Whether you know him as an artist, designer, printer, and key figure of the British arts and crafts movement; or as poet, novelist, translator of ancient Icelandic sagas; or as social critic, political activist, and pioneering preservationist, William Morris is one of the most enduring figures of Victorian England. So celebrated was Morris the poet that in 1877 he was offered the Oxford University professorship of poetry, which he declined. Nevertheless, when Alfred, Lord Tennyson died in 1892, Morris was again approached, this time by Prime Minister William Gladstone’s cabinet, as Tennyson’s possible successor as Poet Laureate, an offer the socialist Morris quickly rejected. Taking aim at Queen Victoria’s brood of German grandchildren (which included the reigning German kaiser, the future—and final—Russian tsarina, and future queens of Norway, Spain, Greece, and Romania), he quipped that he could never see himself “sitting down in crimson plush breeches and white stockings to write birthday odes in honour of all the blooming little Guelfings and Battenbergs that happen to come along.”1
Nowadays, it is his legacy as an entrepreneur and tastemaker that is most widely known: as founder in 1861 of the decorating partnership, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. (which later became Morris and Co.), he either designed himself, or oversaw his colleagues’ designs, for the firm’s production of fabric, wallpaper, carpeting, furniture, stained glass, and related decorative works that helped to define the appearance of domestic and ecclesiastical interiors throughout the British Empire and North America for over half a century. Besides the painter Edward Burne-Jones and painter-poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his colleagues in this enterprise included architect Philip Webb, painter Ford Madox Brown, the long-overlooked designer and Morris protégé John Henry Dearle, Morris’s wife, Jane, and younger daughter, May.
As testament to his extraordinary appeal, more than 125 years after his death Morris and Co. wallpaper and textile designs are still produced for sale by such makers as Sanderson Design Group and Bradbury and Bradbury. Harrods, the celebrated luxury emporium, established a “revived branch” of Morris and Co., and in the United States, Williams Sonoma recently introduced a Morris and Co. line of kitchen goods.
Today, several of Morris’s residences in and around London are preserved. The fine Georgian family house in Walthamstow, where he lived in adolescence, is now the William Morris Gallery, a splendid museum devoted to his career and legacy. Red House in Bexleyheath, built for Morris and his home from 1860 to 1865, is now a National Trust property.
Morris’s favorite home, however, was the rambling limestone farmhouse in rural West Oxfordshire dating to about 1600, with gardens, farm buildings, and views of the meandering River Thames. He leased it in 1871 and made it his vaunted country seat for the final quarter-century of his life. Dubbing it “Kelmscott Manor” after the nearby Cotswolds village of Kelmscott, he subsequently named his Hammersmith town house after it as well.
Maintained since 1962 by the Society of Antiquaries of London, Kelmscott Manor was closed in 2019 for sorely needed restoration. After a major thirty-month conservation and refurbishment program, the house re-opened its doors to the public last year. Apart from restoring the house and grounds, the project also included constructing a new education center, the thatch-roofed Learning Barn.
“William Morris’s love of history and the physical remains of the past profoundly influenced his creativity,” says John Lewis, recently retired General Secretary of the society. “Our revitalized Kelmscott will explore and share the history of the estate and house through the core disciplines of the Society and through the eyes of William Morris as an Antiquary and [onetime] Fellow of our Society.”
The son of a London financier, Morris was a voracious reader from early childhood—the dramatic medievalism of Scott’s Waverley novels (all of which he had read by age seven) nourished a love of the Middle Ages that his friend and first biographer, J. W. Mackail, declared “was born in him.”2 Meanwhile, Morris developed an interest in botanical forms by closely studying the drawings in the household copy of seventeenth-century naturalist John Gerard’s Herbal, and by wandering through the gardens and woodlands around his home. Childhood visits to old Essex churches, and especially a journey with his father to Canterbury when he was eight, left him with indelible impressions of the glory of Gothic architecture. Indeed, as an adult his deep regard for old architecture and his contempt for contemporary renovations of historic landmarks moved him to help found the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877.
In 1853 Morris matriculated as a theology student at Exeter College, Oxford, and began writing poetry. As an undergraduate he met several of the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle (the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood having been formed in 1848), most notably fellow theology student Edward Burne-Jones. They quickly formed a lasting friendship that was to prove mutually productive. At Oxford, both came under the spell of the older, charismatic Rossetti, one of the founding Pre-Raphaelites, at whose instigation in 1857 they and several other PRB-satellite artists—including Valentine Prinsep, Arthur Hughes, and John Rodham Spencer Stanhope—collaborated on a fresco mural on an Arthurian theme to decorate the frieze above the newly built Gothic-style debating chamber (now the Old Library) of the Oxford Union. Unfortunately, as none of the collaborators understood the fresco method, their work began to deteriorate almost before the project was complete. Today, though seriously faded, the figures in these ambitious tableaux still glimmer phantom-like above the historic room.
Despite its failure, that collaboration anticipated the spirit of Morris’s commercial decorating activities, which quickly became as famous as his poetry and prose. As the London Times noted at his death, this unusual combination of manufacture and literature led the public to view him as having a dual existence: his poetry was “by Morris the wallpaper maker, his wallpapers by Morris the poet.”3
Morris the poet achieved considerable popularity with his lengthy epic The Earthly Paradise (published 1868–1870), its prologue proclaiming his mindset in the midst of Victorian industrialism:
Forget six counties overhung with smoke,
Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke,
Forget the spreading of the hideous town;
Think rather of the pack-horse on the down,
And dream of London, small and white and clean,
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green.4
The passage is remarkably portentous. In 1871 Morris and his family, who had been living in Bloomsbury since departing Red House in 1865, were seeking a country residence well away from bustling London. In early spring, Morris came across an advertisement for an old stone mansion in Oxfordshire, and went to visit it. As Mackail noted: “Writing soon thereafter to his business partner [Charles] Faulkner Morris declared, ‘I have been looking about for a house for the wife and kids, and whither do you guess my eye is turned now? Kelmscott, a little village about two miles above Radcott Bridge a heaven on earth; an old stone Elizabethan house . . . and such a garden! close down on the river, a boat house and all things handy.’”5
Called Lower House when it was built for yeoman farmer Thomas Turner around 1600, the original Elizabethan building was expanded some six decades later with a new wing added by Turner’s grandson and namesake. Around 1728 the house was divided into two dwellings, then, a century later, it was converted back into a single dwelling. Morris’s biographer Fiona MacCarthy notes that “technically speaking, the house is not a manor: no manorial rights were apparently attached to it. But its scale and its dominant position in the village make Kelmscott an honorary manor.”6
Morris believed he had dreamt about the house even before seeing it, and together with Rossetti, rented it along with sixty-eight surrounding acres from Turner family descendants. He delighted in the historical sense of continuity represented by a house and land occupied by the same family for four centuries, this heritage symbolized by the Turner coat of arms, granted in 1665 and painted onto the cartouche of the carved stone mantelpiece in the Great Parlour (now called the White Room).
Within weeks of co-signing the lease on Kelmscott Manor in June 1871, Morris embarked on his first voyage to Iceland. (He’d studied the Icelandic language of the Old Norse sagas since the late 1860s.) During his three-month absence, Morris left Jane and the children in Rossetti’s care—a delicate situation because she had earlier fallen under Rossetti’s spell and remained romantically linked to him. Nevertheless, despite the vicissitudes of his marriage and his repeated absences, Kelmscott Manor remained Morris’s favorite home. Although he was obliged to maintain a London house convenient to Morris and Co., Kelmscott Manor was a country retreat that offered a wholesome summer environment for Jane and their daughters. It is where he relaxed and restored his energies. As “An Old House amongst New Folk,” Kelmscott Manor provides the final destination for the group of travelers in Morris’s utopian romance News from Nowhere, with its now-famous frontispiece drawn by Charles March Gere, showing the main entrance.
In its gardens he found flowers and plants that inspired his wallpaper and textile designs, which grew in complexity from the naïve simplicity of such earlier patterns as Trellis (1862) and Daisy (1864) to the mesmerizing undulations of Acanthus(1875), Honeysuckle(1876), and the sly liveliness of Strawberry Thief(1883). His daughter May, herself a gifted embroiderer and designer, noted that Morris’s celebrated Willow Boughs pattern (1887) was inspired by the willow trees growing around the house and overhanging the Thames, where he fished for hours floating along in a punt.7
Even after Morris’s untimely death in 1896— caused, according to his doctor, by “simply being William Morris and having done more work than most ten men”8 —his wife and daughters continued to enjoy the house. Giving up its namesake in Hammersmith soon after being widowed, Jane transferred many pieces from Kelmscott House to the Manor. Always concerned about the welfare of her two daughters (the elder, Jenny, was epileptic and frail), Jane purchased the freehold of the Manor in 1913. When she died the following year, May Morris inherited the property, which she in turn bequeathed to Oxford University on her own death in 1938. The university maintained the house until relinquishing it in 1962, whereupon it passed to residuary legatee, the Society of Antiquaries of London, which oversaw the first major repair program between 1964 and 1967. In the latter year the society also acquired the freehold of farm buildings associated with the Manor and opened the property to the public.
Morris’s beloved garden, which to economize had been grassed over in the 1950s, was restored and redesigned by the venerable landscaping firm of Colvin and Moggridge from 1993 to 1994. While guided by old photographs, the landscapers aimed not to re-create Morris’s actual plantings, but simply to offer visitors a peaceful garden haven inspired by Morris’s original. They emphasized blossoming plants that often appear in Pre-Raphaelite paintings—hollyhocks, lilies, and trellised climbing roses among them. Their planting of the front garden recalls the News from Nowhere frontispiece, the entry path lined with tree-like rows of standard roses. Nearby, the east lawn is dominated by the great yew hedge originally clipped by Morris in the shape of the mythical dragon Fafnir (see Fig. 1) from the Old Norse Völsunga Saga, which Morris had co-translated with the scholar Eiríkr Magnússon, his teacher of Icelandic, and published in 1870. (Fafnir and his saga are most familiar from Der Ring des Nibelungen, Richard Wagner’s tetralogy of music dramas that drew on the same mythological wellspring.)
The aged simplicity of the house’s architecture influenced Morris’s decoration of the interiors. Indeed, they aren’t necessarily what visitors might expect of late Victorian rooms. Morris avoided the sumptuous clutter of conventional decoration at the time; he had no use for the contemporary aesthetic movement “art furniture” then in vogue.The furniture of Morris and Co. was inspired by old designs—for instance, inexpensive, rush-bottomed Sussex chairs designed by Philip Webb (Fig. 4), and armchairs with adjustable backs, also designed by Webb, which became known as Morris chairs—and Morris preferred to mix such newly made chairs and cabinets with objects like the heirloom tester bed in which he was born (Fig. 13).
Discussing the newly restored interiors, Kathy Haslam, Kelmscott Manor curator, notes: “We have not attempted to replicate a particular moment in time in redisplaying the period rooms, but rather to recreate the spaces as they would have been known to members of the Morris family over their sixty-seven-year association with the Manor based on evidence available.”
“Every new placement of furniture and objects, together with each new paint colour or choice of wallpaper has been informed by visual or written sources consulted during extensive research,” Haslam explains. “As a result, the house feels more home-like. In addition, our new interpretation enables us to explore more people, themes and narratives than before.”
Both inside and out, Kelmscott Manor physically embodies the living, energetic spirit of William Morris, whose sense of beauty flowed from the love of honest simplicity. As he said in an 1877 lecture on the decorative arts: “Simplicity of life, begetting simplicity of taste . . . is of all matters most necessary for the birth of the new and better art we crave for; simplicity everywhere in the palace as well as in the cottage.”9
Information about visiting Kelmscott Manor can be found at kelmscottmanor.org.uk.
1 Quoted in Fiona MacCarthy, William Morris: A Life for Our Time (New York: Knopf, 1995), pp. 632–633. 2 J. W. Mackail, The Life of William Morris, new ed. (London: Longman, Green and Co, 1901), vol. 1, p. 10, available online at archive.org. 3 Morris’s obituary, Times (London), October 3, 1896, in Great Victorian Lives: and Era in Obituaries, ed. Andrew Sanders (London: Times Books, 2007), p. 436. 4 William Morris, The Earthly Paradise (Boston: Roberts, Brothers, 1868), p. 3, available online at archive.org. 5 Mackail, Life of William Morris, p. 225, available online at archive.org. 6 MacCarthy, William Morris, p. 311. 7 [Jeremy Musson], Kelmscott Manor Guide Book (London: Society of Antiquaries of London, 2022), pp. 42–43. 8 Quoted ibid., p. 19. Unless otherwise noted, the quotations in this article are all found in this guidebook. 9 William Morris, ”The Lesser Arts,” in Hopes and Fears for Art: Five Lectures Delivered in Birmingham, London and Nottingham, 1878–1881, 3rd ed. (London: Ellis and White, 1883), p. 32.