To the Cotswolds – on a grey and windy Saturday at the end of October, with the promise of rain and a chill in the air.
The destination was Kelmscott Manor, the lovely seventeenth century house that became the home of William Morris and his family in 1871. Although Morris himself didn’t spend much time there (the complications surrounding his wife’s relationship with the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti meant that he did not always feel comfortable in a place so redolent of Rossetti’s presence) he very much loved the ‘many-gabled old house’ and it’s rambling garden, lying close to a backwater of the River Thames.
Begun around 1600 the stone house was enlarged and altered by members of the Turner family during the following century, with the addition of barns and stables making it a substantial working farm. The family remained at the Manor until the death of James Turner in 1870, without making any further major alterations to the house, so when Morris viewed it in 1871 he was enchanted by the fact that it remained an unmodernised and complete seventeenth century building.
The grace and simplicity of the house, especially the white panelling in the rooms added in the late 1600s, had a profound influence on Morris and on the way he would design interiors. Looking at the rooms today with their mixture of Morris & Co fabrics, tiles and furniture coupled with paintings, ceramics and other objects the family collected, the effect is uncluttered, colourful and comfortable. The house rambles, with rooms opening out of each other, and has a sense of welcome and warmth.
Kelmscott Manor is now owned by the Society of Antiquaries, who have just unveiled ambitious plans to preserve the buildings in the way Morris would have wished (preservation rather than restoration), while also making it easier for visitors to learn about Morris and all his works.
Better visitor facilities will be opened up in the surrounding outbuildings, but I would suggest that they tamper at their peril with the current style of catering. On a chilly afternoon their spicy pumpkin soup with crusty bread was delicious and extremely welcome, while the array of homemade cakes looked scrumptious. Unfortunately, as the Manor is closed during the winter we will now have to wait until April to sample more of their delicious cooking.
When William Morris had guests staying at Kelmscott he would often take them over to Great Coxwell, about 6 miles away, to show them another remarkable stone building – the Great Coxwell Tithe Barn.
This magnificent structure is cathedral-like. Built around 1290, it formed part of the manor belonging to Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire and it remained a threshing barn until well into the 19th century. Wagons would bring their loads right into the barn, where grain would have been threshed with flails on the central threshing floor. Large amounts of crops could have been stored here in the dry and well ventilated interior.
In 1940 the artist John Piper chose the barn as a subject for one of his watercolours for the Recording Britain project – a mammoth attempt to illustrate buildings and places that could be swept away by war or by the relentless march of modernity. The project brought together over 1500 watercolours, produced by nearly 100 artists, and these are now part of the collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Piper’s view of Great Coxwell is taken from low down, looking up at the barn on its slight hill, with a swirling dark sky above. As with many of his war-time images there is a tempestuous feeling to the background, with the barn appearing as a solid and age-old bulwark against storm-tossed times. Piper himself always claimed that his dark skies were simply the result of the concentration with which he observed his subjects but for many viewers they exemplified the country’s war-time struggle.
Nowadays the building is owned by the National Trust, who have restored the enormous roof and keep the barn open from dawn to dusk each day.