How William Morris transformed his London home: ‘Let us hope we shall all grow younger there, my dear’

William Morris's London home was just as remarkable as his country houses, as Clive Aslet discovered during a visit to the new exhibition at Kelmscott House.

To William Morris, ‘the most important production of art’ was ‘a beautiful House’, followed by ‘a beautiful Book’. His ideal home, realised at Red House in Bexleyheath, Kent, and Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, was in the country, but business took him to London and it was here, in Hammersmith, that he found a terraced house of the 1780s called The Retreat.

Kempscott House. Credit: William Morris Society / Hammersmith & Fulham Arhives and Local History Centre

He renamed it Kelmscott House, after Kelmscott Manor. Both houses are on the Thames and, sometimes, with his powerful physique, he would row between the two. The Coach House at Kelmscott House is currently home to an exhibition about the history of this reamarkable home.

From 1891, Hammersmith was home to the ‘little typographical adventure’ of the Kelmscott Press. One of the Albion presses that were used to print such sumptuous books as the Kelmscott Chaucer, with 87 woodcut illustrations by Burne-Jones, can be seen in the premises of the William Morris Society, which occupies the basement of the house and its former coach house, where this small display of artefacts is on show.

William Morris Society / Hammersmith & Fulham Arhives and Local History Centre

The Dining Room. Credit: William Morris Society / Hammersmith & Fulham Arhives and Local History Centre

The society’s title for the exhibition — ‘The dear warp and weft at Hammersmith’ — is a quote from Morris, referring to the carpet weaving that Morris set up in the coach house. Not that the Morrises were the only remarkable occupants of 26, Upper Mall, to give Kelmscott House its postal address.

In 1816, the 600ft garden was festooned with eight miles of copper wire, later insulated and put in underground trenches. This was the practical demonstration of Sir Francis Ronalds’s invention: the electric telegraph. Recognition for Sir Francis came late; the Army rejected the innovation as ‘totally unnecessary’ — it was happy with semaphore — and he was only knighted in 1870, three years before his death.

Morris, needless to say, loathed the telegraph as an abomination of modern life, but did allow a plaque commemorating Ronalds to be placed on the coach house.

From 1867, The Retreat was boisterously occupied by George MacDonald, his wife, Louisa, their 11 children and servants — so large an establishment that they spilled over into River Villa next door.

Decoration at Kempscott House. Credit: William Morris Society / Hammersmith & Fulham Arhives and Local History Centre

Decoration at Kempscott House. Credit: William Morris Society / Hammersmith & Fulham Arhives and Local History Centre

MacDonald was a poet, novelist and Congregational minister with an inadequate income, but a love of parties; he and Louisa put on plays for both poor people and literary friends, such as Tennyson and Lewis Carroll. Ruskin spent ‘three days of heaven’ here with a young Rose La Touche. The MacDonalds gave up the house when it seemed that the damp of the river was undermining their health.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti saw it before Morris. He had also been house-hunting, but objected to The Retreat’s ‘frightful’ kitchen and vulnerability to floods. Only a narrow lane, bowing out into a turning circle for carriages, separates the house from the river.

Morris, whose family had outgrown their previous quarters in Turnham Green, saw that it ‘could easily be done up at a cost of money, & might be made very beautiful with a touch of my art’.

His wife, Jane, to whom those words were addressed, needed persuasion. She would rather have lived closer to town, but Hammersmith was cheaper than a more central location and Morris promised her a pony and trap. In April 1878, Morris wrote to Jane after signing the lease: ‘So let us hope we shall all grow younger there, my dear.’

The drawing room at Kempscott House. Credit: William Morris Society / Hammersmith & Fulham Arhives and Local History Centre

The drawing room at Kempscott House. Credit: William Morris Society / Hammersmith & Fulham Arhives and Local History Centre

The parties continued. The irrepressibly sociable Morris invited friends — rather too many for Jane — for the Boat Race, which could be viewed from the five windows of the 37ft-long drawing room; some guests clambered onto the roof, coming down with hands black from soot.

Among several Arts-and-Crafts neighbours was Morris’s mentor in typography, the printer Emery Walker, a 10-minute stroll away (his home at 7, Hammersmith Terrace is opened to the public by the Emery Walker Trust).

Morris being Morris, he also immediately set about decorating Kelmscott House with his own fabrics, wallpaper and furniture. The rooms have since been redecorated and are not accessible today (it’s now a private residence on a long lease), but the display of his original designs alongside contemporary photographs, together with some of the treasures bequeathed to the society by former owners, enables us to imagine how the interior must have looked in his day.

Helen Elletson, author of A History of Kelmscott House, has identified many of the elements. A pattern called Bird was specially designed for the drawing room and hand-woven in a double woollen cloth as hangings for the walls. The cavernous dining room was papered with Pimpernel, a design of 1876.

William Morris’s Pimpernel Wallpaper . Credit: William Morris Society / Hammersmith & Fulham Arhives and Local History Centre

An oriental carpet — too precious to walk on with hobnailed boots — rose up behind the sideboard and spread itself halfway across the ceiling as a canopy. As George Bernard Shaw remembered in 1936, ‘there was an extraordinary discrimination at work in this magical house’.

What joy — but Morris could not ignore the proximity of slums, urchins from which would come and swing on his gate. In 1883, the coach house was converted from a weaving studio into a lecture room for the Hammersmith branch of the Socialist League (chairman, W. Morris). A photograph shows members in the garden, half of which — how Morris must have turned in his grave — was lost to widening of the A4.

Thankfully, the river frontage of this delightful and fascinating house is little changed.

‘The dear warp and weft at Hammersmith: A History of Kelmscott House’ is at the Coach House of Kelmscott House, 26, Upper Mall, London W6, until October 26 — www.williammorrissociety.org