- William Morris's Kelmscott: Landscape and History
This attractively produced book on William Morris's home, Kelmscott Manor, contains a great deal of information about the small, rather sleepy village of Kelmscott. Early chapters contain interesting essays on the archaeology of the region around Kelmscott and the village's medieval history. Steve Baker's chapter on cropmarks is fascinating, as is Mark Robinson's chapter on historical ecology. The ecology is subtle: none of the evidence presented in these chapters is visible to the visitor's eye. Even the topography is subtle, the site seeming on a casual visit completely flat, while in fact the manor house stands on the lowest of three gravel terraces above the River Thames.
In her chapter about Kelmscott's church, Carol Crago provides a highly interesting discussion that she unfortunately caps by attributing an extraordinary motive to its medieval builders. She asserts that "Kelmscott's inhabitants built [End Page 136] and improved their church because they wished to show off their economic prosperity and religious piety to the world" (67). This would be rather a histrionic motive; might not the inhabitants have put beauty into their church architecture out of religious devotion? In short, might they not have acted both for their creator and themselves? And if "to show off ... to the world" was their intention, then the world has never beaten a path to their door. Kelmscott remains what it always was—rather a backwater. Julian Munby's chapter on vernacular architecture in the village and Robert Parkinson's on conservation policy fill in valuable background to the Manor itself.
Nicholas Cooper's chapter provides an architectural historian's satisfying report on the fabric of the house, while Jonathan Howard's chapter carefully points out all the mistakes and compromises made during the course of various restorations or remodellings of Morris's house, such as the moving to two different locations of a wooden partition, or screen, and the construction in 1966 of an intrusive and inappropriate porch over an external doorway. He shows how such acts derive from contradictions in aspirations for the house, such contradictions being present in May Morris's will, as well as in the desire of the Society of Antiquaries to mediate visitor/tenant relations (hence the unused porch, which was intended as a ticket-selling place but never employed). Cooper also points out how slipshod some of the original building work was in the seventeenth century (slipshod enough to shock Morris had he known about it).
There is a concentration in the book (and in the "restoration" program that motivated the study) on William Morris, but three other quite large personalities were involved in the Kelmscott adventure, and each of them has a significant, though different, cultural historical importance which can only be sketched in within the constraints of the volume. They are Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who lived there in three of the early years, 1871 to 1874; Jane Morris; and her daughter, May Morris, who lived at Kelmscott until her death in 1938 in what I take to be a lesbian relationship with her companion (reference is made to her "mannish gardener ... protector and companion" ). The book also provides a verbal sketch of the original builders of the house, the Turners, whose coat of arms is displayed on the house.
This reader's biggest dismay among such calm satisfactions as the book provides comes in the chapter by the restorer of the garden, the landscape architect Hal Moggridge. He tells us about one regrettable decision made in relation to the east door. The doorway is sheltered by an open-sided porch supported on wooden pillars that have a comfortable bow and warp to them. A flagstone path leading from the road is centred on the porch. A peculiarity of the house is that the door is set off-centre within the porch (the centre of the door is perhaps a foot or eighteen...