Surrounded by a higgledy-piggledy fence and all manner of cottage-garden flora, the gray limestone farmhouse known as Kelmscott Manor was once the home of British textile designer William Morris and his family. Though Morris received much acclaim for his work throughout his life, his exceptionally talented daughter May more often than not lived in her father’s shadow. She eventually took over his business, Morris & Co., but it is only in recent years that her design genius and needlework expertise have received the recognition they deserve.
While growing up at Kelmscott Manor, May was surrounded by ample artistic and advocative inspiration. Not only was William a designer and a leader in the British Arts and Crafts movement, he was a poet, writer, and social activist. His wife, Jane, was an accomplished seamstress, and renowned artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti shared the family’s home. A portrait of May and her older sister, Jenny, painted by Rossetti, hangs to the right of the fireplace in the Panelled Room, where the Morris girls were schooled by their mother.
William’s bedroom holds beautiful examples of both May’s and Jane’s needle artistry. May designed and crafted the pelmet that encircles the crown of the bed and features verses from a poem her father wrote in praise of it, which offered warmth when “the night is cold and the Thames runs chill.” Jane, along with her friend Mary de Morgan, made the lovely floral bedspread.
A close look at the pelmet reveals a medley of natural elements found on the Kelmscott property, from poppies to songbirds—an endless source of inspiration for the Morrises’ designs. The finely wrought bedspread incorporates lines from William’s 1867 poem, “A Garden by the Sea.”
Jane’s bedroom is wrapped in one of William’s iconic patterns, Willow Bough. May designed and stitched The Homestead and the Forest cot quilt that rests atop the bed. A few years before her death in 1938, she penned a letter to former beau George Bernard Shaw that spoke to the frustration she felt at the lack of accolades for her own accomplishments. “I am a remarkable woman,” she wrote, “always was, though none of you seemed to think so.” At long last, May Morris is receiving her proper due as a nonpareil designer, a craftswoman, a teacher, women’s rights activist, and the founder of the Women’s Guild of Arts.
Text Karen Callaway
Photography Jane Hope