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A previously unpublished letter of Jane Morris.

The following is a hitherto unpublished letter by Jane Morris (1839-1914), wife of William Morris (1834-96)

March 3: [1882]


My dear Mrs Macdonald(2)

Rather more than a week ago a charming lady unknown to me called, she introduced herself as your sister Mrs King,(3) and I received her I hope hospitably, she brought me two little presents from you, for both of which I thank you, but the cup so won my husband's heart, that he asked me to write for more of the same kind, it was a blue one with little trees on it, and I fancy must have come from the shop on the road to Ventimiglia. Now would Bob(4) kindly undertake to get some and have them packed for me? I should like 3 or 4 dozen cups and saucers, and I remember some brown glazed thick saucers,(5) that were very nice, also some little basins, all the common(6) things of home manufacture used by the peasantry;(7) we should be so much obliged if Bob will see if the same things are still to be got, and will tell me the cost, I will send the money in Italian paper at once.

I have been very much occupied lately trying to get people to take tickets for some Lectures to be given during Lent, in aid of the 'Society for protection of Ancient Buildings', my husband being one of the Lecturers, we have succeeded beyond our expectations, and have cleared about [pounds]150.(8)

I don't know if home-gossip amuses you, I am putting down whatever comes into my mind, we persuaded Mr Gell(9) to go to the Lyceum last night to see Irving in 'The Two Roses',(10) he acted splendidly, I shall never call him names again.

How often I think of Bordighera and last Spring, I enjoyed being there so much.(11)

please remember me to all your family and Believe me

yours very sincerely

Jane Morris(12)

1 The letter-head did not include the word London, which was added by Jane Morris in her own hand. Kelmscott House was first occupied by William Morris and his family in 1878 and it remained his London home till his death in 1896. Previously called The Retreat, it had been occupied by the MacDonald family for some ten years from 1867.

2 I have tried to reproduce the spelling (including this version of MacDonald) and punctuation as accurately as possible. The recipient of this letter was presumably the wife of the famous Scottish novelist and poet George MacDonald (1824-1905). The MacDonalds were close friends of Jane Morris. The envelope is missing, but one can make a reasonable guess that the letter was addressed to Casa Coraggio at Bordighera where the MacDonalds spent the greater part of each year from 1881 to 1902 for health reasons.

3 Mrs Joseph King, nee Phoebe Powell. She had a genius for philanthropy.

4 Possibly Robert Falconer MacDonald, third son of George MacDonald, born in 1862.

5 The word 'something' was crossed out here, but the comma after 'saucers' was not deleted.

6 'peasant' was crossed out here.

7 I have not been able to ascertain whether the crockery was ever expedited; but it is not to be found in Kelmscott House, Hammersmith, in Kelmscott Manor, Gloucestershire, nor in the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow.

8 William Morris founded The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877. Its work was obviously much needed, to judge from the increasing number of cases to be dealt with. At the beginning of the year 1882, so the annual report of the SPAB stated, 'it was much straitened in means, and even seriously in debt'. This explains the series of lectures sponsored by the SPAB at the Kensington Vestry Hall. The speakers were: William Morris, R. S. Poole, J. T. Micklethwaite, S. Colvin, W. B. Richmond, and E. J. Poynter. Morris's lecture, 'The History of Pattern Designing', delivered on 23 February, was such a success that the SPAB decided to publish it. Morris also delivered a lecture on 'Some of the Minor Arts of Life' at the Midland Institute, Birmingham, on 23 January 1882. It was later printed, under the title of 'The Lesser Arts of Life', in the volume of lectures on art published in aid of the funds of the SPAB.

9 Mr Gell must be one of two brothers: either Philip Lyttleton Gell (1852-1926), the original chairman of Toynbee Hall, the Universities' settlement in the East End and later Secretary of the Oxford University Press, or Henry Willingham Gell (1854-1943?), who in 1883 wrote a health pamphlet entitled Aids to the Injured and Sick. I have no means of knowing which.

10 The reference to the visit to the Lyceum to see Irving in 'Two Roses' by James Albery clinches the date of the letter. This revival of the play, first produced at the Vaudeville Theatre on 4 June 1871, opened on Boxing Night 1881 and closed on 3 March 1882, which means that Jane was present at the penultimate performance. Her impression of Irving's acting seems to tally with that of The Times critic, who said that the impersonation of Digby Grant 'had improved with keeping'.

11 Jane Morris had stayed in Bordighera from early January until May 1881.

12 I am very grateful for information supplied by Peter Cormack, Deputy Keeper of William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow, and by Miss Cecily Greenhill, Archivist of the SPAB. Other sources include: J. W. Mackall, The Life of William Morris, 2 vols (1899); A. Brereton, The Life of Henry Irving, 2 vols (1908); Grexille MacDonald, George MacDonald and his Wife (1924); Collected Letters of William Morris, ed. Norman Kelvin (Princeton University Press, 1987), vol. II; Fiona MacCarthy, William Morris, A Life for Our Time (1994).

C. J. P. BEATTY Selby
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Author:Beatty, C.J.P.
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Dec 1, 1996
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