William Morris, who described his Cotswold retreat Kelmscott Manor as “heaven on earth”, is best-known today for his fabrics and wallpapers. But the Victorian polymath had a much wider field of interest than design. He was an ardent socialist, campaigned for social reform to empower the working classes, and tried to overthrow the industrial working practices and resulting capitalism he abhorred by encouraging workers to adopt medieval methods of making furniture and fabrics for their own homes. His deep interest in preserving the past also led him to create the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877.
Kelmscott and its contents are today owned by the Society of Antiquaries, which has faced something of a tall order in restoring the Oxfordshire farmhouse, which dates back to 1570 with a late-17th-century wing, to his vision of it being “heaven on earth”. However, the £6.6m renovation undertaken over the past 30 months has been completed to such a high standard that a visit leaves you in no doubt as to why Morris felt it was so heavenly.
A serious sensitivity to preserving the past for the future has been at the heart of this project. If you didn’t know better, you might believe that after walking through the smart new visitor reception in an Elizabethan barn, you have been transported back to 1871, the year Morris and his artist friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti first found the house and decided to rent it together.
The central courtyard is no longer a car park thanks to an electric bus that transports visitors from a parking area near Kelmscott Church, an otherwise 10-minute walk away. The whole site, which is set on the banks of the River Thames, is now more cohesive. Tranquillity and calm have been restored. Modern facilities such as a teashop and toilets are available, but they have been integrated in a way that allows the house to take centre stage.
Labour of love
This is all down to the work of curator Kathy Haslam and her team, who have painstakingly trawled through artistic, written and photographic accounts of this Cotswold estate as it was known to Morris and his wife Jane, who was an embroiderer and artist’s model, and their children Jenny and May, in order to present a sincere interpretation of the past.
Through their extensive research, the team have identified which furniture, artworks, wallpapers and fabrics belong in which room. They have brought them all back into position so that each space possesses a unique character and undefinable spirit of the Morris family.
I was most impressed to learn of the conservation and redisplay of Jane’s bedroom. At its heart is the Elizabethan bed that William Morris was born in.
Clearly important to Morris and his daughter May, who kept it after his death when she moved permanently from London to Kelmscott, this bed has been given much care and attention. The broken slats are repaired and original mattress re-stuffed to ensure it survives the next 400 years, proving the team’s quiet, unwavering dedication to the care of the property.
What is noticeable are the colourful new floral hangings that now adorn Morris’s prized bed. Extensive research was undertaken into the original bed hanging. While the team knew the fabric had been made from an 1829 set of woodblocks that Morris was experimenting with when setting up his own design firm, they had no idea of style or colour until pattern books at the Lancashire printers were identified. After much trial and error, the fabric has been successfully reprinted and a pelmet Morris would have recognised has been masterfully reinstated.
A starting point for curating the redisplay at Kelmscott has been recognising how Morris felt when he was here and inviting visitors to do the same. Inspiration and imagination are therefore two key themes that run through the story here. After all, Kelmscott inspired his Strawberry Thief design and utopian publication News From Nowhere.
The written interpretation is simply produced and presented on stands designed by a local blacksmith to fit neatly into each space. The text evokes a sense of place by asking pointed questions and directing the visitor to their own visceral response. For me, this was particularly noticeable in the attic rooms, which were once a hub of activity for the children living at Kelmscott. I couldn’t help choosing which of the charming bedrooms I wanted to sleep in and where would be best to build a den.
The attic rooms have an inherent playfulness, and the curators have chosen to reflect this by displaying May Morris’s embroidered animal quilt here but at a low level, encouraging young visitors to take a closer look. Families are catered for throughout with clear interpretation.
Regrettably, there is no access to the top floors other than via a difficult staircase in this historic house. Curators have turned to digital solutions for this, providing a 360º virtual tour on screens in a ground floor room.
A friendly and knowledgeable volunteer greeted us in each room, offering facts about artefacts and interesting anecdotes about the people who lived here. After a long lockdown, such a friendly and personal welcome to Kelmscott was appreciated and I hope this enthusiasm continues.
Although subtle changes to encourage learning have been made in the house itself, the greatest achievement of the renovation project is undoubtedly the new learning barn that has been built on the site of a medieval byre (a dwelling that housed both people and animals).
For the first time, schools and local community groups will have the opportunity to visit Kelmscott and enrich their formal learning, something that is of particular importance for a museum in a rural setting where access to the arts is so desperately limited. Complete with a newly created learning manager position, it is surely this more than anything that will ensure Kelmscott continues to inspire the next generation.