Marriage à la Morris mode

In February 1879 William Morris was asked for a contribution to the Manchester Literary Club. He responded:

A few things that have occurred to me.

1. Do not have anything in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. (If this rule were carried out, we should be rid of most upholstery)

The forty-four-year-old Morris set down these thoughts a few months after he had moved into Kelmscott House – a four-storey house in a terrace in Hammersmith, overlooking the Thames, and a home for him, his wife, Jane, and their two daughters Jenny and May. With its sunny garden and light, airy rooms, it was a step up from their previous home in Turnham Green, where he had lived since 1872, and an escape from the rooms in Queen Square above the Morris and Co workshop. It was perhaps a city version of Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, which Morris had leased on a joint tenancy with Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1871 before going on a journey to Iceland, leaving Jane to deal with both Rossetti and the house.

How We Might Live is an account of the married life of the Morrises, told through their houses, with descriptions of domestic arrangements and decoration. It covers practical aspects such as servants and water closets, as well as wall hangings, embroidery, tiles, stained glass and painted furniture. The main rooms of Kelmscott Manor, described by a visitor as “romantic but most uncomfortable”, were full of such dense decorative elements, while Morris, inspired by the plainness of Iceland, had a sparsely furnished study. Suzanne Fagence Cooper, a former curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, provides informed descriptions of Morris’s Persian rugs and carpets, the convex mirrors and japanned corner cabinets given to Jane by Rossetti, and the Dürer prints in the entrance hall.

Some items seem emblematic. The settle Morris designed in 1856 for the studio he shared with Edward Burne-Jones in Red Lion Square in London seems to sum up his enthusiasm and energy, as well as his famous clumsiness. Built by a local cabinet maker, it was a heavy gothic throne painted with images of Sir Galahad and Gwendolen, just right for a would-be “palace of art”. It was too large for the rooms, where it took up a third of the crowded and chaotic studio space, as can be seen in Burne-Jones’s drawing “Self-portrait in the Red Lion Square Studio”, which shows the artist seated at his easel amid a jumble of props and candles. Another emblematic piece of furniture is the four-poster bed constructed in the 1840s from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century elements, with curtains embroidered with flowers and birds by May. The bed was in Kelmscott Manor, where the family spent the warmer months while Morris went every other week to London, attending political meetings or organizing the Firm.

The complex decorative schemes have a parallel in the entanglements of those who designed them, as if their surroundings encourage a romantic expressiveness. A good deal of what we know about Jane comes from the many images of her by Rossetti, who continued to portray her obsessively, posing her as a heroine of olden times or seated at her needlework. The arrangements that left her alone with the artist for long periods are recorded, but Cooper admits that we have little evidence of Morris’s attitude to the affair. Jane herself remains enigmatic, known as always for her slender, flexible body, thick dark hair and brooding expression, as well as for her long, flowing gowns. Henry James, who met her in 1869, noted her appearance – “Imagine a tall lean woman in a long dress of some dead purple stuff, guiltless of hoops” – but he was also aware of her wonderful aura of intensity. Her pre-Raphaelite appearance was described and caricatured by Wilde, Whistler and George du Maurier, as well as by Morris’s later biographers and by visiting customers, who were surprised to find that the dining table had no cloth and that the china, porcelain and paintings were arranged with a “quasi carelessness”. In spite of the evidence of her warm letters to friends such as Crom Price, Rosalind Howard and Philip Webb, and her support for the suffering, addicted Rossetti, she remains aloof. Her late affair with the practiced philanderer Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, who wrote that at Kelmscott Manor she would leave a flower on the floor by his bed to signal that he could come to her room, retains its mystery. Blunt also described Morris’s cold behavior towards his wife and his suspicious blundering with loud footsteps into the room where she was alone with Blunt. There is also Bernard Shaw’s “Mystic Petrothal” to May Morris, and his ménage à trois when he moved in with May and her new husband, Henry Halliday Sparling, who were living in a house near her parents.

Cooper acknowledges that we have to work from evidence to approach the unknowable. She makes good use of diaries and letters, while also offering many careful observations: “it must have made her pause”; “it seems likely that”; “we will never know”. Victorian lives were plagued with illness, and the events described here are underscored by Morris’s gout, Rossetti’s addictions, as well as Jane’s periodic weaknesses which have been variously diagnosed as neuralgia, influenza, endometriosis or the menopause.

The other unromantic constant element is the hard work that underpinned both Morris’s commercial enterprises and the hospitable welcome Jane provided for their many visitors, who included Kropotkin, Stepniak and Eleanor Marx. Details of the process of dyeing, weaving and printing are considered alongside accounts of household expenses, making costumes for sittings, needlework and embroidery, all combining Morris’s desire to improve the lives of workers with his interest in finding beauty in homely tasks. How We Might Live ends with twelve pages of “Recipes from Kelmscott”, kept by Jane in a blue leather folder tied with ribbon and embossed with the Kelmscott Press emblem. They are arduous and not particularly appetizing. Bread, waffles, stockpot (boil for two days) stewed salt cod, cabbage with cheese and tomato “chutnee” are evidence of the practicalities of the artistic life.

Lindsay Duguid is a freelance writer

Browse the books from this week’s edition of theTLSat the TLS Shop

The post Marriage à la Morris mode appeared first on TLS.

Leave a Comment