Art / nature / Storytelling

Dream Days Out: Kelmscott Manor

On Thursday, I went to Kelmscott Manor. It has long been a dream of mine to see William Morris’s inspirational residence.

Having now been, I am in love – and I barely saw a fraction of its delights.

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I visited as I’m currently researching a novel that heavily features May Morris; along with an article about her companion, Mary Lobb.

May Morris was William’s daughter, and has long been overshadowed by her father. However, she was equally inspirational, not only creating wonderful works of art (she ran the Morris and Co embroidery department from the age of 23) but also founding the Women’s Guild of Arts, as the Art Workers’ Guild didn’t accept women.

She married the Secretary of the Socialist League, Henry Halliday Sparling but the marriage failed, thought to be a result of her relationship with George Bernard Shaw. For the last 22 years of her life, her main companion was Mary Lobb.

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Kelmscott is currently showing the first ever exhibition about Mary Lobb. It also has a May Morris designed quilt I have long wanted to see on display. The co-curator, Kathy Haslam, was kind enough to invite me to view the archives, along with sharing her wisdom. Receiving her invitation felt like Christmas (in all the good ways) and I eagerly accepted her offer.

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Kelmscott is a beautiful town, with houses commissioned by both Jane Morris and May Morris (as memorials to William and Jane Morris accordingly: a lovely idea if a little out of most people’s price range).

However, I had limited time so I couldn’t explore more closely. I needed to get to Kelmscott Manor.

Sitting in the office at the manor, chatting to Kathy was my idea of heaven. I could have spent hours listening to her stories. The more I learn about the women of the Arts and Crafts, the more intrigued I become, and Kathy is an eloquent font of knowledge.

After we had a cup of coffee  Kathy led me to the archives. I read letters, postcards and notes, and saw photos offering me a glimpse into May Morris’s life.

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I will be writing more about these in the future. For now, suffice to say it was fascinating.

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I then saw the Mary Lobb exhibition. Although it’s small, there’s huge amounts of information and insight packed in. The exhibition gives an intriguing snapshot into the life of an unconventional woman who, along with Mary, refused to comply with societal expectations.

Both loved nature, and spent a lot of time wild camping across the UK, and in Iceland.

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There are many photos of them with animals, including cats, dogs and goats. The exhibition presents an impressively vivid picture of their lives for such a small space.

After I read all that I could, Kathy showed me one of Kelmscott’s key exhibits: a May Morris designed and Jane Morris embroidered quilt, ‘The Homestead and the Forest’, that has already filled my head with stories.

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It’s a beautiful piece of work, with quirky detailing and no obvious order in the animals chosen, aside from  a broad ‘wildlife’ theme (and perhaps Aesop’s Fables). Apparently, it includes William Morris’s favourite things, including Kelmscott Manor, depicting the home as protection from the wild forest that surrounds it.

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A crocodile and giraffe stroll through nature scenes  along with a snake, a bull, domestic cats and birds of many types. There’s a naive magic in the quilt, which seems to shimmer with life.

I had a rapid-fire glimpse of a few other items at Kelmscott Manor but my time was up.

Luckily, I had the garden to explore. I can see why it inspired so much great art.

I wish I could have stayed all day – though it would still have been too little time to capture the full beauty of Kelmscott Manor (I suspect that would take a lifetime).

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On my way back, I stopped to see the Morris family grave. This was more discreet than I expected – though the typography was wonderful.

I left a small wild tribute.

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I will certainly be returning to Kelmscott Manor. It’s an ideal place to wildlife watch, and is full of nature inspired art – along with beautiful and useful things in general. If you have the opportunity, Kelmscott Manor is well worth visiting – particularly while the Mary Lobb exhibition is on.

Kelmscott Manor is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays 11am-5pm from April until October.

If you would like to learn more about May Morris, there’s a talk about her embroidery and the Morris and co embroidery department on September 16th at Kelmscott Manor.

The Mary Lobb exhibition is on at Kelmscott Manor until October 28th.

There’s also a landmark May Morris exhibition at the William Morris Gallery opening on October 7th. This features materials that have never been seen before.The exhibition will coincide with the publication by Thames & Hudson of May Morris: Arts & Crafts Designer, which is co-authored by curators at the William Morris Gallery and the V&A.

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