre-Raphaelite movement, see this previous post: "On Fantasy & the Pre-Raphaelites."