The Morris Family and Friends or My day of research at The Morgan Library!
Jane Morris photographed by John Robert Parsons in 1865
I was able to hold this photograph and see it for myself!
My first official research trip started locally at The Morgan Library here in New York City. I requested seven items consisting of: Jane Morris letters rare letters and the correspondence book with Wilfred Scawen Blunt, May Morris Kelmscott photograph and her correspondence, William Morris rare illuminated manuscript, ‘Story of Halfdan the Black & the Story of King Harold, calligraphic manuscript ca 1872 in a Blue cloth drop spine box. However, one item proved invaluable and was full of the stuff Pre-Raphaelite dreams are made of and it was a huge black hard leather bound book with gold embossed lettering on the front, ‘Autograph Letters Addressed to Sydney Carlyle Cockerell.’ I had no idea at the time that I was looking through all correspondence addressed to a Sydney Carlyle Cockerell (SCC) from his friends: Mr. and Mrs. William Morris and both their daughters Jenny and May Morris, Sir Edward Burne-Jones and his wife, Lady Georgiana Burne-Jones, their daughter Margaret Mackail, Sir John Everett Millais, Helen Rossetti Angeli (daughter of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s brother, William Michael Rossetti), Algernon Swinburne. I’ll get back to this book later…
Where to begin, with the appointment made and confirmed, I arrived at The Morgan Library’s side research entrance, was buzzed and checked in. I found myself in one of those glass elevators on my way to the Research Reading Room. Once there, I checked in and was told to wash my hands before entering the room, I was given a visitor’s badge and a locker for my belongings. I was allowed a notebook and pencils no pen.
I was given a seat at a large wooden table with people already stretched out in their spaces. I was so nervous! The head research official brings out each requested item to you individually and you can take all the time you need with each item. They don’t rush you. The correspondence book with Blunt’s letters with Jane Morris was already on the table but that turned out not to be of much interest what with a manila folder placed in front of you with the handwritten words, ‘Rare letters Mrs. William Morris’ on them… It’s a library and the room was dead quiet…there I was staring at this closed envelope to hear a woman say, ‘have you washed your hands?’ to which I smiled and said ‘yes!’ with both hands flat on the wooden table surface, she turned and walked back to her desk area and there I was. I could feel my heart beating so fast, I reached out for the folder and opened it and there huddled on top of each other were handwritten letters and two tiny envelopes about the size of half of one regular sized index card! Wow, Jane’s letters…right there…her handwriting…black ink on creamy, milky, beige paper embossed with the words atop right side Kelmscott House, Upper Mall, Hammersmith in tiny dark blue stamped ink! Although, later on that day, another letter of hers was written on a different Kelmscott letterhead in a sharper, darker black typeface; both still breathtaking to behold! You could not have wiped that cheek to cheek wide smiley grin off of my face. I couldn’t believe it, I reached out and held one of the tiny envelopes atop the group of letters; it had black script handwriting that read:
Mr. Arthur Brooke
The envelope had a pretty pink queen looking stamp on the right side covered in that black postmark circle. It was marvelous to behold. To know that you’re holding the actual paper that Jane Morris took out herself, held ink and pen to, and with her very own hands wrote down these words,
May 17, 1896
Dear Mrs. Brooke,
Many thanks for the lovely peonies. My husband is better than when you saw him but still far from well –he is working but does not get about and this alone is irritating to a man of his temperament.
I picked up the letter and put it aside to read Jane’s second letter to a woman she addressed as, ‘Janey’ whose real name is Emma Jane Catherine Cobden (1851-1949) pictured in this photo sitting to the left of Jane Morris. They remained lifelong friends.I began to read Jane Morris’s words in her own handwriting,
June 5, 1886
My dear Janey,
I am at Hammersmith, only Jenny is away at present but I go next week- could you come tomorrow (Sunday) to half past 1 o’clock early dinner and bring Minnie Brooke? It would be so nice if you could – I think you will get this tonight as I am writing first thing.
I have long wanted to see you but have been worried since I left Ventnor-I am pretty well now-I enjoyed the first warm day on the river, it was lovely and I felt years younger and better suddenly-I hope it has the same effect on you-
The envelope to this above letter reads:
17 Caufield Gardens
Sydney Carlyle Cockerell photographed 1909
My next item was the black leather book I described above. This contained so many letters and photographs that I was thoroughly surprised. At the time I had no idea who Sydney Carlyle Cockerell (1842-1877) was but later looked him up and it turns out he was Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 1908-1937; illuminated manuscript scholar and of William Morris. So, there I am flicking through this large book, put on a wooden stand with small metal clamps on either side and I was given two velvet bean baggy strips to use as place book markers! So many treasures hidden with this gem…I opened the book and in small, tiny black ink was inscribed a date of 21 Jan 1946. I gasped because 21 January happens to be my birthday! Well, let’s see what we have here...I open the first page and there before my eyes is a black and white 8x10 photograph of William Morris staring back at me. I pick it up gently, mouth hanging open, and see on the bottom right hand side it is stamped, ‘Emery Walker, Ltd.’
I keep going, and the first letter I come to is written to SCC by a Georgiana Burne-Jones, dated 30 Oct. 1917 on Rottingdean stationary. In black ink she basically begins to tell Sydney about how ‘Edward’ was working on ‘The Fairy Family’ but the ‘compiler’ never showed up and McLaren had some ‘choice words’ about this and ‘Edward’ understood it! My hands were shaking and my heart was pounding, I couldn’t believe I was sitting reading Georgiana’s letter in her own handwriting and there was the word Rottingdean! I continue to read on to which she describes a place called ‘Summerfield’ the name of a house at the time, rather, and wants Sydney to visit to see ‘Edward’s’ drawing which must have been there at the time. She explains how The McLaren Family are involved with the drawings and wants to be sure that the set of designs for The Fairy Family are always kept together; she says this specifically and directly to Sydney and also states that she believes that The McLaren’s don’t agree.
I finish reading and holding Georgiana (Lady Burne-Jones’s) letter, flip the page and again gasp out loud because I am greeted by such a sight: two of the best chums of the PRB, those cheeky Oxford blokes Ned & Topsy (Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris) in those famous family photos. Two images I see on either page, two loose photographs of both of them infamous and easily recognizable but there they are together again housed inside this roughly edged black gold embossed book of Sydney Cockerell’s. It’s as if they are smiling at me saying, ‘Surprise! Don’t be alarmed, it’s just us! Did you really think, Kimberly, that we wouldn’t pop in to say hello. We know how much you love us!’ Alright, so by this time in the reading room, I might have been delirious, but stay with me it gets better!
Now I get to a letter by Jenny Morris, first born daughter of William and Jane Morris. She is writing on Kelmscott House letterhead dated, 16 December, 1897, and above this is handwritten, ‘Lyme Regis, Dorset.’ She writes to Sydney asking if he has seen a good deal of May lately who has written to her sister explaining that she’ll be down to Kelmscott to visit Jenny for about a week is all she can manage with her busy schedule but she is excited about it. Jenny wants to know if Sydney has heard about this yet. Jenny talks very openly about the current state of her mother’s health. She alludes to the fact that Jane was not feeling very well the night before and must rest a lot because of her back aching which hurts Jenny’s heart she literally says. Jenny describes the weather being stormy while writing her letter and she names a woman Vera Roberts. Jenny begins writing about what she terms ‘old times’ and incredibly mentions to Sydney the Xmas (her spelling) of 1870 and how she and her sister, May, both received ‘The Earthly Paradise’ as a gift! (Can you imagine how incredible that must have been?) I can only guess that somebody outside on the Kelmscott grounds must have been yelling outside because she jokes about hearing ‘a town crier call out the time and prices of seats’ as if it were a ‘Dramatic Entertainment’ going on! How very clever she must have been! She then says her goodbyes to Sydney and signs ‘Ever yours truly’, Jenny Morris.
A side nod of hello to my Bloomsbury Group of friends because inside Sydney’s black book were two handwritten letters by Vita Sackville on Sissinghurst Castle, Kent, stationery, dated April 26, 1953…so hello all!!! Back to the PRB..
As I flipped through this book, a name jumped out of me…could it be…MILLAIS…Sir, is that you? A letter to Sydney, dated 5 October 1894, from Perth, not on any specific stationery just plain white paper now yellowed; a brief note to basically tell him to lookout for a portrait done of the same paper so be on the lookout for it and thanks for the information. He signed it only J.E. Millais
Also I read two letters from May Morris to Sydney and one photograph of May Morris was in the book but without permission I cannot include it here. However, the National Portrait Gallery houses a photo from the same time and May is wearing the same dress; it is the same series of photographs taken of May by some Italian friends of hers that were visiting which you can find listed in her exhibition catalog 1862-1938.
May Morris' first letter to Sydney begins with her usual greeting, ‘My Dear Sydney,’ it is written on lined notebook paper instead of the usual Kelmscott letterhead because she is writing from Spain! Her letter is dated 17 July 1913. She begins by apologizing and telling him that she is tired after writing a long letter to her mother and to Jenny. Oh yes, I remember really loving this one because May’s personality shines through. It is 1913 she is 52 years old, thin with grey hair, and is telling her dear friend how she has already been on ‘two real mountain pilgrimages’ and she is going to visit Lluch Monastary tomorrow after a night’s sleep. She is excited because this time it seems somebody is providing her with a guide she approves of! ‘A splendid person’ she says! She describes having a charcoal burner and being grateful for the warmth. She does complain about her last guide because apparently she was ‘helpless’! She mentions being only with a woman named Miss Sloane; no mention of Miss Lobb, though, she might have been there! She gives her love to Sydney’s family and signs off ‘Yours very sincerely, May Morris’
Her second letter was written from Kelmscott on letterhead dated, 9, Oct. 1929. She begins to Sydney by thanking him for his very kind letter about her father and how she ‘values every word of love that old friends speak about him.’ She tells him of her visit with Mrs. Holman-Hunt (I nearly died reading this) and apparently their conversation was interesting and affectionate. Basically that’s it from May Morris and signs it yours affectionately May Morris.
The next two letters came from Mr. William Morris himself. Have I lost you yet? Are you still with me? Don’t you want to know what one of the greatest men of the nineteenth-century was thinking…I do!
On Kelmscott letterhead, dated December 23, 1892, addressed, ‘My dear Cockerell,’ He begins explaining rather jovially and friendly enough by explaining that he can send a few lines himself now or wait until he returns and he will be at Sydney’s disposal. William Morris tells Sydney that he has specific interest in a catalogue from the Manzoni library and someone he calls ‘Nutt’ has three books from someone called ‘Cohn’ waiting to be looked at but this can wait until he returns but he or Walker can look at them if they’d like. He likes the weather on this day ‘a beautiful day with sharp frost very Christmassy place’ and wishes Sydney good luck. He signs off Yours very truly, William Morris.
The second letter again on Kelmscott Letterhead, dated November 1, 1895, he greets Sydney and tells him that ‘the family’ came home yesterday in time for him to attend The Oxford meeting. Apparently, it was successful! He describes a man named Powell taking him to ch. Ch. Library to see two books: one English about the date of the big missal but he wasn’t interested in it but he did seem to fall in love with a French N. Testament book from around 1280 which he says is ‘of the most beautiful refinement.’ He wishes Rosenthal liked it. He says that he would buy it ‘as an experiment effort.’ He mentions ‘R’ answering his letter and saying he did it only to ‘oblige him’ but that R owed him 60 pounds for the two he lent him! I wonder if R could have been Rossetti? Maybe this Rosenthal person! He signs the letter yours very truly, William Morris.
I finished reading through Sydney’s little black book, hand shaking, heart pounding out of my chest, it has been about three hours now I’ve been sitting at that table looking through letters from so many now infamous men and women, most I’ve read up on, research about, read their works, loved and or hated them at some point; yet, here I sit this girl who grew up in Manhattan, still resides here, getting to touch and look upon handwritten letters from the likes of Jane Morris and Georgiana Burne-Jones! To hold William Morris’s letters and see his handwriting how big the letters are or how small the handwriting is, neat or rushed, his humour, his intelligence, his grace and his heart abide on those letterhead embossed pages…To see his daughter’s handwriting, photos of them, and Jane Morris a woman I have long wanted to research some out of curiosity to find out what Rossetti saw in her from that first glance. She was not the obvious blonde gleaming beauty with small features and a cute figure. She was Amazonian in stock, poor and rough in trade, with large features and frizzled hair. A girl who never smiled or stood up straight for that matter, yet with sullen, stooped stature and the darkest features, she captured the attention of five men and became an enigma with the touch of Rossetti’s pen and paintbrush…she stole our hearts and our imaginations and everyone still wants to know what Janey was really like.
I was surprised to find a Jane Morris letter tucked inside the front page of a calligraphic manuscript by her husband William Morris, ‘Story of Halfdan the Black and the Story of King Harold,’
To Lady Anne Blunt Kelmscott House
September 19, 1897
My dear Lady Anne,
I am sending you a book which I hope you will accept as a little memento of my husband-it is an unfinished manuscript as you will perceive with spaces left for illumination. Alas! Never done. I have chosen this as one of the most beautifully written of those he left, done when he was at his best.
Please accept it with my love.
Jenny and I passed our summer here quietly with an occasional visitor for a few weeks at a time. I found it very difficult to mix with humankind and am not unhappy in this seclusion. We shall stay through October except for a few days in town when I hope it will be possible to see you. –
How good you were to me.
The last and final letter written by Jane Morris that I could hold, touch, and read myself was written to Sydney Cockerell and dated just three months before her death, October 25, 1913. It is not a letter written on Kelmscott letterhead but a small card instead, she writes,
My dear Sydney,
The promised book has just arrived. I shall have much pleasure in looking at it and making out the pictures. How kind it is of you always remembering my birthday. Thank you heartily for both book and letter with all its kind expressions –we passed the day most pleasantly. Emery came and the day was lovely.
Mr. Chandler is coming next week with the plan of the property for me to see, so I suppose all will be arranged soon for the final settlement of the sale.
Very affectionately yours,
Well, that was it. After five hours in one room, I returned the items, my notebook was searched before leaving the research room and it was by this time 4pm. I arrived close to 11 a.m. With my visitor's badge clipped to my shirt, I took a quick walk through the exhibits for free which they told me I could do with time allowing and then I took my tired self home!
I hope I brought a bit of these incredible men and women whom I love so much to life ever so briefly for you!
NOTE: Jane Morris's letters are typed out in full because they have already been published in The Collected Letters by Jan Marsh and else where. I have summarized the letters by Lady Burne-Jones, May Morris, Jenny Morris, and WIlliam Morris because as far as I know I am not sure if they've been published in books yet.Though, some have been auctioned off so they are out there online. All photographs can be found online!