Kelmscott: restoring a Pre-Raphaelite love nest

It has been two and a half years since William Morris’s beloved Cotswold home Kelmscott Manor closed its doors to the public. Since then, the beautiful grey gabled house in West Oxfordshire has undergone a £6m renovation, funded partly by the National Lottery but also by a determined money-raising campaign. It reopens today, with the landscape that provided so much inspiration for the prints, weavings and poetry of the artist already in spring blossom.

It’s a lovely restoration that returns the interior much more closely to how Kelmscott was when Morris, his wife Jane and daughters Jenny and May lived there. Effort has been put into making the space feel less like a museum, and more like the informal family home it truly was, where May wrote that “we lived like savages” and her father felt that he had found his “heaven on earth”.

Morris was attracted to Kelmscott’s rural situation, in rich farmland close to the Thames, and rented the Manor in 1871, living there on and off for the last 25 years of his life. He was buried in the village churchyard nearby. The pioneering artist, writer and eco-socialist felt emotionally connected to the house, which dated back to 1570, yet it was also the setting for one of the most famous love triangles of the Victorian era. Morris shared the lease initially with the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was obsessionally in love with Jane, and made her the subject of many of the most famous pre-Raphaelite works, such as Proserpine in the Tate.

The lovers spent three years together at Kelmscott, including the summer of 1871, when Morris travelled to Iceland. Indeed, one of the first rooms visitors enter is the White Room, which Rossetti used as a studio, and in which hang family portraits, including his dramatic large painting of Jane, Mrs William Morris, or The Blue Silk Dress. An archive photograph has helped the curators to return furniture in the room to where it once stood. The effect is instantly warm and immediate rather than stuffy and institutional.

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