Saturday, 7 April 2012

A Manor to Which I Would Like to Become Accustomed

For my birthday, I wanted to do something rather Pre-Raphaelite, which should come as no surprise to you. Let’s be honest, I was unlikely to go shopping then off to a cocktail bar for a raucous night out. So, together with the rest of Team Walker, we headed north to the Cotswolds and the first stop in my splendid day out, Kelmscott Manor.

A relief of William Morris dreaming beneath a tree, on the Memorial Cottages by Kelmscott Manor
I’ve been to Kelmscott a few times now and each time I find something new, something moving or amazing that I hadn’t seen before, or that meant something different to me. When William Morris acquired the house in 1871, he described it as ‘a heaven on earth’, and at first glance, it really is. The village is quiet, you park next to the church and walk through to the Manor on the other side of the very small collection of houses. The manor is a modest building, despite the title ‘Manor’, and is seventeenth century in origin. It was not known as Kelmscott Manor until 1864, when the owner before Morris purchased the lordship of the manor, and changed the name from Lower House. Little was done to change the house from the original vision, and Morris loved it so much that he merely maintained it, rather than renovating the house, which had been a working farmhouse. Mind you, it’s fairly impressive and beautiful inside, nothing needed to be changed. Oh, some plumbing might have been good. This charming building is the outside privy, and that is as ‘plumbed’ as it gets…
Not as near to the house as you’d like, especially in the middle of Winter.
The Society of Antiquaries runs it now, as it was passed to them by the University of Oxford in 1962. They had been bequeathed the property in May Morris’ 1938 will, and found the cost of its upkeep and repair to be too much, so passed it to the other beneficiary of May’s bequests. The Manor opened to the public in the late 1960s, no doubt amid the upswing in the popularity in Victorian culture at that time, and has been available to view ever since.

Beautiful Kelmscott Manor
Yes, friend, this is what I came out for to see, but my motives on this visit were somewhat different than in previous visits. I came this time in the footsteps of Alexa Wilding, who attended the Manor with the rest of Rossetti’s bags and baggages from 1871 until Rossetti gave up his stake in the place in 1874. Entering the Manor is absolutely a step back in time, entering through the oldest part of the house, the stone-flagged Old Hall. There is a huge fireplace, late Medieval in style, and all the furniture that surrounds you is dark wood Morris & Co pieces, together with Morris fabrics. There is a beautiful figure of Penelope, worked by Bessie Burden, Jane’s sister and later Chief Instructor at the Royal School of Art Needlework. The next room contained the most fascinating object, William Morris’ top coat, which I spent ages in front of. It wasn’t as big as I was expecting, and I wasn’t allowed to touch it. Damn. 

Gorgeous gardens to take your mind off handling the objects
In the Garden Hall, to distract you from the temptation to wrap yourself in Morris’ coat, are pieces of ruby lustre ware by William de Morgan and charcoal sketches of the signs of the zodiac by Edward Burne-Jones. Also on display are object of Islamic design, as Morris loved the patterns and described Persia as ‘a Holy Land where our [textile] art was perfected’, and he was instrumental in persuading the V&A to buy the Ardabil carpet, which he described as ‘a work of single perfection’.

Further along, the closet in the Panelled Room contains possibly the most famous picture of Jane Morris, The Blue Silk Dress.

Jenny Morris
Now, here’s where a moment of reality starts creeping in. It’s perhaps symbolic that in the cupboard lies the canker at the heart of the Kelmscott experience. Together with The Blue Silk Dress are the beautiful chalk portraits of Jenny and May, and a pencil portrait from 1857, all by Rossetti. Morris and Rossetti took the tenancy jointly in 1871 and it’s hard to see what Morris intended to happen, as he was so full of happiness at finding the Manor, and what it meant to him in terms of being a heaven on earth. Then off he goes to Iceland, leaving his wife alone with her lover, his best friend. A lesson we should all take away from this is that leaving your unhappy wife alone with your amorous, unstable best friend is not the answer to inner peace. In case you were wondering. Upstairs we go…

William's Room and fabulous bed
Now, Jane and William had separate rooms, Jane’s greeting you first as you go upstairs. It contains some pretty pieces of art, including a copy of Water Willow and a picture of Kelmscott by Marie Spartali

Up to the attics we go, and you have to scale the split-stepped stairs, which help you go up such a steep gradient. The attics consist of little garrets and rooms containing things to do with later life at the Manor, including effects of Miss Lobb, May’s companion in the last years of her life.
May Morris and the redoubtable Miss Lobb
Walking back to the car, you can stop and see the graves of the Morris family at the church.

If the church is open there are some interesting pieces of stained glass and murals to see.

All that is a good day out in itself, but if you have the stamina then why not follow in the footsteps of Edward Burne-Jones. While Ned was staying at Kelmscott, he was able to add to the astonishing Briar Rose panels that run around the walls of the Saloon at Buscot Park. It is only a matter of around 5 miles between the properties and no doubt a little less on foot in a straight line and it is an interest exercise in comparison.

Set in beautiful and extensive gardens, the house is an eighteenth century pile, gorgeous and neatly Georgian, and stuffed with the amazing artistic collections of the first two Lord Faringdon, the Victorian one and the ‘Bright, Young Thing’. It was Alexander Henderson (the first Lord Faringdon) who acquired the Burne-Jones pictures, four large panels entitled The Briar Wood, The Council Room, The Garden Court, and The Rose Bower and when Burne-Jones came to see them insitu, he was not happy with the result, so extended the frames and painted narrow panels to fill the spaces between.

The Briar Wood
The room is one I could sit in forever and not get bored, the pictures are so very beautiful and being surrounded by the ongoing narrative is amazing. We also have the first Lord to thank for the Pre-Raphaelite Room upstairs which contains, amongst other things, two Rossetti chalks, Pandora and Venus Verticordia. There are also pictures by Watts, Madox Brown, Leighton, Tissot and Marie Spartali Stillman. There are many reasons to come to Buscot Park, but the quality of the Pre-Raphaelite art is a fairly good one to be starting with.

Study for Venus Verticirdia
Study for Pandora

If you want a full-on Pre-Raphaelite day, a Ned and Topsy day, then this is not a bad double act of properties, plus the surrounding countryside is fairly smashing and Cotswold-y. It’s now all open for the summer season, so make haste while the sun shines!

Look here for Kelmscott Manor and here for Buscot Park, and have fun!!


  1. Thank you for this wonderfully descriptive article!

  2. This just made me a whole lot more excited for Tate Britain's Pre-Raphaelite exhibition in September!

  3. I am far too excited about that already...


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