Morris in the Thames Landscape

This spring, with the help of the Morris Society’s Dunlap Award, I conducted research in the UK. The work I undertook there will support my PhD dissertation, “’The beauty of the bough-hung banks’: William Morris in the Thames Landscape, ” which combines art historical and landscape studies methodologies to explore Morris’s personal and creative  relationship with the river and its tributaries. It also contributed to a new, related research project on Morris and the Indian indigo industry, the results of which I will present at the North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA) annual conference this October.
William Morris, Wey, 1883. Victoria & Albert Museum. A pattern named after a Thames tributary.
 My research led me to many collections – from Morris manuscripts at the British Library and the National Art Library, to business ledgers and maps in the London Metropolitan Archives, to indigo samples in the economic botany collection at Kew Gardens – but it also gave me access to Morris’s sites themselves. Those site visits are an important part of my work, and I thought that for this blog post I would explore some of my experiences of and reflections on those site visits, in an attempt to show the type of work I have been doing with the Morris Society’s support.
As a landscape historian, I seek to understand the spaces of Morris’s life, their interrelations, and how they affected his designs and writing. I concern myself with the physical forms of sites and with the natural systems and human lives they contain and shape. In order to do this, I study historic records and visual evidence, building an interpretation of what sites were like in the past and how individuals and groups interacted with them and interpreted them as part of their culture. When possible, I also pursue “boots on the ground” research, a traditional method in British landscape studies that favors visiting a site and comparing modern and historic records to the physical landscape in order to better understand its forms, aesthetics, and usages, and its change over time. (One of the primary proponents of this method was W.G. Hoskins, whose 1955 classic The Making of the English Landscape has recently been re-issued by Little Toller Books. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the British countryside or the discipline of landscape studies.)
Visiting sites and occupying physical landscapes, as I was able to do this spring, can lead to revelations both large and small, adding insight and color to the research I do in historic and art and design collections.
Sometimes these revelations happen by chance – as when I set off to drive from Lechlade to Kelmscott Manor one morning this June and was met just before the turn-off to Kelmscott by a steam tractor, merrily chugging its way up the road through the fields: beautifully polished, captained by amateur enthusiasts, and looking like a visitation from another time – Morris’s time, to be precise.
Steam tractor parked near Kelmscott Manor
Kelmscott, despite its current chocolate-box appearance and its pastoral idealization in Morris’s writings, was a very early and important site in the industrialization of agricultural processes. Steam tractors would have been quite at home in the fields of Morris’s innovative neighbors, the Hobbses, and the unexpected appearance of not one, but two of them in Kelmscott that day – on their way to a steam rally in Lechlade – opened a multi-sensory window into the diverse and changing agricultural practices of Morris’s time. Their presence in the present showed not just their historic existence, but also a hint of how they might have been experienced: tall above the flat fields and the hedges, with billowing steam adding to their visibility; shining, noisy, and smelly; and fast (for their time), though they hold up traffic in the present.
These personal experiences help to contextualize the research that landscape scholars like me undertake in other, more methodical ways. Thorough study of the physical and agricultural history of the Kelmscott landscape, for example, will form much of the backbone for my chapter on the site. My primary sources are the evidence of maps, field systems, and the built environment, as well as – of course – Morris’s own writings and designs, May Morris’s reflections on the place and her father’s life, and the imagery produced by Morris’s circle, such as Marie Spartali Stillman’s watercolors and Frederick H. Evans’s photographs.
The phenomenology of Victorian technology at the site is not conventional research, but it helps to add context and color, as does the experience of seeing pollarded willows along the Thames, or inspecting how flowers beloved by Morris still grow wild in the summer hedges and ditches. Such things may seem incidental, but when one is writing thousands of words about how Morris reacted to and drew inspiration from the landscape, they are important. The Dunlap award gave me access to these moments of insight, and I thank the Morris Society for the opportunity.
Enjoying the riverside willows at Kelmscott
Sarah Leonard, a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the University of Delaware, is winner of the Morris Society’s 2017 Dunlap Fellowship. 

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