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Odd menage sharing life in the country
I suppose the original grumpy old man was a Roman. His name was Horace and he said that, as a general rule, things get worse from generation to generation. I often find myself in agreement with him. Not so at Kelmscott, though, that remote village by the Thames, where things have definitely got better.
I first arrived there by canoe as a teenager in the mid-sixties and found much of the place in a state of ruinous decay. Even the manor, famously the home of that ménage à trois consisting of William Morris, his wife Jane (née Burden), and Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, seemed to be quietly mouldering away behind its screen of elms. Visiting again the other day, I found it still truly rural (even without the elms) but in beautiful condition.
It is now exactly 50 years since the Kelmscott estate, following a court ruling, passed from the ownership of Oxford University, which had neglected it, into that of the Society of Antiquaries, which restored it at huge expense and continues to manage it today.
The reason things did indeed get worse at the estate during the mid-20th century was that the daughter of William and Jane Morris, May — born 150 years ago this year, died in 1938 — left the estate in trust to Oxford University with onerous conditions but without adequate money for its upkeep.
Her will provided that the university could let the house as a rest home for artists and writers, with first refusal going to the Rector of Exeter College, the Slade Professor of Fine Art, the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, or Bodley’s Librarian. None wanted it and the house was instead let to a succession of tenants (including John Betjeman) who tended to cause difficulties about granting public access.
In 1962, 24 years after accepting the bequest, the university decided it had had enough of such a good thing, asserting that the house was “a museum piece . . . of no conceivable value to academic life”, and took steps to hand it over to the residual beneficiary, namely the Society of Antiquaries. The trust was declared invalid in the High Court of Justice.
The Antiquarian Society secretary at the time, Arthur Richard Dufty, who became a leading authority on Morris, and who was anxious to take over the estate, was then able to oversee the manor’s restoration with the help of a timely and providential £350,000 legacy from a Morris fan called Susan Minet. Mr Dufty recalled later how he had dinner with the university chancellor, who over the port handed him a summons to appear in court. Sadly the University had long before then auctioned off the house’s everyday contents. Everything was put out on the lawn in the rain.
The society employed architect David Insall to carry out the restoration along lines that Morris (1834-1896) had laid down when establishing the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings.
Now the “Heaven on Earth” that Morris loved so much, along with Pre-Raphaelite paintings, tapestries, and even drawings by Dürer, are preserved.
The Morrises, together with Rossetti, jointly rented Kelmscott — which Morris described as “the loveliest haunt of ancient peace” — in 1871.
But their early life there was tumultuous. Poor William Morris was unhappy about Jane’s affair with Rossetti. Rossetti became drug-addicted and strange to the point of madness and Jane eventually threw him over. He also became bored with Kelmscott village, which he proclaimed was the “doziest dump of old grey beehives”.
Jane, the daughter of an Oxford stableman whom Rossetti had originally persuaded to model for him, bought the the estate in 1913 and lived there for the remainder of her life.
Her daughter May, whose own marriage broke up when George Bernard Shaw moved into her London home, then lived there for the rest of her life; much of it with her companion, the formidable 20-stone and masculine-looking Miss Mary Lobb.