The frontispiece of William Morris’s 1890 News from Nowhere depicts a dreamy country house with an orchard in front and vines creeping up the stone walls. The book outlines a harmonious rural future of rewarding labor and picturesque leisure. London is a poetic landscape by the Thames, with the Palace of Westminster now used to store manure.
It is a very English kind of early science fiction, one in which science is mostly absent but the past looms large. In the novel, Morris’s protagonist wakes up in a post-revolutionary future of socialism, equality and beauty. It was a vision left unrealized. But the house, which Morris described as “a heaven on earth”, is real and, after reopening earlier this month following a two-year, £ 6mn Heritage Lottery-funded restoration, appears almost exactly the same.
Set in the Cotswolds, near the river Thames, this Elizabethan former farmhouse (dating from around 1570), became pivotal to the development of British design and – perhaps paradoxically for a figure who once wrote “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization ”- the history of Modernism.
But then William Morris (1834-96) was a bundle of paradoxes. The great designer, poet and socialist would have been happy to see Kelmscott still here but perhaps none too pleased about the way everything else turned out.
“I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few or freedom for a few,” wrote Morris (the slogan appears on a V&A tote bag, £ 10) yet he ended up ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich ”. He despised London yet was born, lived, worked and died there. He hated the results of modernity and adored the vernacular, yet his work inspired the designers who would form Modernism. But in Kelmscott you can forget those paradoxes and relax into his vision of what might have been.
Morris had been living at the Red House in Bexleyheath (now south London but then three miles from the nearest station), which he had designed with architect Philip Webb in 1860. Despite, arguably, being the model for a million suburban homes, it was north-facing and a long commute from his offices and he rented it out and moved back to Bloomsbury. Kelmscott, which he rented from 1871, became his retreat.
Although it is called a “manor”, it is a relatively modest building of honey-colored Cotswold stone. He did little to it except importing his furniture from the Red House, hanging pictures and tapestries and, of course, papering the walls. But it embodies the kind of modest English domesticity that became the mainstay of the Arts & Crafts movement which Morris, effectively, founded.
The room called the “old hall” is not grand and barely a hall. Rather it is a simple space with a window seat, a big fireplace and some hangings – some of Morris’ earliest designs. None of the other rooms are larger. The furniture is a mix of old and (then) new: 17th and 18th-century pieces meeting bespoke designs by Webb and Morris himself. The high-backed settle built for the Red House is here, as is the four-poster bed in which Morris was born in Walthamstow in 1834. We see a lifetime of acquisition and design.
The tendency might be to think of Morris as a lone polymath. “The reward of labor is life,” he wrote. “Is that not enough?” And labor he did, insatiably learning new crafts, from printing to weaving. But the work was not his alone.
The first Pre-Raphaelite portrait Dante Gabriel Rossetti made of Jane Burden, Morris’s wife and muse, is here, with her voluptuous lips, wavy hair and sculptural features. She became Rossetti’s lover. The three existed in a strange relationship, with Rossetti even living at the house with Jane while Morris went away on a tour of Iceland, searching for sagas.
Despite its beauty, this must have been a hard house to live in, lacking gas and running water. Deep in the country, it frequently flooded and was attached to a working farm. Jane Morris’s embroideries hang here in the house, simpler than her husband’s, and they were embraced into the Morris & Co catalog. Her face appears everywhere in works by Morris and his friends.
But it is arguably their daughter, May Morris, who is most present. Born in 1862, May was brought into the business as director of embroidery and her works permeate Kelmscott, including a cot-quilt titled “The Homestead and the Forest” that features lines of her father’s favorite poems and various creatures, including Rossetti’s sadly shortlived wombat , Top.
It was May who inhabited and loved the house longest, until her death aged 76 in 1938. She was a pioneering feminist, founder of the Women’s Guild of Art and a spurned suitor of George Bernard Shaw, who later enjoyed a relationship with her “companion Mary Lobb. She kept the house as a place for a very English kind of radical culture alive.
After William Morris’ death, Jane purchased the house, which then passed to May, who kept it exactly as her father had, refusing to retrofit any amenities of modern life. It was bequeathed to Oxford university which, in 1962, passed it on to the Society of Antiquaries. They overthrew the covenants of the will and made the house habitable enough to attract a custodian.
It is now certainly warmer than it was, with heating, lighting and the rest. But Morris’s notion of a house that becomes part of the landscape and is slowly filled with fine design endures. His most famous instruction is surely “to have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”. Here it is the simple candlesticks, tables, chests and hangings that make the rooms.
But perhaps the most fitting of his quotes, many now adorning museum-shop tea towels, is: “The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.” Kelmscott is, like Morris himself, anachronistic, revolutionary in its simplicity and enduringly beautiful. It is still more than capable of inspiring us.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s design and architecture critic