For William Morris, the Oxfordshire village of Kelmscott was “heaven on earth”. An old farmhouse became a beloved rural retreat and inspiration for the pioneering designer, author, architectural conservationist and social reformer, widely regarded as the father of the arts and crafts movement.
Now Kelmscott Manor, near Lechlade, is reopening to the public on 1 April following a £6m renovation project, preserving and enhancing it for future generations.
Morris took a joint lease on it in 1871 and lived there until his death in 1896. The manor was built around 1600 for a working farmer, and Morris saw its architecture as unspoilt and unpretentious, encapsulating working lives and rural crafts. He felt that the locally quarried stone suggested walls that had “grown up out of the soil”, describing its “quaint garrets amongst great timbers of the roof where of old times the tillers and herdsmen slept”.
Few buildings in Britain have had as strong an impact on the nation’s artistic life as Kelmscott Manor. It was a place of huge inspiration for an artist who dramatically influenced fashions and ideologies with fabrics and furniture, stained glass and wallpaper still produced today.
Many of his most popular, enduring designs drew on the flora and fauna in the surrounding landscape. Watching thrushes steal strawberries outside the manor inspired his classic furnishing textile, “Strawberry Thief”, which decorates the Old Hall inside.
Willows growing around the house shaped his famous “Willow Bough” pattern. His daughter, May, later recalled her father pointing out details of the leaf-forms on a walk: “Soon afterwards, this paper was done, a keenly observed rendering of our willows that has embowered many a London living-room.”
His seminal literary work News from Nowhere, published in 1890, includes perceptive descriptions of the house and its surroundings. Kelmscott still retains many of his designs and furniture. It was Morris who wrote: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
The property, which is today owned by the Society of Antiquaries of London, Britain’s oldest learned society, needed extensive remedial work, including measures to stop water getting through the brickwork.
The renovation has been made possible by a £4.3m grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and £1.3m from the Kelmscott Manor: Past Present & Future campaign, which continues to raise funds.
Martin Levy, a leading expert on Morris and chairman of the Kelmscott campaign, told the Observer: “Kelmscott is so magical. You hear the crows screeching in the trees, the daffodils coming up, the river beside the house. The public is going to see the house brought back to life more authentically.
“Using inventories, photographs and watercolours, the curator Kathy Haslam has done archaeological research into how the house looked while Morris was there. They’ve been able to place furniture and objects where they were originally. So you get a feeling of a house that’s lived in rather than a cold, museum-like shrine. The curator has really brought Morris’s ‘heaven on earth’ to life. I’ve been bowled over by the richness of the colours in the rooms.”
Wallpaper has been reinstated to several rooms, with designs individually printed by hand using the original blocks from the Morris & Co archives. Analysis of long-hidden paint-layers offered further clues to his colour schemes. What was always referred to as the Green Room has now been repainted in its original dark green, “Brunswick green”, which was the name given to a blend of Prussian blue and chrome yellow – a colour that Morris found “restful to the eyes”.
The manor also played its part in shaping his thinking about art, conservation and society. He was a tireless activist for socialism. He also believed that art, like education, should be for everyone, and the Kelmscott renovation includes a new learning centre for schools and community groups. A single-storey thatched timber building, designed by Architecton, has been built on the site of a lost cattle byre.
It was at Kelmscott that one of the most complex three-sided love affairs in art history unfolded. Morris had initially leased the manor with his friend, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was then romantically involved with Morris’s wife, Jane, an embroiderer. Rossetti left in 1874, never to return, and it became a much-loved country retreat for the Morris family. But among the notable paintings reinstated at Kelmscott is The Blue Silk Dress, 1868, perhaps Rossetti’s best known portrait of Jane Morris.
In a new guidebook, Jeremy Musson, the architectural and art historian, writes that Kelmscott Manor was always a welcoming place: “Its spirit is summed up in Morris’s postscript to his printer before a visit in 1888: ‘P.S. As everybody may be out when you come, look under the mat and you will find the house key. Enter and be happy’.”