An Afternoon at Kelmscott Manor

In this past summer of 2018 a few members of the William Morris Society U.S. went to England, all independently, to conduct research.  We each thought to make some connections with our English counterparts, if possible. Jane Carlin, our secretary, met in London with the president of the William Morris Society UK, Lord Sawyer, and reported on it in this blog on the 23rd of October.  I met with Dr Kathy Haslam, curator of Kelmscott Manor, Morris’s former country home and a popular tourist attraction in the Cotswolds, located about half an hour’s drive from Oxford where I was researching. Dr Haslam became curator, or Heritage Manager as her position is called, in 2012, after having held a comparable post at Blackwell, the Arts and Crafts House, in Cumbria above Lake Windermere. She had been a William Morris Society trustee for over twenty years.
May Morris Attic Sketch, Ashmolean Museum,
At my request (and given my special interest in Morris and Iceland), Dr Haslam showed me the hand-carved wooden objects William and May had been given on their respective trips to Iceland. The objects are kept in the attic of Kelmscott Manor, a room dominated by exposed rafters, where one also sees the green-painted bed by Ford Madox Brown. May Morris made a pencil sketch of the attic in 1873, and I reproduce it here.

The wooden objects include two bedboards, one needlecase (or box), one lidded wooden bowl or askur as the Icelanders call it, and a carved box presented to May Morris when she visited Iceland in 1924. The needlecase, carved in 1844, still had some wooden awls in it in different sizes and a metal needle with some webbing still on it. According to a letter from Őrn Gíslason to Gary Aho (on the William Morris Archive), the needle is for mending fishing nets. The askur at Kelmscott is a typical example, carved in 1874. These carved wooden bowls had a lid and were used in past centuries so the owner could sit by the fire while eating. They were sometimes made of driftwood, the best local source of wood in primarily treeless Iceland. Nowadays they are more often kept as decorative objects within the home. They are also known by way of the mischievous Yule Lad or Christmas elf named Aska-sleikur, who will sleikja (lick) whatever is left in your dish when you are not watching.
Image from Brian Pilkington’s The Yule Lads
(Reykjavik: Forlagid, 2001)
The presentation box or casket is the most elaborately carved object, which I intend to describe in more detail elsewhere. On one side is carved a nice medieval dragon. The inscription carved around the box reads, in translation: “(For) Morris-daughter. Over the wide sea this gift of friendship offers thanks from the Icelanders for your visit. May protective spirits make your homeward journey safe.”

May Morris Icelandic Presentation Box
Image by Dr Haslam, Kelmscott Manor

From the attic I descended to Jane Morris’s bedroom, where her bed is covered with the recently acquired “Homestead and the Forest” quilt, designed by May Morris and embroidered by her mother, Jane (see the NationalHeritage Memorial Fund newsletter, 8 February 2016). Volunteer steward Diana Sims and I spent some time in front of the jewelry box kept under Jane’s portrait (a copy from Rossetti made by Charles Fairfax Murray), which box I wrote about in the Morris Society Newsletter (Useful & Beautiful 2013.1) and which Diana is currently researching further. One illustrated end panel depicts a peasant ring dance and may have been painted by Rossetti instead of his wife Elizabeth Siddal, who painted the other panels; Ms. Sims hopes to verify that hypothesis.
Afterwards I spoke with Dr Haslam in her office. We first discussed her proposal to the Heritage Lottery Fund for renovations to Kelmscott Manor. These include reinstating the original pomegranate wallpaper in Jane’s bedroom, opening new rooms for an exhibition space, and restoring some outbuildings.  Kelmscott Manor’s proposal was approved on October 25th so we can look forward to these and other changes.
Dr Haslam then told me more about the Icelandic diaries of May Morris, recently acquired by the Society of Antiquaries (which owns Kelmscott Manor) and kept in their library in Burlington House, Piccadilly, London. William Morris is famous for having twice gone to Iceland and kept journals of his trips which May Morris published in her edition of his Collected Works (volume 8, 1911, reproduced in the William Morris Archive). It is less well known that May went to Iceland three times, in 1924, 1926 and 1931, with her companion Mary Lobb. May kept daily notes which she then wrote up neatly in two diaries per trip, six in all; the Society lacks the second volume from 1926. The diary entries are accompanied by May’s sketches. May and Mary also traveled together in England, Scotland and Wales; Dr Haslam is transcribing May’s travel diaries for Great Britain first and the Icelandic ones afterwards. When they appear, these accounts will add considerably to our knowledge of May Morris, whose legacy is finally being given its due, as evidenced by the recent exhibit of her work at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow (see this blog for 14 July 2017 and the printed catalogue, May Morris: Arts & Crafts Designer).
Prof. Paul Acker, President, William Morris Society U.S.

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