Icelandic fascination promised at new exhibition

By Barrie Hudson - 29 May 2024

Arts and CultureAttractions
  • Items from the exhibition

    Items from the exhibition

A new exhibiton called ‘Mountains and plains and adventure’: William & May Morris and Iceland, will open at Kelmscot Manor on 6 June.

The opening is times to coincide with the centenary of May Morris’s first trip to Iceland.

Visitors to Kelmscot 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 era’s great polymaths - writer, designer, conservationist and social thinker, antiquary and scholar of Icelandic.

Morris’s daughter May (1862–1938), also a designer, an 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.

Morris earned the Icelanders’ lasting affection and gratitude for his cultural and financial contributions to Icelandic society. May Morris was awarded the country’s highest honour, the Order of the Falcon, in 1930. Today,

For the first time May’s Icelandic adventures can be examined comparatively with her father’s beter-known experiences and

impressions; her observations highlight what had remained constant and what had changed in the intervening years.

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 Kelmscot 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

-  Ertefacts 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 GuðbrandsbiblI´a Bible (1584)

-  Examples of William Morris’s translations of sagas, calligraphic manuscripts, poetry responding to Iceland, including Kelmscot Press editions

The exhibition is co-curated by Dr Kathy Haslam (Curator, Kelmscot Manor) and Dr Emily Lethbridge (Senior Research Lecturer at the A´rni Magnu´sson Institute for Icelandic Studies, Reykjavi´k, Iceland).

Dr Kathy Haslam, Curator of Kelmscot Manor, said: "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 Emily Lethbridge said: "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.


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