We are all fond of the woodcut of Kelmscott Manor from C.M. Gere’s design which served as the frontispiece of the Kelmscott Press edition of News from Nowhere in 1893 and which now often graces modern paperback editions too. But is it really the best image to introduce Morris’s utopia? Does not the Manor, as a completed architectural artefact, imply that the effort of actually making utopia is over, that once we’ve rowed up the Thames to get there we can just lie back and enjoy it? Indeed, as a building that hugely predates the book’s own narrative present, does it not effectively take us outside the realm of utopia altogether?
What might serve as a better image here then? Well, couldn’t we have a building from the utopian present in which William Guest finds himself? Why not a woodcut of the Hammersmith Guest House, say, or of that architecturally exuberant nearby Mote-House which embraces ‘the best qualities of the Gothic of northern Europe with those of the Saracenic and Byzantine’ (ch.IV)? Or better still, why not an image of a building in process rather than already completed, which might semiotically signal to us, as frontispiece of the book, that utopia is itself always in process and never complete, that it is constantly self-transformative or 'kinetic', in H.G. Wells’s term?
And we do indeed have just such a scene available to us in the ‘Obstinate Refusers’ chapter later in the book, where Philippa and her building team are eagerly engaged on a new house on the upper Thames: ‘at work in the shed and on the scaffold about half a dozen men and two women, blouse-clad like the carles’ (ch.XXVI). A woodcut based on this episode would have had the further beneficial effect of reminding feminist critics of Morris’s utopia that women are not confined to the rather subservient roles they do indeed occupy in the earliest chapters. So do we have a woodcut artist out there venturesome enough to have a go at such an illustration?