It was strange to encounter William Morris’s bed in a room of Tate Britain’s recent Pre-Raphaelite exhibition, the seventh room, called ‘Paradise’; strange, like meeting an old friend in an unexpected place. I had seen the bed twice before at Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, sitting comfortably in the cosy room from which it hadn’t been moved since it was first put there centuries ago. Now, specially for this exhibition, it had been carefully dismantled for the first time and reassembled in a London gallery. A seventeenth-century oak four-poster bed from a peaceful old manor in an obscure, rural village suddenly transported into the metropolis, the pastoral meeting with the urban.
But its inclusion in the exhibition was well deserved. Really, as far as beds go it’s perfectly lovely, and every time I saw it I found myself envying Morris for being able to snuggle beneath its covers o’ nights. (I also envied Morris for being able to live in such a beautiful house!) What makes it so special is, of course, the gorgeous embroidered bedspread, pelmet and curtains. It was a collaborative venture between Morris’s wife Jane, his daughter May, Lily Yeats (sister of William Butler), and two women named Maude Deacon and Ellen Wright who came from Hammersmith where Morris had his London home. The pelmet and curtains were embroidered from 1891-93, while the bedspread was not made until 1910, some years after Morris’s death. As a whole the bed is a fine example of women collaborating in the Arts and Crafts style, and a testament to the Morris ladies’ skill with a needle and thread (May was made head of the Embroidery Department at Morris & Co. in 1885).
The overall tone and theme of the bed is rural, like the manor, and this is down to May Morris’s talents as a designer like her father. Alison Smith notes that May’s designs for the embroideries are ‘characterised by clear structures with stylised natural features contained within geometrical frameworks.’ The bedcover is a meadow, with small bouquets of wildflowers like embroidered botanical drawings set in an intricate network of twisting yellow borders; tiny birds and insects can be seen resting and crawling around the edges as if in hedgerows. To me, these creatures are rather like those which nestle in the margins of the Bayeux Tapestry or medieval manuscripts. Also running along the edge of the bedcover is a stylised depiction of the River Thames, which flowed past the house, ending at a small embroidered miniature by Jane Morris of the manor itself.
The pelmet, running around the top of the four posts, is stitched with a poem by William Morris himself entitled ‘Inscription for an Old Bed’. I particularly love the fact that May Morris embroidered the words in Gothic script, as if the bed belongs in a medieval castle, and like an illuminated manuscript the letters are punctuated by little leaves and flowers. Morris’s poem opens thus:
The wind’s on the wold
And the night is a-cold,
And Thames runs chill
‘Twixt mead and hill.
But kind and dear
Is the old house here
And my heart is warm
Midst winter’s harm.
An important bed, to have a poem written about how comfortable and comforting it is! The third and most intricate, verdurous piece of embroidery is the bed curtains, which both portray a trellis twined with red roses and a fruit tree. Songbirds flutter among the leaves, and a brown rabbit crouches beneath. The design echoes William Morris’s Trellis wallpaper of 1862, though Alison Smith also likens it to the medieval tapestries in the Musée Cluny (the famous Lady and the Unicorn series), photographs of which May Morris owned.
The bed fits perfectly into the bucolic, artistic atmosphere of Kelmscott Manor. William Morris first discovered it, much to his delight, in 1871, and he took on a joint tenancy with Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The house itself is Elizabethan and rustic, something from a picture book: the river running by, slate floors, a panelled drawing-room, a creaking staircase, original seventeenth-century tapestries and a barn-like attic complete with quaint garrett rooms. Beyond the garden wall is the small village which even today lies hidden away down a series of winding country lanes with all its Cotswold-stone houses untouched by modernisation. For Morris the homely house and village embodied his ideal of rural living in which men and woman harmonised with nature and indulged in labour that was meant to be pleasurable rather than a chore. He wrote News from Nowhere in 1890 as a way of expounding his vision of an ideal society two centuries in the future. It is an idealistic, utopian novel which pastiches medieval romances and combines Socialism with soft science fiction (though don’t expect Doctor Who-style time travel). Kelmscott Manor features in the final chapters as the finishing-point of the hero’s journey along the Thames from London to the countryside. Morris’s fondness for the house shines through in the rich, descriptive prose, and when one visits the house one can still sense his warm presence in the willows, the stones, and even in the ancient yet cosy bed embroidered with birds and roses by his wife and daughter. After his death in 1896 Morris was buried in the graveyard of St George’s Church in Kelmscott, leaving behind him an artistic legacy influential to this day. Expect to see more of Kelmscott on this blog!
- TateShots video by curator Alison Smith for Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, featuring rare close-ups of the bed’s embroidery
- Article from the Society of Antiquaries of London about the dismantling of the bed for the Tate exhibition
- A series of videos on the Kelmscott Manor website about Morris and the house
- An online facsimile of the Kelmscott Press edition of News from Nowhere. Kelmscott Manor appears as the book’s frontispiece in a drawing by Charles March Gere