Icelandic Pony in William Morris' Kitchen

The rose bower from Burne-Jones series of the Briar Rose 1890--Wikipedia
"Here lies the hoarded love, the key
To all the treasure that shall be;
Come fated hand the gift to take,
And smite this sleeping world awake."

For the Briar Rose by William Morris

Elizabeth Wein's wonderful short tale "For the Briar Rose" (in the anthology Queen Victoria's Book of Spells) is in the new genre of gaslamp fantasy or steampunk or what I would label as just plain science fantasy. Margaret Burne-Jones modeled for Briar Rose in her father Edward Burne Jones' series of paintings about that fairy tale. Wein imagines a tale in which Margaret encounters the supernatural rose briar patch itself in her quest to become woman, wife, and mother. Based on her considerable research, Wein depicts the social and family life among the artists Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Rossetti, and William Morris, who were leaders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the English Arts and Crafts Movement in the latter part of the 19th century.
William Morris textile --Wikipedia
At one point in the tale, Margaret teases her "uncle Topsy," William Morris. "Now, Uncle Topsy, it's true, Papa has never much liked coarse fishing, and I do sympathise with him. Don't you think these robust fellows look terribly damp and miserable? But what really made his mind up was when you turned the kitchen into a stable for the pony you brought back from Iceland..." (Wein, p. 111).

Wait!!!! Hold your horses!!! How did an Icelandic pony get into William Morris' kitchen in the late 1800s? William Morris (1834 to 1896) was an artist, writer, painter, illustrator, textile designer, translator of Icelandic sagas, and poet. He experimented with many art forms including medieval weaving and embroidery. He made two trips to Iceland in 1871 and 1873.

Burne-Jones caricature of Morris
riding in Iceland --Wikipedia
In one of Morris' letters home, he talks about trying to bring a little, gray Icelandic pony Falki home to his children.

"Give dear love to the little ones and tell them I am going to try to bring my pretty grey pony home; but if I don't they must not be disappointed, for there may be difficulties, or he may not turn out well. His name is Falcon, and when he is in good condition, he ambles beautifully, fast and deliciously soft; he is about thirteen hands high. I wish you could see us to understand how jolly it is when we have got a good piece of road and the whole train of twenty eight horses is going a good round trot, the tin cups tinkling, and the boxes rattling." (Mackail, pp. 261-262)

Morris' travel journal to Iceland contains many vignettes about the ponies he encountered there--describing how the only thing that would scare an Icelandic pony is one of the pack bundles coming loose and scattering items all around him; the horses taking riders safely through rough terrain of bogs, scree, and cascades; and how one horse safely jumped its rider over a hidden ravine even though Icelandic horses are not known for their jumping abilities.
William Morris--self portrait Wikipedia

Nancy Marie Brown in her blog post "Bilbo's Ride Through Iceland" draws some thought provoking comparisons between William Morris (a short, round man) trekking through Iceland as described in his journals and Bilbo Baggins (a short, round Hobbit) riding to Rivendale as described by Tolkien. As Brown (para 8) points out, "Each sets out on a charming pony ride that turns dreary, wet, and miserable. The wind is cold and biting. The landscape is 'doleful,' black, rocky, with 'slashes of grass-green and moss-green,' Tolkien writes. Chasms open beneath their feet. Bogs and waterfalls abound. The pony stumbles, the baggage (mostly food) is lost, the fire refuses to light. The rider nods off on the last leg and is astonished: There was 'no indication of this terrible gorge till one was quite on the edge of it,' Morris writes." Brown's full essay as to whether Morris' account of his trip to Iceland influenced Tolkien is well worth the read at:

William Morris' daughter Jenny (Alice Jane) also saw both her father and the horse he brought back as a direct link to the fairy-tale like atmosphere of Iceland. "Iceland had begun to be one of the familiar fairy-land places in our imagination..." When her father returned "with all that burden of adventure and travel upon him--coming back out of the land of trolls and awful mountains. Then closer knowledge of the strange place came to us through him...Iceland became and has been ever since a real thing, at once overpoweringly beautiful and overpoweringly melancholy...One of the links between us and that far North was Mouse, the intelligent sure-footed little animal my father rode all through this first journey" (Morris, pp. xxvii-xxviii). (Aside: Many of us who own Icelandic horses today feel that the horse itself is still a direct link to "the land of trolls and awful mountains.")

Kelmscott Manor, as illustrated in Morris'book
News from Nowhere --Wikipedia
Back to how the Icelandic pony got into William Morris' hinted above Falki or Falcon never made it to England. Unfortunately, Falki was lame by the time Morris returned to Reykjavik so he sold the pony. Morris had ridden another Icelandic named Mouse almost exclusively during his first six weeks in Iceland. He described Mouse as "the bravest and best tempered little beast: you should have seen him picking his way in one of those dismal bogs, where if you sneeze, the earth, or rather the roots of the grass, trembles violently; they say, however, that Icelandic ponies get lazy among the fat pastures and soft air of England--small blame to them" (Mackail, p. 274). Morris brought Mouse, instead of Falki, back to England for his children May and Jenny.

On September 10, 1871, Morris and Mouse arrived at Kelmscott Manor, the country home initially co-leased by Morris and Rossetti, near Oxford. Morris eventually found shelter for Mouse by converting a dovecote. "The upper floor was still occupied by pigeons" (Hughes, p. 2).

May Morris; Margaret Mackail (née Burne-Jones);
Sir Philip Burne-Jones, Jenny Jane Alice Morris, 1874
by Frederick Hollyer
copyright National Portrait Gallery--used with permission*
Mouse--fat, lazy,and clever--was much loved by the Morris children. Morris' daughter Jenny wrote up a little biography to give her father, which mentioned Mouse. "He was gentle and quiet, though not without slyness: for I remember there was one gate-post against which, when I went out for a ride, he used often to try to rub me off his broad back. I'm ashamed for my horsemanship to think how often the rogue had his way. Father used to ride him about the country a good bit at first. Then I jogged about with him, and he used to be put to a little basket-carriage, and go meandering along in a meditative way. He got enormously fat on our coarse thick plentiful English grass, with little to do; and I used to imagine him lonely, and yearning for the fun and clatter and hardships of his Iceland life among his friends, as he stood there with his head stretched forward looking intensely meditative. One day, when the hunt passed through our home-meadows, the excitement of horses and hounds was too much for the lonely philosopher: he threw up his head and, fat as he was, bundled over a hedge and actually followed the hounds a good way. " (Mackail, pp. 274 - 275).

Few English children were so indulged as to get their own Icelandic pony. In his letters home, Morris wrote such charming stories about the ponies that he encountered during his trek in Iceland that Mrs. Alfred Baldwin asked Morris to bring back an Icelandic pony for her son Stanley. Stanley, first cousin to Rudyard Kipling and nephew of Edward Burne-Jones, regarded Morris as an honorary uncle and was welcome in the Morris and Jones' studios even as a child. However, Stanley never got his Icelandic pony. As he explained, " was natural for my mother to ask him when he paid his first visit to Iceland to bring me back an Icelandic pony which he tried to find me but came to the conclusion that it would cost so much to ship that I must be content with a Welsh one" (Weinroth, p. 57). Although Stanley Baldwin did not get his own Icelandic pony, he did become Prime Minister of England--three times.
Mouse may have been kept in a barn like this.
Interior of the tithe barn at Great Cokkeswell
Photo by Frederick H. Evans circa 1896
© Janet M. Stenner. Non-commercial use only

The fate of many exported Icelandic ponies at that time was not so kind. As Jenny explained, "It was long a grief to us children to know that the fate of many of his fellows when sold to the Scottish dealers was to go down into the mines, where they never saw daylight again--the squalor, the desolation of it, after the wild free life between firth and mountain" (Morris, pp. xxvii- xxviii).

From 1871 to 1875, 7868 horses were exported from Iceland--many intended for the mines in Scotland. Life for horses in the mines was tough, some became blind. A contemporary of the time, Schrader argued that the Icelandic horses in the Scottish mines were at risk for blindness but at least they received continual care and feed unlike the horses in Iceland who had to fend for themselves over the long winters. According to Schrader, many mine ponies in Scotland lived into their twenties unlike Icelandic horses at that time (Bjőrnsson & Sveinsson, p. 98). Perhaps the pit ponies did get adequate care but they were subjected to the same ups in downs in fate as the miners themselves. Pit ponies were often the victims of mine strikes, frequent accidents, and abandonment. The sympathy of Jane Morris, William's wife and Jenny's mother, lay solely with the pit ponies. In a letter discussing a mine strike in Scotland, she exclaimed "Those poor ponies! I see in one pit that 400 have been left to their fate" (Marsh & Sharp, 2011, p. 372).

Rossetti''s Pia de Tolomei--Jane, Morris' wife,
is the model--Wikipedia
And the trip from Iceland to England could be perilous also. H. Rider Haggard, author of the Lost World novels King Solomon's Mines and She, stopped to visit William Morris to obtain advice on local travel before taking his own tour of Iceland, home of the sagas that inspired some of his later work. Haggard sailed home on "the Copeland, now laden with hundreds of ponies, among them that named Hecla, which I had bought near the volcano, and I think another which I had also bought" (Haggard, Chapt. 12, para 12). The Copeland sailed through several days of gales and some of the worst weather Haggard ever experienced. The hatches had to remain open so the ponies had enough air so many ponies died from exposure to the cold water. Delays because of the bad weather forced the voyage to extend longer than expected and ponies began to starve.

On the seventh day of the voyage, the ship was caught in a current and stranded on rocks near the island of Stroma. The passengers were saved by a local boat from that island. "Rescuers got aboard of her and saved many of the ponies, though many more were drowned, including poor Hecla, which I had bought upon the slopes of that volcano. Others were thrown or swam out of the hold and maimed. One of the saddest things I remember in connection with this shipwreck was the sight of a poor animal with a swinging leg, standing upon a point of rock until the tide rose and drowned it. Many of these ponies swam ashore — being Icelanders they were accustomed to the water — and probably they, or rather their descendants, now populate the Orkneys (Haggard, Chapt. 12, para 31).
Ponies waiting for export in Reykjavík.
Frederick Howell Collection, Cornell University

Mouse encountered no such misadventures in his travel from Iceland to England. He became a well loved fixture at Kelmscott Manor--several visitors and residents made references to the pony from the northern island. As Morris had predicted, Mouse ate himself to fatness on the rich English grass. Dante Rossetti, who co-leased Kelmscott Manor with William Morris at that time, descibed Mouse as follows in a letter to his mother: "There is a most comically fat and stolid pony here which Morris last year brought from Iceland. He is more like Sancho's donkey than anything equine, and was never seen but twice from the window to do anything but eat in his private field. On two occasions only he was meditating with his back against a tree" (Rossetti, 1895, p. 264). In another letter, he refers to a "tremendous gale" at Kelmscott Manor that took down "six important trees--three in the avenue in Mouse's field, and three in the island by the boat house" (Rossetti, 1895, p. 268).

Mouse was taught to pull a cart. Finding a harness for this pony was difficult. In an 1872 letter to Alfred Hake, Rossetti discussed Morris' plans to buy a chaise trap and the challenges of finding a harness to fit Mouse. In a later letter to Hake, Rossetti said that Morris was delighted with the chaise trap when it arrived but that the harness did not fit Mouse so a custom harness had to be made. And no wonder! As Rossetti exclaimed in a postscript to Hake, "PS. The Icelandic pony in question has the impudence to be four feet in girth around the neck!" (Rossetti, 2005, p. 292).

Finding saddles to fit Icelandics seemed to be a problem even in the 1800s. In a letter to George Hake, Morris talks about taking a day visit to Kelmscott Manor with a stated purpose of trying a saddle on Mouse. "...[Morris] says he will be coming down in the morning and 'I shall want a bit of breakfast when I get down'. He also asks Hake to 'let Phi1ip [Comely] meet me with Mouse saddled as I want to try a pack saddle on him and needn't lug it all the way to Kelmscott'" (Sharp, n.d., p. 45).

Morris would have driven Mouse around the country lanes like this one leading to Kelmscott Manor. Photo by Frederick H. Evans circa 1896 © Janet M. Stenner. Non-commercial use only

Visitors were often picked up at the train station by Morris and Mouse and the aforementioned chaise trap. In his 1896 obituary for William Morris, Theodore Watts-Dunton describes meeting Morris and Mouse for the first time, the beginning of a 25-year old friendship with Morris. Watts-Dunton was visiting Rossetti, who invited Morris to join them for a fishing party. Morris and Mouse the Icelandic pony came to the Lechlade railway station to greet them. "And then I saw coming towards us on a rough pony so diminutive that he well deserved the name of 'Mouse,' the figure of a man in a wideawake--a figure so broad and square that the breeze at his back, soft and balmy as it was, seemed to be using him as a sail, and blowing both him and the pony towards us (p. 488)."

A Victorian basket carriage, Punch 1859,
from the Dictionary of Victorian London

So my brief essay at research confirmed that William Morris brought an Icelandic pony home from his trek in Icelandic. Mouse the pony was so beloved and memorable that he was mentioned not only in Morris' Icelandic journals but in Morris' obituary, correspondence among the Pre-Raphaelite artists, and in Jenny's memoir of her father. As Jenny mourned, "I missed the gentle funny little animal much when he died" (Mackail, p. 275).

May Morris never forgot her father's tales of travel in the land "of trolls and awful mountains" and Mouse the pony that linked her and her sister to this magical land. May made several trips to Iceland to see the sights that her father mentioned in his poems and depict them in water colors. In 1922, visitors to Iceland still traveled by Icelandic pony. May Morris and her friend Mary Loeb rode up to the manse of the family of Gudrun Jonsdottir. Since there were no hotels outside cities, travelers frequently asked for accommodations homesteads sure to be welcomed."Ministers, doctors and country judges were the only people likely to understand foreign languages and the ministers were easiest to approach, the doctors being too busy and the country judges less hospitable. Most of the travellers I had seen however, had been gentlemen and two ladies travelling alone were unusual" (Jonsdottir, p. 17). Besides touring by horseback, May Morris spent her time sketching landscapes and flowers. See below for a link to a photograph (which unfortunately I do not have permission to use, of what is probably May Morris riding an Icelandic pony in Iceland during one of her visits.

May Morris's Sketchbook from Iceland
(MS.2010.009--William Andrews Clark Memorial Library)
Returning to Kelmscott Manor in England, May like a fairy godmother shipped a box of books, watercolors, and drawings
for the Jonsdottir family. Even the paper the books were wrapped in were a treasure to Gudrun--"What a joy for a girl who was always writing when there was any paper to be had" (p. 19).

In 1924 and 1929, Morris and Loeb visited Iceland and stayed with Gundrun's family again. Each time, Morris thanked the family with a gift of books. As Gudrun reminisced, "So many memories ate linked to the name Kelmscott-memories of years when the books Miss Morris had sent made my otherwise bleak life bearable-and memories of a lovely lady who was kind to o a shy and awkward girl in an old Icelandic manse" (p. 20).

So after all that research originally inspired by a fairy tale, I could not confirm that Mouse the Icelandic pony ever lived in William Morris' kitchen. I bet there are more mentions of Mouse among the correspondence of the Morris, Rossetti, and Burne-Jones families found in the volumes of the Bodeleian Library of Oxford--a visit that Wein conducted as part of her research into her modern fairy tale "For the Briar Rose." Who's up for a trip to Iceland to ride horses with a stopover in Oxford for some research and a visit to Kelmscott Manor?

And many thanks to Philip Brown who writes the fascinating blog about Jane Morris and her daughters and sent me the link to the Jonsdottir memoir.

Also if you have enjoyed reading about Mouse and William Morris, you can go to the for more information about Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites. Penny Lydon, the librarian for this Society was kind enough to forward me more references about Mouse--which I have yet to work into this essay. ;-)


Bjőrnsson, G., & Sveinsson, H. (2006). The Icelandic Horse, Edda Publishing, Reykjavik, Iceland.

Brown, N. (2012). Bilbo's Ride Through Iceland. God of Wednesday blog. Found July 22, 2013, at

Haggard, H. (1912). The Days of My Life: An Autobiography, The University of Adelaide, South Australia, Found on August 1, 2013 at

Hughes, D. (Autumn, 2006). "Kelmscott 2006," The Oxon Recorder, Issue 28, pp. 1-3.

Jonsdottir, G. (1981). May Morris and Miss Loeb in Icelandic, Journal of William Morris Studies, Found August 13, 2013 at
Mackail, J. (1901). The Life of William Morris, Longmans Green, and Co., London.

Morris, J., and Sharp, F. (2011). The Collected Letters of Jane Morris, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, UK.

Morris, W. (1911) The Collected Works of William Morris: Journals of travel in Iceland. 1871. 1873, Longmans Green, and Co., London.

Rossetti, D. (2005). Chelsea Years, 1871-1872. D.S. Brewer, Cambridge.

Rossetti, D. (1895). Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Family-letters, Ellis and Elvey, London.

Sharp, F. (n.d.) William Morris's Kelmscott connections. pp.44- 53. Found August 3, 2013 at

Watts-Dunton, T. (1896). "Mr. William Morris" in The Athenaeum: A Journal of Literature, Science, the Fine Arts, Music, and the Drama, eds. Buckingham, J., et al. Found July 22, 2013 at

Wein, E., (2013). For the briar rose. (pp. 107-129). Appearing in Queen Victoria's Book of Spells. Datlow, E., & Windling, T, eds., Tom Doherty Associates Book, New York.

Weinroth, M. (1996). Reclaiming William Morris: Englishness, Sublimity, and the Rhetoric of Dissent, McGill-Queen's Press, Quebec, Canada.

* Photo is from this site and used with permission for non-commercial, one-time only use


Alison said...

Thank you, Pamela, I really enjoyed reading that.
Strange how the odd Icelandic horse crept into the world now and again, was admired and loved and almost never heard of.
Alison, Switzerland

Blessiowner said...

So glad that you enjoyed the article. It is strange how lone Icelandics have crept into the popular imagination but then the breed disappears from public sight. Icelandics were fairly well known as a breed in the US from 1880 to 1910. And then they basically disappeared until folks started importing again in the 1960s.