The Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic:
an alternative view

The ''Briar Rose'' design by William Morris, in progress

Whenever discussing Pre-Raphaelite house design (as we were yesterday), I'm always reminded of this wry description of Edward Burne-Jones' country place, North End House in Rottingdean, as seen from a child's perspective. The child is his grand-daughter, who grew up to be the novelist Angela Thirkell:

Edward Burne-Jones, painter,  and his grand-daughter Angela"Curtains and chintzes were all were all of Morris stuffs, a bright pattern of yellow birds and red roses," Angela writes. "The low sofa and oak table were designed by one or another Pre-Raphaelite friend of the house, or made to my grandfather's orders by the village carpenter. As I look back on the furniture of my grandparents' two houses I marvel chiefly at the entire lack of comfort which the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood succeeded in creating for itself. It was not, I think, so much that they actively despised comfort, as that the word conveyed absolutely nothing to them whatever. I can truthfully say that neither at North End Road [in London] nor at North End House [in Rottingdean] was there a single chair that invited to repose, and the only piece of comfortable furniture that my grandparents ever possessed was their drawing-room sofa in London, a perfectly ordinary large sofa with good springs, only disguised by Morris chintzes. The sofas at Rottingdean were simply long low tables with a little balustrade round two, or sometimes three sides, made of plain oak, or of some inferior wood painted white. There was a slight concession to human frailty in the addition of rigidly hard squabs covered with chintz or blue linen and when to these my grandmother had added a small bolster apparently made of concrete and two or three thin unyielding cushions, she almost blamed herself for wallowing in undeserved luxury.

Sussex chairs by Morris & Co

"The best sofa in the house was a massive wooden affair painted shiny black. It was too short to lie on and you could only sit on it in an upright position, as if you tried to lean you hit your head against the high back. It was upholstered in yellow-brown velvet of such rich and excellent quality that it stuck to one's clothes, making it impossible to move about, and the unyielding cushions and rigid bolsters took up more room than the unlucky users.

Ladies & Animals sideboard by Edward Burne-Jones

"Each bedroom was provided with an oak washing-stand of massive proportions and a towel-horse conceived on aethetic lines but sadly wanting in stability and far too apt to fall heavily forward on to a small child, smothering it in bath towels. As for Pre-Raphaelite beds, it can only have been the physical vigour and perfect health of their original designers that made them believe their work was fit to sleep in. It is true that the spring mattress was then in embryonic stage and there were no spiral springs to prevent a bed from taking the shape of a drinking-trough after a few weeks' use, but even this does not excuse the use of wooden slats running lengthways as an aid to refreshing slumber.

"Luckily children never know when they are uncomfortable and the Pre-Raphaelites had in many essentials the childlike mind."

Painted settle in the hallway at Red House

''Topsy and Ned Jones Settled on the Settle in Red Lion Square'' by Sir Max Beerbohm

Words: The text above is from Three Houses, a short but delightful memoir by Angela Thirkell (Oxford University Press, 1931); all rights reserved by the author's estate.

Pictures: The Briar Rose design by William Morris, in progress. A photograph of Burne-Jones with his grand-daughter Angela. The classic, simple "Sussex chair" produced by Morris & Co. "Ladies & Animals," a painted sideboard by Burne-Jones. The front hallway of Red House, an Arts & Crafts building designed by William Morris & Phillip Webb. Topsy (Morris) and Ned (Burne-Jones) on a hand-painted settle in their rooms at Red Lion Square, drawn by satirist Max Beerbohm for his book Rossetti and His Circle (1922).


The House by the River

The frontispiece for William Morris' ''News from Nowhere''

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."

Kelmscott Manor

"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.'

Kelmscott Manor

Autumn rose

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."

Kelmscott Manor

"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....

Kelmscott Manor

Kelmscott Manor

Kelmscott Manor

"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."

Pre-Raphaelite women

Kelmscott

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.' "

Kelmscott

"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.

A sketch of Jane Morris embroidering by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting palette

''Water Willow'' by Rossetti  and his cartoon of Morris' return to 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.

Kelmscott Manor

''The Blue Dress'' by Rossetti

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.

Kelmscott Manor

Drawing of Jane by Rossetti

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).

Kelmscott

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.

Kelmscott Manor

Kelmscott Manor

Kelmscott Manor

Kelmscott Manor

Jane Morris

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 Church

Grave of William & Jane Morris grave

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.

Edward Burne-Jones  William Morris  and their families

May, Jane, and Jenny Morris,with Jenny's nurse

May Morris at Kelmscott

May Morris and friends

Embroidered tapesty by May Morris

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.

Kelmscott Manor

May Morris' childhood bedroom at Kelmscott

"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

Windrush design by 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

Kelmscott Manor

The apple tree

Kelmscott Manor

The last white roses

This post is dedicated, with thanks, to my road-trip companions, Marja and Elizabeth-Jane.

Marja and EJ

William Morris' ''Bird and Trellis'' design in progress

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."


Myth & Moor update

The Garden at Kelscott Manor by Maria Spartali Stillman

I'm out of the studio today, so there's no Monday Music this week I'm afraid. It's not for any glamorous reason, but because Tilly has a vet appointment over in Okehampton, and the household bookkeeping needs attention. I'll be back at the writing desk tomorrow, and back to Myth & Moor then too. Thank you for all the sweet birthday messages. It was a quiet and lovely one.

Art: "The Garden at Kelmscott Manor" and "Feeding Doves in the Kitchen Garden at Kelmscott Manor" by Pre-Raphaelite painter Maria Spartali Stillman, a frequent visitor to the manor when William and Jane Morris lived there. For more information on Maria, go here. I also recommend David B. Elliot's poignant biography of the artist:  A Pre-Raphaelite Marriage: The Lives of Maria Spartali Stillman & William James Stillman.

Feeding Doves in the Kitchen Garden of Kelmscott Manor by Maria Spartali Stillman


Pre-Raphaelite inspired illustration

Florence Susan Harrison

I'd like to end the week by sharing these illustrations created by Florence Harrison (1877-1955) for two volumes of William Morris' poetry: The Defence Guenevere & Other Poems and The Early Poems of William Morris. Both editions were published by Blackie & Son in London in 1914.

From William Morris' ''The Defence of Guenevere'' by Florence Susan Harrison

"Beauty, which is what is meant by art, using the word in its widest sense, is, I contend, no mere accident to human life, which people can take or leave as they choose, but a positive necessity of life."  - William Morris

Florence Susan Harrison

 "Artists cannot help themselves; they are driven to create by their nature, but for that nature to truly thrive, we need to preserve the precious habitat in which that beauty can flourish."  - William Morris

From '''The Early Poems of William Morris '' illustrated by Florence Susan Harrison

Florence Susan Harrison

TFlorence Susan Harrison

Florence Susan Harrison was born in Australia in 1877, but spent much of her early childhood at sea (her father was a sea caption), followed by time at a great-aunt's school in England. It's not known where (or if) she studied art, but by 1905 she'd established a successful career as a book illustrator, working primarily for Blackie & Son. She's known to have lived in Belgium and London, continually working and publishing throughout the disruptive years of World Wars I and II. Florence never married, but maintained a deep, influential friendship with the Irish Catholic writer Enid Maud Dinnis, whose tales she illustrated. She stopped publishing art after Enid's death in 1942, and lived quietly therafter until her own death in 1955.

Florence Susan Harrison

In art catalogs and across the Internet today, Florence's illustrations are often erroneously attributed to an English artist of the previous generation: Emma Florence Harrison, born in Gloucestershire in 1858. Although little of Emma's work survives today, she seems to have been a painter in the Royal Academy tradition, not a book illustrator. The illustrations routinely credited to Emma are all by Florence, the confusion arising from Emma's middle name.

Florence Susan Harrison

"With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on."  - William Morris

He succeeded, and so did Florence.

Florence Susan Harrison


The Pre-Raphaelites, re-imagined

Venus Verticordia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Venus Verticordia by Donna Stevens

The Blue Bower by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

from Love Letters to Rossetti

Today, let's look at contemporary photography inspired by Pre-Raphaelite art: images based on specific paintings by Rossetti, Millais, and others; and those that simply conjure the spirit of the art, with a moden twist.

Above, for example, Australian photographer Donna Stevens re-creates "Venus Verticordia" and "The Blue Bower" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti for her Love Letter to Rossetti series.

Below, English photographer Tom Hunter sets two classic Victorian paintings -- "Ophelia" by John Everett Millais and "Home from Sea" by Arthur Hughes -- in the Hackney Marshes of London. (For other works in this series, see: Reinterpreting the Pre-Raphaelites.)

from Life & Death in the Hackney Marshes

Ophelia by Millais

from Life and Death in Hackney

Home from the Sea by Arthur Hughes

And here are a few more art and fashion photographers who have come under the Pre-Raphaelite spell...

Below: Fashion shoots for Italian Vogue by American photographer Annie Leibovitz and Polish photographer Małgorzata Maj (now based in London).

Annie Leibovitz and Małgorzata Maj

Małgorzata Maj

Below, fashion shoots for Italian Vogue by English photographer Miles Adridge .

Pre-Raphaelite inspired photograph by Miles Adridge

Miles Aldridge

Below, "The Forgotten Duchess" and "The Fishmonger's Widow" by American photographer Caroline Knopf.

Caroline Knopf

The Fishmonger's Widow by Caroline Knopf

Below, two darkly Pre-Raphaelite images by German photographers Billy & Hells (Anke Linz and Andreas Oettinger).

Billy Und Hels

Billy Und Hels

Below, "Ophelia" by Russian photographer Ekaterina Belinskaya.

Ekaterina Belinskaya