News From Nowhere
William Morris, the founder of the Arts & Crafts Movement, lived much of his adult life in the Cotswold village of Kelmscott. His house, Kelmscott Manor, owned by the Society of Antiquaries of London, is open to the public two days a week over the summer months. On entering the village, located near Lechlade in the flatter part of the region, it is instantly clear how it was that Morris was captivated by it. Presumably it was much more of a working community in the late 19th century, which would have appealed to the man who, above all, appreciated practicality, and whilst it has lost much of the paraphernalia of the farming life, it retains a strongly rural atmosphere, not least because of its almost secret situation, tucked away at the end of a network of narrow lanes. It is z-shaped, with the church at one end and the core of the village, with pub and Kelmscott Manor, at the other. Signposts are few – finding first the village and then the house is bit like a game.
A game, however, with a reward. I didn't know what exactly to expect but probably something like a Morris shrine, where awestruck followers would go to pray to their god, and the merely curious treated with lofty condescension. I could not have been more wrong. It is a museum, with exhibits that are not to be touched, but the atmosphere within is not remotely precious, just respectful. The rooms are filled with examples of the work of Morris, the Pre-Raphaelites including Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the fine furniture of Philip Webb. Helpful and knowledgeable custodians are present to keep a discreet watch and to answer questions with honest enthusiasm. There are houses across our country where one sometimes feels like a barely tolerated interloper – but not here.
In a corner of the garden is the old three-seat privy, where Morris, it is said, looking out over the garden, was inspired to develop his celebrated wild-strawberry thief fabric design. I see why that is - there is a slow pace here, even though it is open to the public, that invites contemplation. Some flavour of that can be gleaned from the cover illustration of his utopian novel, 'News from Nowhere', which features a view of the house that plays a significant role in the story of William Guest, who falls asleep after returning from a meeting of the Socialist League and awakes to find himself in a future society based on common ownership and democratic control of the means of production.
Of course the pleasures of the simple life are more easily secured when you have the education and means that Morris enjoyed. But the sentiments he expressed through his work have much to commend them and anyone wishing to understand that side of the English character that rejects frivolity in art will get much out of a visit here.
Our Cotswold walking & cycling tours take in some of the most beautiful spots in the Cotswolds! Click here for more information.