Spartali Stillman’s Kelmscott Manor: From the Field
August 5, 2015
This fall, the Museum will host the first retrospective of the work of Pre-Raphaelite painter Marie Spartali Stillman, a project that has been eight years in the making. The focus of the exhibition is integral to our own permanent collection, as Samuel Bancroft was a patron of Spartali Stillman’s work. Bancroft’s relationship with her included paying a visit to her home in Surrey and her reciprocal call at Rockford, Bancroft’s home in Delaware. The Bancroft Archives, located in our Helen Farr Sloan Library, include numerous letters exchanged between the two—as well as correspondence with two of her children, Effie and Michael. Currently, the Museum owns eight works by Spartali Stillman—the largest holding in any public collection.
Spartali Stillman’s Kelmscott Manor: From the Field is one of eight known or extant images she created of the home of William and Jane Morris, located in the Thames Valley, about 30 miles downstream from the city of Oxford. The building dates from the Elizabethan period and includes a lovely walled garden in perfect harmony with the setting. Marie became quite close to Morris’ wife Jane, and she visited Kelmscott often, particularly in older age after both women were widowed. She seems to have found Kelmscott a place of peace and rejuvenation, writing to a friend, “I stayed at Kelmscott for ten days and felt quite shut out of the busy world in that beautiful walled garden. I made two watercolors of the house and garden. One cannot imagine any place as quiet. Nothing ever seems to happen [-] things have been at a standstill for 300 years probably. It does one so much good to have this complete rest.”
One can imagine the two women finding comfort in each other’s company and in a shared appreciation of the building and its garden. Jane wrote of one such visit: “I have had my dear friend Marie Stillman with me the last fortnight. She paints quietly in the garden making pretty portraits of different bits of it, and I read or work.” The paintings Marie created on these visits provide a visual record that supplements the limited surviving written documentation of this important historical site.
This view of the southern side of the house would have been captured with her back to the Thames, facing the dwelling and barns, as seen from the paddock. The figures of an adult and two children, which could be any one of Marie or Jane’s friends or family, provide scale for the house and grounds. It is rendered in Marie’s standard mixed media formula of watercolor and gouache with a healthy dose of gum Arabic and ox gall presenting a more translucent substantive texture than traditional watercolor.
Taken as a group, Marie’s paintings of Kelmscott Manor convey a sense of the magic of this centuries-old home. From them we get a sense of Marie’s deep appreciation for the beauty of the place and the comfort the site and its occupants offered. Four of her Kelmscott Manor views will be on display in the exhibition Poetry in Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Marie Spartali Stillman.
Margaretta S. Frederick
Chief Curator, and Annette Woolard-Provine Curator of the Bancroft Collection