“Yes, friend, this is what I came out for to see; this many-gabled old house built by the simple country-folk of the long-past times, regardless of all the turmoil that was going on in cities and courts, is lovely still amidst all the beauty which these latter days have created; and I do not wonder at our friends tending it carefully and making much of it.” – William Morris describing Kelmscott Manor
The highlight of my recent trip to Oxford was undoubtedly our visit to Kelmscott Manor, William Morris’s former summer house. Kelmscott Manor is situated just on the border of the Cotswolds, on the banks of a quiet stretch of the River Thames. I’d been dying to visit the house, not only because I’m a huge William Morris fan, but also because I’d read that it partly inspired Kate Morton’s fictional house, Birchwood Manor, in her latest book, The Clockmaker’s Daughter. If you’re interested in learning more about how Kelmscott inspired Kate, then do listen to my interview with her on Tea & Tattle Podcast.
Originally, Kelmscott Manor was built for a farming family, and it was kept in the same family for 300 years before Morris took a lease on the house in 1871. It was his dream home, and it is still a wonderfully atmospheric place to visit. Stepping through the front door is like finding a portal to the past, and although not as grand as many houses people pay to see nowadays, Kelmscott Manor has a charm all its own that makes it one of the most memorable places I have visited.
View of Kelmscott Manor from its small orchard
Kelmscott Manor was used as a summer home by Morris for himself and his family: his wife, Jane Morris, and their children, Jenny and May. The house and the surrounding countryside offered constant inspiration for William Morris and heavily influenced his work. It’s suggested that one of his most famous designs, ‘Strawberry Thief,’ was inspired by the sight of birds stealing the wild strawberries that grew in profusion in the Manor garden. As such, Kelmscott Manor is a must visit for any lover of Morris’s work and the wider Arts and Crafts movement, especially as the house still contains many of the Morris family’s furnishings, paintings, fabrics and photographs.
The Panelled (White) Room, Kelmscott Manor
One of my favourite rooms in the house is the Panelled Room, which is fresh, light and airy and offers the perfect backdrop to many beautiful portraits of the Morris family hung on the walls. The most remarkable of these paintings is a large portrait of Jane Morris by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
‘The Blue Silk Dress’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, featuring Jane Morris.
William Morris was involved in the Pre-Raphaelite movement and was friends with Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. Jane Morris was a significant model for Rossetti, who painted her many times, and with whom she had an affair. Their lives became intricately linked when Rossetti jointly shared the lease on Kelmscott Manor with Morris from 1871-74.
The Tapestry Room, Kelmscott Manor
Whilst living at the Manor, Rossetti took over the Tapestry Room as his studio. To start with, Rossetti was just as enamoured with Kelmscott Manor as Morris, and initially he spent much more time at the house than Morris did. Apparently, Morris deliberately kept away in order to allow the affair between Jane and Rossetti to play its course. During this time, Rossetti painted another portrait of Jane, Water Willow, which now hangs in Jane Morris’s bedroom.
‘Water Willow’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This portrait of Jane Morris shows Kelmscott Manor in the background.
As the years passed, however, Rossetti began to complain of the flat, dull nature of the surrounding countryside, and in the end he moved out of the manor, although he did leave some of his belongings behind, including an impressive carved wooden clock hung above the staircase.
Main staircase at Kelmscott Manor
The other rooms I found particularly interesting were the bedrooms of Jane and William Morris. I thought Jane’s bedroom especially lovely, with its soft green shades and beautiful four poster bed, which was the bed in which William Morris was born at Elm House, Walthamstow on 24 March 1834. The room is decorated with a modern reproduction of ‘Willow Boughs,’ one of Morris’s most popular wallpaper designs.
Jane Morris’s Bedroom, Kelmscott Manor
My eyes were instantly drawn to the quilt on the bed, which was designed by May Morris and embroidered in silks by Jane. It’s a stunning example of intricate needlework, and it was wonderful to be able to get close enough to observe the fine details.
‘The Homestead and the Forest’ Cot Quilt, designed by May Morris
A special feature of Kelmscott Manor is that the house was in many ways as much the home of May Morris as it was her father’s, for she moved back to the house later in her life, after her father’s death, and lived there again from 1923-38. Many examples of her work are scattered throughout the house.
May was an extremely talented designer in her own right, but her work has been very much overshadowed by her father’s greater fame. In recent years, however, there has been an increasing interest in her incredible life and talent, and I highly recommend the book, May Morris: Arts and Crafts Designer, should you wish to read more.
William Morris’s bedroom is unusual, in that it opens up immediately to two adjoining rooms – one of which is the Tapestry Room – so the bedroom must not have offered much privacy! Morris’s imposing bed dominates the room, and he was apparently so fond of this bed, that he wrote a poem dedicated to it. The poem is worked into the pelmet that runs along the top of the bed, which May Morris made for her father.
The Green Room, Kelmscott Manor
The North Hall, Kelmscott Manor
The Attics, Kelmscott Manor
After a thorough tour of the rest of the house, we wandered into the garden and then found a path which led to the river at the back of the house. It was the perfect morning for a stroll, and I enjoyed admiring brightly coloured canal boats as we walked along.
Rounding a curve in the river, I came across a lovely view of the back of the house, where you could just see its gabled windows and chimney tops jutting out above the trees.
I can’t recommend a visit to Kelmscott Manor enough. We had a marvellous time exploring the house and the village, as well as seeing the village church, where Jane and William Morris are buried. It made a fabulous day out, and I also suggest stopping by The Plough Inn, just a few minutes walk from the house, where you can get an excellent lunch or supper (and even book a room, should you wish to stay longer in the area).
Feeling inspired? Here are some other William Morris houses to visit: Red House, Bexleyheath; William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow and Kelmscott House, Hammersmith.
Wightwick Manor and Standen are two other beautiful Arts and Crafts homes that are on my list to see.