William Morris, Kelmscott Manor, and May Morris
In doing research about Jane Morris and those around her in her life, I’ve stumbled upon journal articles containing the will of May Morris with some interesting footnotes and quotes about her father, William Morris and his time at Kelmscott Manor. I just wanted to share some excerpts here, because they provide a good perspective on William Morris’s thoughts and ideas during 1871. His years spent there with his wife and daughters; seem to be some of the most joyous and the most disappointing of his life. For instance, struggling with his eldest daughter Jenny Morris’s epilepsy and lifetime of nurse’s care to the overabundant work he did through Morris & Co.
Let’s begin with William Morris and Kelmscott…
I have been looking about for a house for the wife and kids, and whither do you guess my eye is turned now? Kelmscott, a little village about two miles above Radcott Bridge a heaven on earth; an old stone Elizabethan house like Water Eaton, and such a garden! Close down on the river, a boat house and all things handy. I am going down there again on Saturday with Rossetti and my wife: Rossetti because he thinks of a sharing it with us if the thing looks likely… (William Morris to C.J. Faulkner, 17 May 1871)
We have taken a little place deep down in the country…a beautiful and strangely naïf house, Elizabethan in appearance though much later in date, as in that out of the way corner people built Gothic till the beginning or middle of last century. It is on the S.W. extremity of Oxfordshire, within a stone’s throw of the baby Thames, in the most beautiful grey little hamlet called Kelmscott. (William Morris to (?), August-September 1871)
Perhaps my most favorite description of Kelmscott came again from Morris himself, “A house that I love with a reasonable love I think: for though my words may give you no idea of any special charm about it, yet I assure you that the charm is there; so much has the old house grown up out of the soil and the lives of those that lived on it: some thin thread of tradition, a half-anxious sense of the delight of meadow and acre and wood and river; a certain amount (not too much let us hope) of common sense, a liking for making material serve one’s turn, and perhaps at bottom some little grain of sentiment: this I think was what went to the making of the old house.” (Birmingham Guild of Handcraft, Magazine, 1896)
Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum, from the Emery Walker Library
William Morris with May on his left, Jane sitting center and Jenny Morris to the right.
In the corner peeking out is Lady Burne-Jones.
For instance, I didn’t realize that Morris’s very good friend, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, paid jointly for Kelmscott. I did know about his visits there and his affair with Jane Morris, of course, but this footnote by Morris sheds a bit of light on this turbulent time for him and his family, “Another quite selfish business is that Rossetti has set himself down at Kelmscott as if he never meant to go away; and not only does that keep me from my harbor of refuge (because it is really a farce our meeting when we can help it) but also he has all sorts of ways so unsympathetic with the sweet simple old place, that I feel his presence there as a kind of slur on it: this is very unreasonable though when one thinks why one took the place, and how this year it has really answered that purpose: nor do I think I should feel this about it if he had not been so unromantically discontented with it and the whole thing, which made me very angry and disappointed…” (William Morris to Mrs. Coronio, 25 November 1872)
Furthermore, William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti took Kelmscott on a joint tenancy, in 1871, with the intention, according to Morris that he provides a summer place for his family. It was Rossetti who professed intention to stay there permanently but he left for good in 1874. Morris died in 1896 at the age of 62 and was buried in Kelmscott churchyard, ‘carried thither on a farm cart with yellow body and bright red wheels, wreathed with vine leaves and flowers and strewn with willow boughs and a carpeting of moss.’
Study of William Morris on his Death-Bed by Charles Fairfax Murray, 1896
Housed at Tate Gallery
I stumbled upon May Morris’ will and a very interesting letter between herself and Dr. Farnell, Vice Chancellor of Oxford University. They shed light on May’s perspective concerning her father’s life and accomplishments as well as providing a rare glimpse into her own thoughts:
Mary (May) Morris’s will is dated 10th January 1929 proved in the Principal Probate Registry on 27th January 1939, three and a half months after her death on 16th October. The Kelmscott Estate was given to the University and also the furniture, chattels and effects specified included in the Probate. Probably not the most exciting of documents to read but the importance of it is paramount. So, provided below are as many details from her will as I could find. Included below is May Morris's goddaughter and her companion, Miss Lobb:
Jenny Morris, first born daughter of William and Jane Morris and May's older sister is mentioned briefly here,