Topsy-Turvy: Of Houses, Hair, and Hammersmith

I have often felt myself to be living in two different times. As a scholar of William Morris and of nineteenth-century literature, I spend my working life struggling to piece together a sense of the past, immersing myself in history’s works and doings, hoping to interpret it in service of our present-day life. The past has given birth to the present, but in ways that are not always easy to grasp. As a scholar based in North America, I am distanced spatially as well as temporally from the world Morris inhabited: in the post-1950s landscape of Davis, California, there is almost nothing in my daily life to connect me, materially, to the nineteenth-century past of Morris and his circle. This past in which I spend so much time, then, exists mainly in the form of words on a page. I see Morris’s voice in black letters and the white spaces between them… always remembering that Morris himself had very firm opinions as to what the dimensions of those white spaces should be.
Kelmscott House, Hammersmith

Imagine how it felt, then, on May 20th, 2017, to encounter the embodied trace of Morris not just in his home, and not just in a lock of his famously unruly hair, but through an entire neighborhood ecosystem. Thanks to the joint project of Arts and Crafts Hammersmith, denizens of the present can now experience the nineteenth-century microclimate of artistic innovation that took root in this London neighborhood on the Thames over a hundred years ago.

I came to Hammersmith to speakon “William Morris and Radical Print” in the Coach House at Kelmscott House, the space in Morris’s London home where the William Morris Society UK meets today and the very site where the Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist League used to meet back in the 1880s. I had visited Kelmscott House once before, as part of the William Morris Conference at the University of London in 2007, but returning ten years later I saw improved facilities and a loving, intimate display of Morris’s textiles drawnfrom the Society’s rich collections. Kelmscott House is situated on the Thames, and I was struck for the first time by the way that the bends in the river that Morris loved reproduce themselves in the undulating, curving forms of his botanical designs. One of the samples in the Society’s possession, an 1883 printed cotton called Evenlode, was “the first of Morris’s designs to be named after a Thames tributary,” as I learned from the 2015 volume Highlights from the William Morris Society’s Collection.

William Morris, “Evenlode” fabric
Before my engagement at the Kelmscott House, the Society Manager, Cathy De’Freitas, was kind enough to arrange a place for me on a tour of the newly reopened Emery Walker House. At 7 Hammersmith Terrace, Walker’s home — spruced up and restored through funds from the Arts and Crafts Hammersmith project — is just a short walk down the Thames, and one of the great pleasures of the day was to think about the Arts and Crafts community that lived with and amongst each other in late-nineteenth-century Hammersmith. May Morris, in fact, lived right next door at 8 Hammersmith Terrace during the period of her ill-fated marriage to Henry Halliday Sparling, and other key figures associated with the Socialist League and the Kelmscott Press, including foreman printer Thomas Binning, also lived in the neighborhood.
While Arts and Crafts Hammersmith has gone to great expense to repair the roof at 7 Hammersmith Terrace and make other necessary structural improvements, they have left the house largely as it was during its years as a private home. Here one walks into a space that seems to be frozen in time, full of Morris’s wallpapers and textiles and littered with intimate personal traces of the friendship between Walker and the Morris family. At one point our tour guide displayed a small box with a lock of Morris’s hair from the day that he died and two pairs of his spectacles, so small and so familiar to those of us who have studied his image from the perspective of the distant present. Other treasures include a stunning pencil drawing of May Morris done by Edward Burne-Jones, where the ghost of her mother’s famous face haunts the lower lip like an unspoken word, and a hand-embroidered bed spread made by May Morris for Walker’s wife. 
Dining Room, Emery Walker House
My day finished with a trip to The Dove pub with Martin Stott of the William Morris Society, where we sat outside, watched the Thames, and spoke of the past and the present. It was a few weeks before the UK general election, and at a moment when the U.S. commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement still hung in the balance. There was much to discuss, and Morris’s place in the present seemed more necessary than ever.
–Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, Professor of English at UC Davis
Liz Miller with Martin Stott and one of Morris’s Albion presses

For a fascinating, full-length review of the new Emery Walker museum written by Marcus Waithe, author of  William Morris’s Utopia of Strangers, visit Apollo Magazine here.

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