‘Mountains and plains and adventure’: William & May Morris and Iceland

‘Mountains and plains and adventure’: William & May Morris and Iceland

Our revelatory new exhibition for 2024, ‘Mountains and plains and adventures’: William & May Morris and Iceland opens on 6 June, timed to coincide with the centenary of May Morris’s first trip to Iceland.

Pencil and ink sketch of Icelandic landscape

Visitors to Kelmscott Manor can still experience the spirit of Iceland, most dramatically when they encounter the topiary Fafnir yew hedge, originally cut by William Morris (1834–1896). Morris was one of the Victorian age’s great polymaths – writer, designer, conservationist and social thinker, antiquary and scholar of Icelandic. In May 1871, when he first saw Kelmscott Manor – the house that would be his ‘harbour of refuge’ for the rest of his life – his preparations to leave for Iceland were already well underway.

Morris’s daughter May (1862–1938), also a designer, acknowledged expert on historic embroidery and with an interest in material culture akin to her father’s, knew Iceland from girlhood through his abiding enthusiasm for its literature and culture.  Both had a lengthy and meaningful relationship with the country and were warmly welcomed by Icelanders. He visited twice (1871 and 1873); she three times over half a century later (1924, 1926 and 1931), with the life-companion of her later years, Mary Lobb, as her fellow-traveller. May’s first visit was much anticipated and notices about their arrival and travel plans were published in Icelandic newspapers.

During their various visits both Morris and his daughter developed lasting friendships and provided practical support for Icelandic causes in the years that followed. Morris, welcomed as ‘the Skald’, earned the Icelanders’ lasting affection and gratitude for his cultural and financial contributions to Icelandic society. May Morris’s impact was recognized by the award of the country’s highest honour, the Order of the Falcon, in 1930.

Today, William Morris is still held in high regard in Iceland but May is virtually unknown. Using as its basis the (previously unknown) diaries she wrote during her Icelandic travels, which were acquired by the Society of Antiquaries of London for Kelmscott Manor in 2018, this exhibition will shine a light on her relationship with Iceland that has not been possible before. For the first time May’s Icelandic adventures can be examined comparatively with her father’s better-known experiences and impressions; her observations highlight what had remained constant and what had become the victim of change in the intervening years. May was already in her sixties when she first went there, but saw the country through eyes of delighted enthusiasm, recording incidents, people and places with a vividness, humour and perceptiveness that together create an enthralling impression of an ancient country in a modern world.

William Morris had first begun to study and translate Icelandic in 1868, informally tutored by scholar Eiríkur Magnusson, an Icelander living in London, and soon felt the pull of the country where the medieval sagas had been enacted. It may have been his engagement with Iceland’s culture through its literature and language that motivated his first trip, but it was the country’s landscapes, people, social structure and a material culture with crafts and the handmade still at its heart that proved revelatory to him once there.

In the Introductions she wrote to her father’s Collected Works (1910-15), May was to recall the early impact of Iceland within the Morris family consciousness; literature, costume, artefacts – even the beloved Mouse, an Icelandic horse brought back for his daughters by Morris; he was ‘our playmate for many a year’ and lived out his life growing fat on the rich grass in Kelmscott’s pastures – were assimilated into daily life. She longed for many years to visit the country and, as her diaries reveal, found it every bit as impactful as she could have wished.

Looking at themes including Motivations & Preparations, Hospitality & Friendships, Reading Saga Landscapes, Social & Technological Change, and Recognition & Legacy, the exhibition will draw on the Society of Antiquaries’ own collections at Burlington House and Kelmscott Manor, and include loans from the British Library, William Morris Gallery and Haslemere Educational Museum. Exhibits will include:

  • examples both of May Morris’s travel diaries, and the drawings, photographs and ephemera they contain
  • artefacts brought back from Iceland by both William and May Morris, including intricately carved items representing the traditional way of life in Iceland such as bed-boards, drinking horn, and hand-woven textiles
  • a first edition of the GuðbrandsbiblÍa Bible (1584)
  • examples of William Morris’s translations of sagas, calligraphic manuscripts, poetry responding to Iceland, including Kelmscott Press editions

The exhibition is co-curated by Dr. Kathy Haslam (Curator, Kelmscott Manor) and Dr. Emily Lethbridge (Senior Research Lecturer at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, Reykjavík, Iceland).

‘We are thrilled at this opportunity to explore May’s passion for both travel and Iceland through her own wonderfully vivid and enlightening words, and to contribute through the exhibition and its catalogue to understanding more deeply the Morris family’s relationship with Iceland.’

Dr. Kathy Haslam

‘This exhibition represents an exciting and important milestone, most immediately in the world of Morris studies but also more widely in other areas of cultural history – including women’s travel-writing, and cross-cultural exchange and influence between Iceland and Great Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries.’

Dr. Emily Lethbridge