William Morris’ ‘heaven on earth’ home in Oxfordshire restored to its former glory | William Morris
For William Morris, the village of Kelmscott in Oxfordshire was “heaven on earth”. A former farmhouse became a beloved rural retreat and source of inspiration for the pioneering designer, author, architectural advocate and social reformer, widely considered the father of the arts and crafts movement.
Now Kelmscott Manor, near Lechlade, reopens to the public on April 1 following a £6 million renovation project, preserving and improving it for future generations.
Morris took a joint lease of it in 1871 and lived there until his death in 1896. The mansion was built around 1600 for a working farmer, and Morris considered its architecture to be intact and unassuming, encapsulating working life and rural crafts. He felt that the locally quarried stone suggested walls that had “grown out of the ground”, describing its “picturesque garrets among the great roof frames where laborers and shepherds once slept”.
Few buildings in Britain have had such a strong impact on the country’s artistic life as Kelmscott Manor. It was a place of enormous inspiration for an artist who significantly influenced fashions and ideologies with fabrics and furniture, stained glass and wallpaper still produced today.
Many of his most popular and enduring designs were inspired by the flora and fauna of the surrounding landscape. Watching thrushes steal strawberries outside the mansion inspired its classic upholstery textile, “Strawberry Thief”which decorates the old room inside.
The willows growing around the house have shaped its famous “Willow Branch” model. His daughter, May, later recalled that her father had pointed out the details of the leaf shapes while out for a walk: “Soon after this article was written, a much-observed rendering of our willows which has misted many London salons.”
His flagship literary work News from nowhere, published in 1890, includes insightful 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, now owned by the Society of Antiquaries of London, Britain’s oldest learned society, required extensive repair work, including measures to prevent water from entering the masonry.
The refurbishment was made possible by a £4.3 million grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and £1.3 million 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 crying in the trees, the daffodils soaring, the river beside the house. The public will see the house come to life more authentically.
“Using inventories, photographs and watercolours, curator Kathy Haslam carried out archaeological research into how the house looked while Morris was there. They were able to place furniture and objects where they were originally. So you feel like you’re in a lived-in house rather than a cold, museum-like sanctuary. The curator really brought Morris’ “heaven on earth” to life. I was overwhelmed by the richness of colors in the rooms.
Wallpaper has been reinstated in several rooms, with designs individually hand-printed using the original blocks from the Morris & Co archives. Analysis of long-hidden layers of paint has provided further clues to his patterns of colors. What was always called the Green Room has now been repainted in its original dark green, ‘Brunswick Green’, which was the name given to a mixture of Prussian blue and chrome yellow – a color that Morris found ” restful for the eyes. .
The mansion also helped shape his thinking on art, conservation and society. He was a tireless campaigner for socialism. He also believed that art, like education, should be for everyone, and Kelmscott’s renovation includes a new learning center for schools and community groups. A single-storey thatched wooden building, designed by Architecton, was built on the site of a lost barn.
It was in Kelmscott that one of the most complex three-sided love stories in the history of art took place. Morris had originally rented the mansion with his friend, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was then romantically involved with Morris’ 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 returned to Kelmscott is The Blue Silk Dress, 1868, perhaps Rossetti’s best-known portrait of Jane Morris.
In a new guide, Jeremy Musson, the architectural and art historian, writes that Kelmscott Manor has always been a welcoming place: “Its spirit is summed up in Morris’ postscript to his printer before a visit in 1888: ‘PS As everyone may be outside when you come, look under the doormat and you will find the key to the house. Come in and be happy”.