London Museum Challenge #11: Kelmscott House

May 16, 2013 § 2 Comments

Kelmscott House

Kelmscott House

My track record with William Morris-related museums is a bit spotty. I’ve been to the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow (although not since its restoration), and I’m on friendly terms with the V&A’s collection of his work and designs. But when it comes to his houses, that’s another story. I have cousins who live near Kelmscott Manor, but we seem to be under a family Kelmscott curse: every time we’ve attempted to visit it, it’s been shut – once due to flooding, a couple of times due to it being the wrong day of the week. Another time we went for a walk along the Thames Path and turned up just in time to see a member of staff putting up the ‘closed’ sign.

That can be put down to bad luck, but my not having made it to either Kelmscott House or the Red House is no fault but my own, which is why I put them both on my London Museum Challenge. Last weekend I finally made it to Kelmscott House.

The way to the house is simple – a five-minute walk from Ravenscourt Park tube – but rather disheartening, as it involves taking an underpass under the traffic-clogged A4 which passes perilously close to the house. (I can imagine Morris would have a few choice words to say about this development.) But once you’re past the roar of the A4 and you reach the river, it’s actually not much of a stretch to believe you’re back in the late 19th century. Kelmscott House is set in the middle of a terrace that runs right along a quiet stretch of the river. The green bulk of Hammersmith Bridge is visible a short way downriver, but apart from that, it’s easy to believe that you’re out of London.

Most of Kelmscott House is privately owned – the William Morris Society occupies the coach house and the kitchen, and that’s it. The space is divided into four small rooms – an exhibition space (on my visit, devoted to a display on May Morris), a small library with a few pieces of Morris & Co furniture, a shop and – the most interesting part, in my view – the original press, on which the Kelmscott Chaucer was printed. (I was thrilled to discover that it was made by the same manufacturer as the press I’d used on my printmaking course. Oh dear, I really am an incurable print geek…) Someone was demonstrating its use, and although I’d used such a press before myself, to print linocuts, I’d never seen it being used for images and letterpress, so that was worth the visit in itself. A facsimile edition of the Kelmscott Chaucer sits on a shelf nearby for visitors to flip through. Even though I’ve always admired the book, I don’t think I truly appreciated the work that went into its creation until I saw it next to the still-working press.

…And that was the end of the visit. At the risk of inciting the wrath of the William Morris Society, I can’t say that Kelmscott House added a great deal to my knowledge and appreciation of Morris. It probably won’t ever be the most essential stop on a Morris enthusiast’s itinerary. But getting to see the press, and a bit of London that, at least in some ways, hasn’t changed dramatically since his day, were well worth a brief detour into Hammersmith.

Now on to the Red House…

Tally: 11 down, 12 to go

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