William Morris and art for all…

William Morris Gallery, Lloyd Park, Forest Road, Walthamstow, London

What tremendous and heartening news that the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow has been declared the Art Fund Museum of the Year, winning £100,000 to keep it going on its starry voyage out of shabbiness, neglect and imminent closure to an award-winning educational nexus of beauty, history, politics and general fascination.

William Morris, who was socialist of the very best kind, intent on giving everyone beauty, art and elegant craft in their homes, and in creating spacious factories overlooking Arcadian riverscapes, is a guardian angel for the arts today. Here is a man who would always rather increase access to art, rather than clip its wings in time of recession; a man who inspired Chris Robbins, the leader of Walthamstow council, to declare heroically, ‘I didn’t stand for office to close things down’ (public libraries, anyone?).

17 Red Lion Square, London; Morris’s home before he started Morris & Co.

Morris was going to be a vicar, like Burne-Jones, until, becoming disillusioned at Oxford, they opted for art, life and women. Burne-Jones studied briefly as a painter with Rossetti, and was inspired to follow him, catalyzing what became the ‘second wave’ of Pre-Raphaelitism; Morris, who was no good at painting, became determined to improve the standard of furniture, carpets, fabrics and stained glass generally in Victorian Britain, finding the meretricious quality of mass-produced articles poverty-stricken and offensive.

William Morris, The strawberry thief, 1863, furnishing fabric, courtesy of the V & A

His radical desire to take art, learning, comfort, beauty to the poorest in society was fierce and passionate; unfortunately the output of Morris & Co. (Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. for its first 14 years), the firm he set up for the production of hand-crafted furnishings, hit the problem of costs, and his wares were sadly only affordable to the comfortably-off; however, the concern ran from 1861 to 1940, and Morris’s designs are still going strong today. They were responsible for starting the Arts & Crafts movement practically single-handed, for hiking up the standards of the goods available to the middle classes, and for playing to a popular love of good and decorative design that is sometimes unfairly disparaged.  Pre-Raphaelitism has a large fan club today; so does the Arts & Crafts Movement; and Morris’s fabric designs soldier on through critical obloquy because people like and want them.

Morris’s novels are an acquired taste; having read both volumes of The well at the world’s end I can only agree with the critic who described it as going on and on and on, like Morris’s wallpaper patterns; his poetry is also a specialist interest. His politics and his strong desire to bring education, the skills of craftsmanship and beautiful surroundings to all, no matter how poor or under-privileged they were, must continue to inspire today – just as the Walthamstow council have been inspired to refurbish the gallery created in his name, and make it the artistic centre of a poor borough.

William Morris Gallery, the garden front, with restored canopy overlooking Lloyd Park

‘History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created.’ William Morris.

About Mark Mitchell

Dealers in 19th-20th Century British and Continental Works of Art
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