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To Kelmscott

25 October 2015
Ben Pentreath
27 Comments

Earlier in the week, I found myself with a spare hour or two at the end of a meeting in Oxfordshire. I could either jump straight into the traffic back into London and just about snatch half an hour in the office with people at the end of the day – no fun for anyone – or, looking at the map, I began to hatch a different plan…

I was not so far from Kelmscott, the house that William Morris rented in 1871 and lived in until his death in 1896, the place he called ‘a heaven on earth’.  It was Wednesday, and I knew that the house was open on Wednesdays. Sweeping rainstorms had crossed the country and I’d been driving all morning through pouring rain. But by 3 o clock the weather had cleared and pale autumnal sunshine was gently shining through the clouds. And I thought to myself… what could be better than visiting this house which I’ve longed to see for so long.

You park your car in a muddy field on entering the village, as directed, but then there is a lovely 10 minute walk down a quiet lane to the house.  The hustle and worries of the world slip away in those ten minutes.P1040130

There are some beautiful houses to admire on the way, together with a clutch of cottages designed by Webb and Gimson (that were partly under scaffold, so not ripe for photography I am afraid).P1040131

The chimneys of the Manor lay at the end of the quiet lane, together with this beautiful cottage.P1040135

A wonderful stone slate fence, encrusted with moss, enclosed the meadow…P1040136

And a first glimpse through the trees of a leaded light window that ultimately turned out to be William Morris’s bedroom.P1040137

A fine stone gate surround on the lane.
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Through which, if you entered (you actually come in through the farmyard around the corner) is this most famous of views… A long stone path, bounded by small rose bushes, leading to the many-gabled house.P1040144 P1040149

Kelmscott is a dream building.

Now owned by the Society of Antiquaries, Kelmscott is largely staffed by volunteers who were informative and generous with their time. It turns out that arriving at 4 o clock on a wet Wednesday in late October is a very good time to pitch up. “Oh, I think you’ll be the last person though the door” said the nice lady at the entrance.

You are allowed to take photographs anywhere. This is a rule that you can imagine I am very happy about (a policy also followed, I am glad to say, now, by the National Trust – although not for some reason by English Heritage. I am never very impressed with the excuse that you can buy the catalogue. It’s not often that the catalogue has a photograph of the precise moulding or curtain frond I’m interested in. Do you know what I mean?)

This is the beautiful White Panelled sitting room, which was added on to the house in the 1660s, I suspect with early 18th century panelling. It is serenely quiet and a perfect square room.  Morris added the turkish tiles to the fireplace. It is sparsely furnished, but in a way that feels just right.P1040156 P1040159 P1040164 P1040166

Dream. Look at this beautiful window seat.

Next door is a tiny China closet lined with a paper I thought I recognised but now I am less sure of the name. Shelves by Philip Webb hold Morris’s superb collection of blue and white china.P1040167

The Green Room is curtained with perfect faded fabric, one of my favourite patterns of all time, Kennet.
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Upstairs, above the white drawing room, is one of the most beautiful rooms in the house – the Tapestry Room, which was already lined with this series of tapestries, depicting the story of Samson, when the Morrises and Rosetti arrived at the house in 1871. Rosetti originally used the room as a studio, but after he left the house 3 years later, Morris made it his work room. P1040175 P1040180 P1040181 P1040182 P1040184

It’s perhaps the finest room in the house.

At the other end of the passage, is Jane Morris’s bedroom, entirely lined in Willow Bough, which regular readers of the blog will know is a certain favourite of mine. P1040186

If I suggest Willow Bough to any decoration client younger than the age of 40, they adore it. If I suggest Willow Bough to any client over the age of 50, they cringe in horror.  In the 1970s every downstairs loo in Britain was wallpapered with Willow Bough and no-one who grew up in that decade can think of it without a shudder (together with seagrass squares, which, for me, is the nicest possible flooring that you can think of, and which it has been my single-handed mission, in the shop, to reintroduce as the best floor covering ever).  Should you be wondering, over at Pentreath Towers we are getting SERIOUSLY into cork at the moment as well.

Upstairs in the attics is a small display of books and other printed matter from the Kelmscott Press and other Morris-alia. The frontispiece of News from Nowhere or an Epoch of Rest has the most perfect illustration of the house, unchanged today.P1040193

The attic bedrooms are sparse and perfect.  Incidentally they are also the only rooms in the house that don’t have strong (often fluorescent) lighting – which cast a rather contemporary glow across the whole of the interiors of Kelmscott.  I have a hunch that if I was the director of the house, I’d turn all the lights off even on the gloomiest of days; take away one or two of the signs, that subtly turn the house in to a building that feels like a museum, and fill each room with bunches of flowers. It does feel somewhat institutional, and I think it needs to feel more like the Morris’s home.P1040195 P1040198

The attic bedrooms, without their strong electric light, felt completely real and timeless, as if Morris might be climbing the stairs at any moment.P1040199 P1040200

There is a nice photograph of Morris in the hallway, rather younger and kinder-looking than we often see him.  william-morris-portraitOutside, the garden was slipping into Autumn.
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The house was closing up. Conveniently, because that was the last photograph I took before my camera died. I had a nice cup of tea in the cafe, and made my way back to the car, and drove home happy that at longest last I’d made a trip I’d been looking forward to doing for years.

Kelmscott is open for one more week before it closes for the winter – this coming Wednesday, and the last opening day is Saturday 31st. So if you find yourself in that bit of Oxfordshire on either of those two days this week, now you know what to do.

Back home in London, here’s some photos from an old blog – Willow Bough in our little guest bedroom.
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What I hadn’t quite realised, of course, until I visited Kelmscott, is that Morris lived on Queen Square, at number 26 (the site of which is now part of the hospital), from 1865 to 1872, and that the offices of Morris & Co (Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co to start with) were located here until 1881.  Here is a drawing.Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 17.11.50

And here is a letter that I found online in an auction catalogue.  I think Charlie and I should have new paper printed.Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 17.15.16

And so the story goes full circle, and I will wait to hear from many readers who will be a great deal more expert than me about further details of Morris, Kelmscott and Queen Square.

27 comments on this post

Madeline Lodgesays:

The floors in my childhood home were covered in Seagrass squares and the bathrooms were wall to wall (and floor) cork!

Richard Cornettsays:

I want to subscribe to shop news and blog but my computer has a mean streak and refuses to submit to lower case letters in the Sign Up block. Will you please enter it there for me?
Sorry for the bother.Thoroughly enjoyed visit to Kelmscott. Just read the article in Sunday’s NYT supplement and be living in the garden at the Parsonage in my quiet moments for a long time. What a perfect design and planting. Thank you. Richard

Laurasays:

I love my sea grass matting – but it dosen’t love me, alas.

Every time I peek underneath it,it has dumped half a pound of dust & crap on my nice stone floor.

As soon as you have cleared it up, it dumps some more. How much dust & crap can one sea grass mat have within its folds and coils?

I swear I have taken out twice its own weight in that stuff since I bought it into the house.

Bloody thing.

So wonderful to see this familiar old house I worked in many years ago. I was lucky enough to be asked to do the restoration on the curtains in the tapestry room and others. It was such an honour as I’d long been a fan of William Morris – being at his home I think you get a true insight into the real man behind the Victorian iconic image. Thank you for reminding me of this beautiful house!

We’ve just put cork down, but could not get hold of Wicanders Cork-O-Plast: cork with a transparent layer of vinyl on top. It was what people used the last time cork was all the rage, and was very hard-wearing. Which cork did you get?
Mary Keen has Willow Bough in a lovely mustardy-yellow, I prefer it to the original.

Elfreda

Jean-Bernard LASSERREsays:

This is to tell you how much I enjoy browsing your blog every Monday.Your account of your visit to Kelmscott I found particularly interesting.Besides,your photographs are really beautiful and capture the idyllic and quintessentially English atmosphere that suffuses the whole manor and its surroundings.I am very fond of William Morris’s artistic creations and entirely subscribe to his aesthetic ideal,though not to his socialism.
Thank you so much,dear Mr Pentreath,for bringing beauty into our daily lives.

Nicolasays:

So great to see the ins and outs of Kelmscott once again, having departed Oxfordshire some time ago. I’m not sure I’m ready to revisit Bough and Cork (thus giving my age group away!)Although I never personally opted for them, they were ubiquitous and not just in downstairs abodes. My seagrass matting dried out and disintegrated on a Cotswold cottage stone floor. Ignored advice to water it occasionally! Best, Nicola

Millerballsays:

Don’t you just love standing peacefully alone in a beautiful, old house in late afternoon and that feeling of time standing still and the energy of all the people that inhabited the place over the years.. . .

Then, reverie interrupted by the quacking of a duck to announce an incoming call!!

I love the window seat! I am in the process of adding a home office to my new home and will definitely be referring to this photo for inspiration.
Thank you so very much.
xo, Lissy

Marysays:

Thank you for your beautiful pictures and blog. It is so good for me to be taken to such a beautiful place if only in my mind. Keep up the good work! Mary from Greensboro, NC

I’ve been contemplating putting WB in my bathroom (a one-bedroom, so no downstairs powder room). You inspired me to use seagrass squares in my living room – they really look good when they get a little stretched out in places.

Your posts are my Monday treat. Such lovely photos of your visit, we visited in the summer, the tea room and overspill marquee were furnished in Morris cushions and bunting. The Mulberry tree was in fruit and a spot of scrumping did leave me rather red handed… In a strange coincidence, I posted a picture of one of the beautifully crafted window clasps of Kelmscott on instagram today. Assume you have been to Red House too, beautiful, but I don’t think it’s a patch on Kelmscott.

Annsays:

I so enjoyed the photos of your visit to Kelmscott this morning and that fireplace is a thing of beauty.

Corneliasays:

Simply gorgeous and nostalgic of my parents love of the
Pre-raphaelites.

Jaine McCormacksays:

Pretty sure that wallpaper in the china cupboard is Sunflower – I used to be design head at Sanderson and we re-did lots of the Morris designs which still look really good in their modern interpretations – but not sure if that lovely blue colourway is current… If not, it ought to be!

Liz Wilhidesays:

Dear Ben,

I’m fairly sure that the wallpaper lining the china closet is Sunflower (1879).

Wonderful post — your blog is the highlight of Monday!

GillCsays:

An inspirational visit captured in beautiful photos, as always. It’s not easy to tell from the photo as so little is visible, but I think the pretty blue paper lining the cabinet is ‘Sunflower’.

The downstairs loo in my parents’cottage is willow bough AND cork tiles -a winning combination! Kelmscott looks sheer perfection, what a dreamy post soothing me into Monday morning. x

Dear Ben- I live in Kelmscott! I am so thrilled that you have visited this little place which Morris described as ‘heaven on earth’. It really is a special place. I love to walk my dogs past the manor at dusk and remember the old ghost story that the villagers in Morris’s time wouldn’t come close to the Manor at night as a spectral coach and four had been seen careering through the gates and down the lane in the dark!I visited with a friend recently who remarked that it all looks very familiar to us nowadays, but that this interior decoration was completely new and shocking at the time. So glad that you enjoyed it.

Michaelsays:

Clever of you to get Kelmscott interiors, usually a silver haired dragon doing camera control, wonderful house despite the museum aura encouraged by the HHA…WM’s grave also a model of austerity & simplicity, and the church a delight….

Merri McElderrysays:

What alovely way to wake up..with one of your posts to start the day here in NE Minnesota, USA…I loved the picturs as usual, and your writing to accompany them brings me right there where you are. I can almost smell the countryside. Thank you , again for something to carry me through with Light and such Joy! this day..Blessings to you for your time and doing your passion—making people happy.—Merri

I felt as though I was there Ben. As a Morris devotee I am reminded of him daily as I walk through my home here in NSW Australia. William Morris is in my laundry too…. and I am over 50!!! Beautiful photos and writing, perfectly describing that quiet afternoon. Thank you!!

Jansays:

Lovely pictures to gladden the heart.

Valeriesays:

I think you are right about William Morris having an age demographic, I have a friend in her thirties who has used his wallpaper in her hall to great effect and with no sense of irony. I am rather fond of cork flooring, I grew up in a Colt house that was covered in the stuff. It was great for roller skating up and down corridors (until my parents put runners down anyway!)…

Beautiful images, exuding a great calmness and serenity. Kelmscott is perhaps the perfect house.

scottsays:

Dear Ben,Lucky you, what a lovely, calm interior, but where does one put ones spode tea cup and saucer in the panelled sitting room!

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