Thursday, 30 December 2010
Thomas More in the Coach House
In his study of William Morris: His Life, Work and Friends (1967) Philip Henderson evokes the Kelmscott coach house in its glory days: ‘a meeting place for the progressive intellectuals of the time – austerely and simply furnished, with its rush-bottomed chairs and wooden forms, its white-washed walls covered with rush matting and hung with engraved portraits of Sir Thomas More and other “socialist” pioneers, and its speakers’ platform at one end over which hung [Walter] Crane’s banner’ (p.320).
I don’t recall seeing that reference to an engraved portrait of Thomas More in contemporary accounts of the coach house, and I am not sure what source Henderson is drawing on in citing it here; but it seems to me eminently appropriate to have the author of Utopia (1516) represented on the walls. If you enter the coach house today, you will see portraits of many of the speakers who took part in political debates there in the late nineteenth-century: Bernard Shaw, Peter Kropotkin, Annie Besant, Keir Hardie, and so on; but there is no Thomas More among them.
But what is special about Kelmscott House is that it is a portal to the future as well as the past, that it is the gateway forward to the twenty-second-century Thames-side of Morris’s utopian imaginings in News from Nowhere as well as back to the socialist debates of the late 1880s and early 1890s. That being so, that we are here in the very place where the greatest of English utopias opens, it seems entirely apt that the founder of that essential literary genre, Thomas More himself, should also be honoured on its walls. So if we can locate the old engraved portrait of the author of Utopia, we should restore it to its place; and if we can’t, we should commission a new one and get it nailed up as soon as possible, certainly before the 500th anniversary of Utopia in 2016.