Anarchy at Kelmscott Manor

Back garden of Kelmscott Manor

View of Kelmscott Manor from the back garden

On Saturday we visited Kelmscott Manor, the rural Oxfordshire former retreat of William Morris and his family, as well as the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Upon arrival we were ambushed by an enthusiastic docent who immediately pointed out the location of the loos, a greeting that I suspect is fine-tuned to address the most pressing needs of the pensioner demographic that comprises the majority of visitors. When it comes to leisure activities, I have always been old before my time.

The docent’s overview of the grounds also included a tearoom, and, with fifteen minutes to kill until our timed-entry ticket was valid and rain clouds threatening overhead, we decamped to the whitewashed barn for a cup of tea drunk from William Morris-patterned mugs. In the entryway of the house we were “greeted” by another guide who blocked our way until she completed her elaborate explanation of the one-way system we were to follow as we proceeded through the property. When finally allowed to pass, we discovered the downstairs rooms were filled with pottery, tapestries, and a striking portrait by Rossetti of Jane Morris, who was both Rossetti’s muse and purported lover, as well as William’s wife.

Portrait of Jane Morris by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Portrait of Jane Morris by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In the Green Room yet another docent—this one sporting an impressive outcropping of black hair in his ears—explained that one of the couches on display was produced by Morris’ company from inexpensive boxwood so that it would be affordable by the middle class. He went on to tell us that most of what was produced would have only been accessible to the elite, a curious irony given Morris was an impassioned socialist (some of the socialist pamphlets he penned are on display in the attic) and one that reminded me of the paradox of the modern-day artisanal movement.

Upstairs we made the fatal mistake of viewing the attic rooms before the first floor, inadvertently violating the one-way system instructions. After tense negotiations with another volunteer, we managed to regain entry. For a brief moment as we walked up the down stairs, I felt what it was to be an anarchist.

Of all the treasures on view in the manor, the one I found most striking isn’t mentioned in the pamphlet they hand you at the door. In the North Hall, hanging from a door that’s partially obscured by a grand hooded settee, is William Morris’ black overcoat. It’s a caped style à la Sherlock Holmes and patently lacking in the aesthetic qualities most often associated with Morris.

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Morris’ overcoat

Later, while dipping soldiers of garlic bread into hens egg en cocotte at the excellent local pub, The Plough Inn, I realized what the coat reminded me of. In Patti Smith’s most recent memoir, M Train, she has a habit of taking Polaroids of everyday items that belonged to artists she loves—Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, Herman Hesse’s typewriter. If Smith had visited Kelmscott, the coat would’ve undoubtedly gotten the Polaroid treatment. In the book she also recounts how an unnamed poet gave her an ill-fitting, unlined Commes de Garçons black overcoat as an impromptu birthday gift. Later, much to her distress, she loses the coat.

Perhaps the Society of Antiquaries of London that runs Kelmscott Manor would consider loaning Morris’ coat to Smith as a replacement. Like Morris, Smith is an artist who wears many hats, from poet to writer to artist (in her case, Polariods instead of textiles). I can’t help thinking they would’ve gotten along had they been contemporaries, and that Morris would’ve approved of the loan as heartily as the busybody docents of the manor would object.

The Details:

Kelmscott Manor (open Wednesdays and Saturdays, April to October)
Lechlade, Oxfordshire GL7 3HG
+44 01367 252486

The Plough
Lechlade, Oxfordshire GL7 3HG
+44 01367 253543

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