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At Kelmscott House, Hammersmith

September 6, 2022
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for my Spitalfields tour throughout September & October



I have walked past William Morris’ former house on the river bank in Hammersmith many times and always wondered what it was like inside but, since it is now a private dwelling, I never expected to visit. However, the residents kindly open their doors to members of the William Morris Society once every two years and thus I was permitted the privilege of joining the tour.

William Morris was forty-three years old when he came to live here. It was to be his last house in a succession that began with his childhood home in Walthamstow and included the Red House in Bexleyheath, designed for him and Jane as their marital home by Philip Webb, and the sixteenth century Kelmscott Manor by the Thames in Lechlade. The rural idyll which William Morris hoped for at Kelmscott Manor had been sullied by the overbearing presence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti whose obsession with Jane Morris had led him to take up permanent residence.

“If you could be content to live no nearer London than that, I cannot help thinking we should do very well there and certainly the open river and the garden at the back are a great advantage,” William wrote tactfully to Jane in February 1877. “If the matter lay with me only, I should be setting about taking the house, for already I have become conscious of the difficulty of getting anything decent. As to such localities as Knightsbridge or Kensington Sq, they are quite beyond our means.”

Built in the seventeen-eighties, the house was known as The Retreat and had once been the home of Sir Francis Ronalds, inventor of the electric telegraph, who had filled the long garden, which stretched all the way back to King St then, with buried cables as part of his experiments. When William Morris came here and renamed it Kelmscott House, it had been the home of the novelist George MacDonald for a decade. However – somewhat ominously for Morris – they chose to leave since MacDonald believed that the proximity to the polluted river was responsible for his family’s ill-health. In those days, the riverfront at Hammersmith was heavily industrialised with factories and wharfs.

I realised that, in my imagination, I felt I had already visited Kelmscott House. Long ago, when I read Morris’ novel News From Nowhere, I was seduced by his vision of a homespun Utopia that had turned its back on industrialism. In my memory, as if in the moonlight of a dream, I joined the characters as they departed Kelmscott House and undertook the journey up the Thames from Hammersmith to Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, travelling a hundred years into the future.

When I paid my visit to Kelmscott House, there were compelling details which evoked that faraway world, even if time and change had wiped away almost all of the evidence of Morris’ occupation of the house. “Let us hope that we shall all grow younger there,” he wrote to Jane with forced optimism in October 1878, just before they moved in.

Walking through the narrow passage beside The Dove, you discover the wide expanse of the Thames on the left and Kelmscott House rising up on your right, presenting an implacable frontage to the river. You enter through the area stairs on the left of the house, leading down to the kitchen, and immediately you notice a wall of original trellis wallpaper, designed by Morris with birds drawn by Philip Webb. If no-one told you, you would assume it was a recent reprint since these papers remain in production today. The low-ceilinged basement rooms are now the headquarters of the William Morris Society, where you may admire his Albion Press before climbing stairs again into the former coach house. This long narrow room was employed by Morris as a workshop for knotting carpets, also lectures and meetings of the Hammersmith Socialist League were held here. During his final years at Kelmscott, Morris became increasingly involved with politics and the Socialist cause.

The garden no longer stretches to King St, just as far as M4, yet it is impressively generous for a London garden, with well-kept herbaceous borders and a wide lawn. Most fascinating to me, though, was the strawberry patch – since William Morris’ Strawberry Thief is one of his most celebrated textile designs, inspired by his experiences at Kelmscott Manor where the thrushes raided his soft fruit.

Approaching the house from the rear, it presents quite a different aspect than from the front, with assymetric projections and a bowed turret. The high-ceilinged dining room at the back was especially offensive to Morris with its Adam detailing and Venetian window. This seems a curious prejudice to the modern sensibility. Perhaps our equivalent might be those eighties post-modern buildings which have not aged well. Fortunately, Morris suspended a vast sixteenth century Islamic carpet across one wall and part of the ceiling, drawing the eye from the Georgian elements which he found so hideous.

Emery Walker photographed the interiors, capturing Morris’ personal sense of interior design, employing lush textiles and extravagant antiques, mixed with furniture painted by Philip Webb and fine oriental ceramics. Architecturally, the most impressive space is the first floor drawing room which spans the width of the house, created by George MacDonald by knocking two bedrooms into one. In this south-facing room, the views over Chiswick Reach are breathtaking. Morris lined it with a rich, bluish tapestry of birds in foliage that he designed for this location. A huge settle painted with sunflowers by Philip Webb once sat beside the fireplace, lined with blue and white tiles manufactured by Morris & Co and still in situ.

In 1881, seeing children from the nearby slum known as Little Wapping swinging on his garden gate, Morris recognised, “It was my good luck only of being born respectable and rich, that has put me on this side of the window among delightful books and lovely works of art, and not on the other side, in the empty street, the drink-steeped liquor shops, the foul and degraded lodgings.”

Overlooking the garden at the back was Jane Morris’ room, somewhat detached from the rest of the house, granting her the independence she required as she withdrew from her marriage during the years at Hammersmith. The two front rooms on the ground floor, overlooking the river, comprised William Morris’ workroom and bedroom. It was in the workroom to the left of the front door that he supervised the creation of the Kelmscott Press, publishing fifty-two titles in five years. In his bedroom to the right, he installed a loom to undertake tapestry through the long hours of the night when he could not sleep. Here he died from tuberculosis on 3rd October 1896, aged just sixty-two, nursed by Emery Walker as his breath failed him. His last words were, “I want to get mumbo jumbo out of the world.”

I walked back along King St to the tube, past the Lyric Sq Market where William Morris once spoke. I thought about him taking the District Line back and forth to visit East London for public speaking – and I decided I should trace his footsteps in the East End next.

Basement stairs with original Morris ‘Trellis’ wallpaper

William Morris’ design for ‘Trellis’ wallpaper with birds drawn by Philip Webb

William Morris’ Albion Press

Hammersmith Socialist League gathering on the back lawn at Kelmscott House, 1885

William Morris’ workroom from which he ran the Kelmscott Press, with stairs leading up to the coach house where Hammersmith Socialist League meetings were held (Photograph by Emery Walker)

Strawberry patch in the garden at Kelmscott

William Morris’ ‘Strawberry Thief’ design

Sixteenth century Islamic carpet displayed by Morris in the dining room at Kelmscott (Photograph by Emery Walker)

‘William Morris’ rose blooms at Kelmscott

The drawing room at Kelmscott (Photograph by Emery Walker)

Tapestry designed for the drawing room at Kelmscott

The drawing room at Kelmscott (Photograph by Emery Walker)

William Morris spoke here – Lyric Sq Market, Hammersmith

Archive photographs courtesy William Morris Society

The lower floor and coach house of Kelmscott House are open on Thursday and Saturday afternoons. Visit the William Morris Society website for further details

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. September 6, 2022

    I live near Toronto, Ontario, Canada and I so look forward to receiving your daily writings. As ex- vice president of our William Morris Society, I was absolutely thrilled with tonight’s edition ( I receive them in the evening ) .
    Thank you SO much ! Your efforts bring joy to so many…..even those in Canada !
    Linda Jack

  2. Eileen Collins permalink
    September 6, 2022

    Thank you, that was a most interesting article. As I am unfamiliar with Hammersmith, I looked up the location on Google Earth and was somewhat horrified to see the unpleasant building to the left of Kelmscott House. The planning officers who approved the design (and total eradication of the garden) should be ashamed of themselves.

  3. Wendy permalink
    September 6, 2022

    Well, today’s write-up is very timely for me as I’ve just visited Kelmscott Manor in Lechlade (stunning) and am planning on a trip to The Red House soon.

  4. September 6, 2022

    What a marvelous garden, incredible wallpapers, fantastic house, stunning Islamic carpet. I’ve always admired William Morris. Thank you.

  5. Cherub permalink
    September 6, 2022

    What an absorbing and interesting article.

    William Morris also created patterns that were printed on to the linoleum manufactured by the company Nairn in my home town of Kirkcaldy in Fife. I have seen samples in the V and A.

    Nairn’s lino was shipped worldwide where it was laid in all sorts of buildings and homes due to its hard wearing and hygienic properties. The company still exists today under the name of Forbo and they have an expert team of layers who travel all over. I was tickled when I found a showroom whilst out walking in Basel one evening. I grew up with the odour of linseed oil permeating the air, it was known as “the Kirkcaldy smell”.

  6. September 6, 2022

    Mother’s milk! I am always eager to learn more about William Morris. I went through a deep dive on him a couple of years ago, acquired endless reference books, and created a series of mixed media panels inspired by WM. He seemingly attempted everything — textile design, tapestries, tile, book arts, typography, furniture design, etc, etc. I smiled to read he decided he “needed” a personal suit of armor (well, yeah………….) and taught a local blacksmith how to make it. I don’t know if any photographs exist of Morris in his armor — but I have concocted an image of a rumpled stalwart Knight, trailing scraps of sketchbook pages, notes, and To Do lists. In one of the many biographies, I read an observation that he died at an early age……….”from being William Morris”. Surely he was one of the most productive, curious, dedicated, and fascinating artists ever.
    (And influential! It seems that every time I begin to research a new-to-me artist of ANY era, they mention the deep influence of Morris. )
    Thank you for adding to our knowledge of this singular man.

  7. Keith permalink
    September 6, 2022

    A beautiful house, very well kept and a lovely place to visit. Especially as it’s also by the River Thames too. I used to come up to Hammersmith on many occasions as a child back in the late 1960s and early 1970s to get to the motorway to travel to the West Country and always looked out of the window to admire the river and the buildings that lined the route west. When i last came up this way to visit Hammersmith Bridge before any work began on it i took a stroll to this house and was amazed it has survived in all its glory. Perfection

  8. Sherri permalink
    September 6, 2022

    Thank you so much for this! I long to visit London–my favorite large city–again soon, but until then, I love reading about these special places.

  9. Margret Strohbach permalink
    September 7, 2022

    I remember visiting Kelmscott House in the early 1970ties,when I prepared for my thesis (for becoming a teacher of arts and handicrafts in Germany) Enjoying the daylight of a sunny summers day I felt really happy and welcome in it. I did a little research in the Walthamstow Library too and read a lot of and about William Morris and his friends.
    Thank you for this detailed article with the fine photos. It was a real pleasure for me! Margret

  10. Marcia Howard permalink
    September 8, 2022

    I have been a big fan of the Arts & Crafts movement for decades, and especially of Wm Morris so knew about Kelmscott Manor and the Red House, but Kelmscott House is a new one on me. During the early 1960s I lived within walking distance of Merton Mills where both Morris and Liberty had their workshops. Even the pub there alongside the River Wandle is called The William Morris. The curtains at my windows are Wm. Morris design – of course. I think I must join the William Morris Society, and perhaps I too might get the chance to visit this wonderful house.

  11. Alison Lynch permalink
    September 10, 2022

    Thank you so much for this. I’ve always wanted to see inside – it’s so weird as a Londoner not to have visited. And my great grandfather is in that picture you posted of the Hammersmith Socialist League! He was originally a chemistry teacher , from an Irish background – Co.Tyrone – and Morris persuaded him to study medieval texts and that was his life from then on… Morris’s influence with regards to socialism, education, and the arts, really did change my great grandfather’s (and his family’s) life.

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