The William Morris Society’s ‘Visit to Morris’s Oxford’ on Friday July 24th was an inspiring and convivial occasion, expertly led by Peter Wright. The highlight was perhaps the chance to get into University College hall, where Morris had famously declared himself a revolutionary socialist in his great ‘Art under Plutocracy’ lecture of November 1883. But it was also well worth seeing (among many other things) the Morris & Co windows in Christ Church cathedral, Jane Morris’s childhood home off Holywell Street, and the Pre-Raphaelite frescoes in the Library of the Oxford Union- not to mention enjoying the company of the other twenty-odd members of the Society who came on this day-trip.
But what would Morris himself have chosen to see, on a day’s tourist trip to Oxford? The answer to this question does in fact exist – or did once, at any rate – in the form of Morris’s ‘Oxford List’. For (if I may be permitted to quote myself) ‘In a brief set of “Recollections of William Morris”, published in Artist in 1897, the anonymous author gives a vivid account of a visit he and a friend made by bicycle to Morris in Kelmscott Manor, and continues: “returning from Kelmscott, we passed a long day in Oxford, having been previously furnished by Morris with a list of the things that we should see in day”’ (William Morris in Oxford, Illuminati Books, 2007, p.55). But, alas, our anonymous comrade gives no further detail here.
We might accordingly speculate on what some of that list’s tantalising contents may have been. It would doubtless have included the cloisters of New College, the ‘corner of old Oxford Morris loved the most’ according to Fiona MacCarthy (p.516), and where Philip Webb later wanted his ashes scattered (in the event, the College refused permission). The list would also surely have featured Merton College chapel, for as MacCarthy notes: ‘Morris and Burne-Jones had spent many silent afternoons in the chapel which they rated with the cloisters at New College as their chief local shrine’ (72).
Of Oxford’s newer buildings, Morris might possibly have recommended Bodley’s additions to Magdalen College, which he describes in his 1888 essay on ‘The Revival of Architecture’ as ‘excellent’. The old domestic architecture of Holywell Street would probably have featured too; and if our anonymous Recollector had been a graduate of Oxford and thus had access to the Bodleian, Morris might have recommended him to take the time to look up the Douce Apocalypse, which J.W. Mackail describes as Morris’s ‘ideal book’ (I, 40) and which Morris had at one point hoped to issue in facsimile from the Kelmscott Press.
Perhaps, too, we might need to imagine a Morrisian ‘anti-List’, of buildings or artefacts one should positively avoid on a day trip to Oxford – top of which would surely be the new statues on St Mary’s Church that Morris had polemicised so passionately against in the early 1890s.