Last week we visited Kelmscott Manor, the former home of William Morris who rented the house from the summer of 1871, when he took a joint lease with the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, until his death in 1896. Morris’ widow, Jane, bought the house in 1913 and it remained in the family until 1938 when it was bequeathed to the University of Oxford, who, unable to keep it up, passed it on to the Society of Antiquaries of London in the 1960s.
Morris described his first visit to Kelmscott in his novel News from Nowhere, published in 1890 - Almost without my will, my feet moved along the road they knew. On the right side, we could see a cluster of small houses and barns, new and old, and there was a grey stone barn and a wall, partly overgrown with ivy, over which a few grey gables showed. We stood presently on the stone path, which led up to the old house. The garden between the wall and the house reddened of June flowers in that delicious super abundance of small well tended gardens and the house itself was a fit guardian for all the beauty of that heart of summer.
We walked through the village, along the same thin road that Morris wrote about. It was a heavy summer morning, close and muggy, the emergence of an enduring spell of hot weather. Swallows flitted over the harvested hay in the fields to either side of the lane narrowed by bramble bushes of green fruit and those intricate pink flowers they have. We passed a honeysuckle-riddled barn, the road flanked by moss-wadded stone slates, then a few cottages, gardens profuse with roses and hollyhocks, and above them, between them, seemingly, rose the many grey chimneys of Kelmscott.
Sometimes the most exquisite of places are the hardest to write about. Their magic is somehow inexplicable, it slips through your fingers and wriggles away, not to be defined or captured on a page. Kelmscott is perhaps one of these places. But I shall try.
Morris wrote that the house looked as if it had grown up out of the soil, an organic element in its surrounding topography, and this is indeed still true today. Built in the local stone in around 1600 for a yeoman farmer, the house seems to be somehow integral to its setting; it is of the land, more a grand, sunken, overgrown cottage than an aristocratic pile, its rooms and gardens seem to spring from the earth, ancient, and then seep and spill out into the village and meadows beyond.
As you step over the threshold into the passage beyond the east porch, you are transported far away. The rooms have a simple, rough charm to them, built of strong natural materials - flagstones and creaky floorboards, wood paneled walls, thick-set furniture. You are somewhere you have never been before but somehow the house’s warmth and creativity is tangible; it beckons you in. Everywhere there are recognisable tokens of Morris’ life and work - hangings in the old hall in the familiar ‘strawberry thief’ pattern, which was inspired by thrushes stealing fruit from the Manor’s kitchen garden, heavy threaded tapestries in thick, woven wool, a painting of Jane in a blue silk dress by Rossetti, fierce and Guinevere-like, tiles around the fireplace in a green North-facing sitting room with swan and artichoke motifs. The garden beyond the mullioned windows is prolifically referenced in the designs inside - birds and flowers, leaves and fruit.
I sit for a long while in the Tapestry Room, used by Rossetti as a studio and later as a sitting room and work-room by Morris and his daughter, May. There is a window seat overlooking the front garden, the old flagstone path hewn through the lawn, and old roses to either side of it, climbing up over the porch. The room still has an air of being a greatly creative, productive space, pooled in lovely gloomy light. Even now, even despite not having been lived in for decades. It is a haunted room, haunted by memories of debate and laughter and concentration. Funny to think that this higgledy, piggledy shipwreck of a house is no longer a home, so strong is the impregnated familial atmosphere. You can almost hear sounds that must not have been heard here for a long time - the mundane mayhem of domestic life, the commotion of crockery being washed, moths swatted, lamps lit and extinguished, bracelets unclasped. It feels not like a museum but still a fortress of genius and lunacy and yet also the prosaic intricacies of everyday life, even though no longer do children play in the hall and no laundry billows dry in the garden. But you can feel it, it is here still, in the air. Sitting in that room, looking out over the garden wall and over the lane to the dovecote and the old stables behind, I wonder whether all this is half-imagined. Whether that even matters.
Visiting old houses and gardens is a curious occupation. Everyone has his/her own agenda. Invariably they are there looking for the essence of something, or someone, a style of decorating or design, a period in history, a famous writer or gardener, long dead, a setting for a play or novel. Often, you have read about the place beforehand, or seen a TV show, or some friends have been there and told you about the delicate intricacy of the plasterwork or the hypnotizing scent of a lilac bush in a corner of the garden and you go there, predatory, looking to see for yourself. Sometimes you are just looking for inspiration - colours, patterns, a beautiful window, a certain light, a view of a particular river or valley.
A lot of us are searching for memories, I think, for our ancestors, for a time before our time, and it is reassuring on some level - comforting even - to find places that existed on ancient maps, to stand in rooms where once someone else stood, who we admire, looking out at the same sky, at a similar smudge of heat haze on the horizon that we are seeing now, or walked through the garden in that same skirling summer wind that we are walking through now. The winds and the mist and walls haven’t changed, and people still come to find them.
Sometimes what you have come in search of eludes you. Some houses have been museums so long that they are just that. In some, the character of the persons that dwelt there are almost ingrained in the walls; you could feel them even if you were blindfolded and couldn’t see or deaf and couldn’t hear. I had dreamed of Kelmscott for a long time before I visited. I had fabricated images in my mind of how it would be - a dangerous thing a vivid imagination; it can get you into trouble to be disappointed by reality. What I found was the place I had dreamt of, real and alive: a stone box housing a thousand stories, a petri dish of atavistic passions, of savage beauty, of scholarship and brewed tea and flirtatious exchanges and awkward secrets, drunken conversations on weather-beaten winter nights. A loveliest haunt of ancient peace, a Morris described it once. A place from a simpler, more innocent time, the home of the ghost of that smoldery, scholarly man from the photographs who has inspired and affected so many people in so many literary, political and artistic ways.
The muddled garden, intoxicating of course in the height of summer, is thick with thunderbugs and drenched with the honeyed scent of buddleia in full flower. We play, and I cheat, at a somewhat half-hearted game of croquet on the lawn beside giant silvery artichoke leaves and tall blue delphiniums in the border, and sit for a while in the kitchen garden looking through a gate opening out into the orchard. Everywhere there are alabaster campanula, and tall stems of grey felted buds - Japanese anemones yet to bloom. Thinking of those, one of my very favourite flowers, I think that on the cusp of autumn must be when this place is at its most magical; when the weather slips between summer and winter and the gardens are wreathed in red leaf and fog and fiery dusks. I’ll be coming back for that.