William Morris: heart & home

The Arts & Crafts movement was a noble attempt to stop the modern world in its tracks.  It failed, overwhelmed by the public’s desire to buy gewgaws made in Birmingham factories, rather than expensive products made beautifully, by hand.  And yet the burly and exuberant William Morris, his austere architect friend Philip Webb and the host of idealistic craftsmen and simpler lifers who followed them did bequeath one idea to the 21st century: the sanctity and centrality of Home.

Morris was an irresistible figure. When he was not writing epic poetry, he was weaving textiles; when not weaving, he was lecturing on socialism – or writing utopian tracts, or founding the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, or designing wallpaper.  The nail which stablised this fizzing Catherine wheel of energy was the home.

Famously, Morris designed his own home, Red House*, built in 1859, when he was 25 and newly married to Jane Burden.  Artist friends painted murals and designed stained glass windows, hangings and tiles. Overflowing with hospitality, he would appear from the cellar with bottles of wine under each arm and more in his hands, before sitting down at a table equipped with an iron rim, to baffle his restless habit of whittling the furniture while waiting for food.  A fight with apples once gave him a black eye.

It wasn’t a comfortable house and Morris had to abandon it to spend more time in London.  Later, he fell in love with an old grey manor house on the banks of the Thames, in Oxfordshire.   Kelmscott Manor seemed to have ‘grown up out of the soil,’ he once observed.  He lent its name to Kelmscott House, the terraced house of around 1790 in Hammersmith, where he had the press on which his magnificent Kelmscott Press books were printed.  He believed that ‘the most important production of art’ was ‘a beautiful House,’ followed by ‘a beautiful Book.’

His passion lives on.  One of the National Trust’s recent acquisitions is Stoneywell Cottage, in Leicestershire, designed by Ernest Gimson – an architect who threw over an architectural career in London to live frugally in the Cotswolds –  for his brother, Sydney.  Built from enormous boulders, one whole end is taken up with a massive chimney breast – the hearth was an important symbol in Arts & Crafts iconography.  The two “dear giants” of workmen who built it bore the (now) regal names of William and Harry.  Begun in 1899, it was absurdly inconvenient: there was no electricity, no running water, no central heating – all of which had become standard.  But it had heart.  As the world roars on at an ever more bewildering pace, I can’t help feeling those hopeless idealists of the Arts & Crafts Movement got some things right.

*Jackson-Stops advised on the transfer of Red House from the estate of its last private owners to the National Trust.