Kelmscott Manor built around 1600 was the Cotswolds home of William Morris – writer, designer and craftsman – from 1871 until his death in 1896. It was also the retreat of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, who was a close family friend and the subject of Evelyn Waugh’s first biography Rossetti His Life and Works (1928). Waugh gave a detailed description of the Kelmscott house in Chapter VII, ‘Kelmscott, 1872-1874’ in the first edition. There is also an entry in his Diaries for Thursday, 6 October 1927, about his visit to Kelmscott, which is closely reflected in the biography. In Morris’s words it was ‘a heaven on earth’ but Waugh wrote that the house was ‘much smaller than expected…the rooms very low and dark and the whole effect rather cramped and constricted.’
Nowadays Kelmscott Manor is a Grade I listed building owned by the Society of Antiquaries of London which attracts many visitors. The two floors and the attics are nicely restored with original Morris fabrics on display. At Kelmscott, Rossetti occupied the Tapestry Room, turned into a studio, and complained that it was claustrophobic. Waugh noted that the tapestries which ‘worried Rossetti’ were in the house before the Morris family moved in and have a heavy feel. Today there is an easel on display, which presumably was used by Rossetti or other of the Kelmscott artists, a stylish oak table designed by Philip Webb and a Chaucer book with woodcut illustrations by Morris. Rossetti’s presence is also marked by the two crayon portraits of the Morris’s young daughters, mentioned by Waugh in his diary entry, and his oil painting “Mrs. Morris” also known as the “The Blue Silk Dress” (1866-70). He referred to her in the book as being ‘in the full maturity of her profound and lustrous beauty’. Waugh met May Morris (daughter of William Morris’s wife Jane) and described her in his diary as ‘a singularly forbidding woman – very awkward and disagreeable dressed in a slipshod ramshackle way in hand-woven stuffs’.
Waugh was twenty four years old when he gave his verdict about Rossetti’s art and the Pre-Raphaelites, underlining that he was stating the problem of subjective aesthetics ‘fatally lacking essential rectitude that underlines the serenity of all really great art.’ This seems still to be a point made by critics of the Pre-Raphaelites. But equally there is an agreement that Rossetti’s mystically romantic style was followed by many artists in the various forms of the Arts and Crafts movement and laid a stone in the foundations of European Symbolism and Art Nouveau. Perhaps Waugh’s biography should be read by everyone interested in connecting Rossetti (the artist) to Waugh (the biographer), with Kelmscott Manor being a nice place to do this.
Waugh’s biography was recently republished in the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh: Rossetti His Life and Works, volume 16, edited by Michael G. Brennan, published: 14 September 2017. Deposited at the British Library but not yet available to readers. Kelmscott Manor is open to the public from April to October (most recently on Wednesday and Saturday). For details see https://www.sal.org.uk/kelmscott-manor/