To William Morris, Stanmore Hall near Harrow was “a house of a very rich [man] and such a wretched uncomfortable place! a sham Gothic house of fifty years ago now, being added to by, a young architect of the commercial type  men who are very bad”. Its owner, William Knox D’Arcy (18491917), was indeed very rich. After accumulating a gold mining fortune in Australia, he returned to England in 1888, forming the Anglo Persian Oil Co, now British Petroleum, 21 years later.  He could be called the founder of the oil industry in the Middle East.

On acquiring Stanmore Hall,  D’Arcy commissioned the Ipswich architect Brightwen Binyon to enlarge and remodel the house built of Kentish rag and Caen stone by J. M. Derrick in 1847, and Morris & Co to redecorate it. It was to be the firm’s largest commission, no expense spared, incorporating furniture, textiles, woodwork, carpets, metalwork and mosaic. The set of holy grail tapestries for the dining room, designed by Edward Burne-Jones, the only complete set of arras tapestries created for a given room  is seen as the culmination of the firm’s achievement; and the decorative scheme as one of the most influential of the late 19th century. Yet Stanmore Hall is a fascinating example of Morris & Co working without Morris.

As the 1880s progressed, Morris had become increasingly politically active. That plus the constraints imposed by Binyon and the existing house, and an obvious lack of sympathy with a client such as D’Arcy, ensured that Morris’ involvement with the project was marginal. “Our client sent his carriage to meet me and I couldn’t help laughing to see the men I met touching their hats, clearly not to me, but to it, he wrote to his wife in 1888. But it was clearly not simply that D’Arcy possessed that despised level of wealth that, perversely, was necessary for the firm’s employment. Photographs commissioned by D’Arcy, from Bedford Lemaire in 1891 reveal the late Victorian clutter and confusion of pictures and personal effects that would have held no aesthetic merit, only horror, for Morris. The man at whose parties Caruso and Melba sang was best remembered for his Norfolk Shooting parties and as “one of ‘the strongest opponents to the introduction of trams by the Middlesex County Council”.

For the Holy Grail tapestries in the new dining room, however, there was no lack of enthusiasm. Morris’s early “bright dream” was to revive high warp tapestry weaving and he began by teaching himself from an 18th Century French technical manual. The establishment of the firm’s Merton Abbey Works, near Wimbledon in 1881, made large scale tapestry, weaving and dyeing wool with selected natural colours commercially viable, and Morris took on his first weaving apprentice, John Henry Dearle (18601932). In a letter to Thomas Wardle in 1877, Morris explains why Edward Burne-Jones was the “only man at present living” able to provide suitable designs for his weavers. Both men had been impressed by the legend of King Arthur ever since their discovery of Malory’s  le Morte d’Artur in the 1850s; and Burne-Jones had prepared cartoons of three scenes from the Holy Grail legend for stained glass for his own house in Rottingdean, in 1886. To fit the awkward upper wall spaces of the Stanmore dining room, he designed six well researched narrative panels describing the quest, woven between 1890 and1894; the last, The Attainment, measuring 8ft by 22ft 9 in. Their richly ornamented, frieze like style looks back to the 16th century Flemish tapestries that both men so admired.

Burne-Jones supplied preliminary sketches, not more than 15ins. high, which were photographically enlarged to the correct size. The outlines of the figures were then traced onto the warp and woven in woolwith silk and mohair highlights by apprentices. Dearle, probably in consultation with Morris, elaborated on the proofed designs, giving luxurious brocaded fabrics and naturalistic foliage backgrounds that were copied from nature on the loom. He also designed the verdures that ran beneath the figurative panels (Fig 5). (“Scrollwork or leafage, could be done by most intelligent people,” Morris had written.) The verdure panels carry a commentary on the scene above. and are decorated with deer and shields, the heraldry of which Morris himself designed, using, 16thcentury French books. Apart front the careful planning of the tapestries, it was his only contribution to the scheme at Stanmore.

THE FAILURE OF SIR LANCELOT.  One of six Holy Grail tapestries designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones for the dining room at Stanmore Hall,  northwest London, and woven by Morris & Co, 189094.  Also gouache on paper shown above.

Something of the intense effect of these luminously coloured (“blue as the depth of a sapphire”) and boldly designed panels in the dining room was recreated earlier this year when Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery which owns versions of five of the panels, hung all the tapestries together in one room as part of their centenary celebrations: the first time a complete set had been shown since 1920.  Dearle trained all the subsequent weaving apprentices, all boys, and eventually became manager of Merton Abbey and then art director of’ the firm. At Stanmore, for the first time, he had full control of the firm’s work. He made a number of new textile designs for the house, noted in Linda Parry’s William Morris Textiles, including Persian Brocatel silk for the drawing room walls, a machine woven Wilton carpet, Stanmore, and here the Golden Bough silk and linen was used for the first time. Among his designs for handknotted Hammersmith rugs is the now rather worn example for the drawing rooms. Old designs were also rewoven, such as the double sized Clouds carpet for the dining room. 

Clouds Carpet,  first woven in1887 for the Wyndham family.  This shows three quarters of the 39ft length.
One of the Verdures bordering the Narrative Panels

It may also have been Dearle who subcontracted W. R. Lethaby in about 1890 to provide designs for five new stone chimney pieces, castiron grates and firebacks, paneling, doors, the remarkable marquetry staircase and pieces of builtin and freestanding furniture, drawings for some of which survive in the RIBA drawings collection. The pattern or a meandering, open dog rose on the alabaster chimneypiece of the library is repeated throughout the house, appearing most boldly on the oak staircase inlaid in walnut that was similarly painted on its underside,


Fig 6. The Hall:  Every surface decorated and ablaze with colour.  The table was probably made for Lethaby by Kenton & Co. Fig 7. The Dining Room in 1891 before the tapestries were completed.  W.R. Lethaby designed the limestone chimney piece, the panelling and the built in buffet.  The dining tables are probably by George Jack.

Figure 7 shows Lethaby’s limestone chimney piece and massive, eight legged hall table against a mosaic Morris floor. Inspired by Webb, the table was probably made by the furniture cooperative of which I.ethaby was a member, Kenton & Co. The chevron inlay decorating the upper staircase the paneling and the built in buffet seen at the back of figure 6 and on drawings for a carving table for Stanmore is typical of the work of Lethaby and Kenton & Co. While Lethaby may have been trying to be less stark for these Morris interiors, his work was probably too austere for the somewhat opulent taste of D’Arcy.

Neither the design for the carving table or that for the dining table, both of which look forward to the simplicity of Arts and Crafts furniture, were realised. The splendid pale oak dining table in Figure 6 was probably made by Morris & Co from designs by George Jack. Although taking Georgian form, the dining chairs may also be more than simple Morris & Co reproductions. Building News of October 19, 1894, illustrates similar “Yeoman” chairs from J. Aldam Heston & Co’s catalogue that have floral marquetry splats and stamped leather seats patterned with roses by Lethaby.

Webb’ s influence can also be seen in some of the rich, whitepainted plasterwork ceilings, as in Figure 6, and in the fragile electroliers that were considered “poetic” by his assistant George Jack (1855-1931). By 1890, Jack was Morris & Co’s chief furniture designer, and while the majority of the pieces in the house are massproduced items front the firm’s catalogues, there were a number of more distinguished pieces. Most notable is the coffershaped writing cabinet in Spanish mahogany with elaborate marquetry of rosewood, ebony, holly and tulipwood that appears in photographs of the drawing room. It closely resembles the cabinet designed by Jack and made by Morris & Co in 1893, now in the V & A.

Strangely, there was no Morris & Co stained glass in the house. Two lights were later commissioned, however, probably via Lethaby from the Arts and Crafts glass designer Louis Davis (1861-1941), about 1900. These have since been vandalised.

Design for painted decoration at Stanmore Hall.   From WILLIAM MORRIS himself.  Designs and writings.  Edited by Gillian Naylor.  Little Brown and Co.

While Dearle’s decorative skills and contribution to the later success of the firm has indeed been largely underestimated, Stanmore undoubtedly suffered from an overseeing eye less able than Morris’s. There is an uncontrolled use of decoration, even given the client’s ostentatious taste. Every surface was boldly ornamented and ablaze with brilliant colour, even down to the coloured marbles used in Lethaby’s chimney pieces. The rich patterns of the walls, floors, plaster and painted ceilings, and furnishing fabrics all vied with one another. Even the infill of Derrick’s Gothic paneling in the library was decorated  his Puginesque ceilings were also vandalised when Morris’s plaster ones were installed.

Despite the lack of control, the scheme was a considerable success. D’Arcy, commissioned a photographic record of the house from Bedford Lemaire in 1891, and an unpublished account of the tapestries from A. B. Bence-Jones four years later The Attainment, the first panel completed, was exhibited at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition of 1893, and versions were later shown abroad. The Studio published articles on the house in 1893, 1894 and 1899, and The House in 1898. The Stanmore interiors thus were able to influence the decorative arts of Europe.

D’Arcy’s death in 1917 heralded the drastic decline in the fortunes of the house and its contents. In that year the house was sold and made its gradual transition from family home to assize court, officers’ mess (known as Gremlin Castle) and a nurses home for the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital.  Unsympathetically altered and allowed to sink in to a parlous condition with rampant dry rot, it was eventually sold by the area health authority, in 1977 to a property company. The neglected house was vandalised, and two years later ablaze, lighting up the night sky above Stanmore; the flame quenching gallons of water completing the devastation. Finding a satisfactory solution for the house has been a long war of attrition, and now the shell of the Grade II* listed house is being restored for office accommodation by Markheath Securities Ltd. Of the outstanding Morris & Co decoration, for which the house was listed, it is chilling to find that only one mosaic floor and one or two chimney pieces survive.

The Holy Grail tapestries were sold to the Duke of Westminster in 1920 and hung at Eaton Hall in Cheshire; three of them were sold in 1978. Apart from tile odd item appearing at auction, few of the house’s more important contents have since conic to light.

I would like to thank Godfrey Rubens for his help. Illustrations: 1, Duke of Westminster; 2, Michael Coles; 3, Sotheby’s; 4, 5, Birmingham City Art Gallery; 6, 7, National Monuments Record.

See also

Extracts from William Morris’s letters 

Holy Grail Tapestries Edward Burne Jones by Ann-S.Dean (Extract) 

The Marxist and the Oilman 

The Holy Grail Tapestries (Extract) by Helen Proctor 

Interior Design Article (Extract) 

William Morris Les Arts Decoratif (Extract)