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William Morris: the first king of flower power

Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Times

The revamped William Morris Gallery reopens today — and it’s the best place to enjoy a tireless Victorian whose art and ideas still colour our lives, says Rachel Campbell-Johnston

The William Morris Gallery reopens to the public today. A building that five years ago balanced on the brink of permanent closure has, with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund and the local Waltham Forest council, just had a £10 million overhaul. The handsome bay-fronted Georgian building has been restored, its elegant gardens replanted, its dingy interiors refurbished and a new exhibition space appended. The William Morris Gallery is firmly back on our cultural map.

It sounds like a marvellous success story. But, as far as the man whom it celebrates was concerned, it might have been doomed before it even began. “I love art, and I love history,” William Morris declared, “but it is living art and living history that I love.” The Victorian designer and craftsman man who, in his day, did more than any other to shape the way in which the British viewed their domestic surroundings, detested the very idea of restoration. “What history can there be in a building bedaubed with ornament, which cannot at the best be anything but a hopeless and lifeless imitation of the hope and vigour of the earlier world?” he asked.

So how can this project transcend so stern a disapprobation? How can it prove that it has all been worth it? The building, after all — for all that it stands in the heart of Walthamstow, northeast London, where Morris was born and brought up — hardly feels pivotal to his artistic development. It is merely the villa to which his mother, after losing her husband in 1847, downsized with her family of nine children for a few years. Morris was 14 when he moved here, 26 when he left — and much of this time he would have been away studying, first at Marlborough College and then in Oxford.

This home hardly ranks in importance with such buildings as the National Trust’s Red House, which, designed by the artist according to his own pioneering ideals and with its ceiling paintings, furniture and tapestries all made by him and his circle, becomes a complete proponent of his then pioneering Arts and Crafts ethos.

Water House clearly cannot make parallel claims. Although the restoration project has made the most of the building’s architectural merits, removing drab hessian wall panels to expose previously hidden features and even, in one room, assembling the objects to evoke the sort of environment created by a designer who believed that the “most important” and “to be longed for” production of art should be a “beautiful house”, it is less upon the aesthetic milieu as an integrated whole than upon the life of the artist that this gallery focuses. If you want to find out about the multifaceted Morris, this, from now on, will be the best starting place.

As the visitor moves through the various rooms, a portrait of the designer, craftsman, poet and political activist builds up: from his earliest childhood when, infused with a spirit of medieval romanticism he would ride through Epping Forest on his pony, attired in a suit of toy armour, through his burgeoning friendship with the Pre-Raphaelite painters, his troubled marriage to the luscious but unfaithful model Jane, his establishment of Morris & Co, the interior design company, and his increasingly fanatical pursuit of perfection as a craftsman. There is a section devoted to his poetry, to the workshops at Merton Abbey in Surrey, to the opening of his Oxford Street shop, to the foundation of the Kelmscott Press and to his increasingly ardent political beliefs as, crossing what he called “the river of fire”, he campaigned to end the capitalist system and sweep away the privileges enjoyed by the very class to which he himself belonged. Little wonder that when he died in 1896 at the age of only 62, it was, as one doctor put it, of “simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men”.

“Of course we all know that William Morris was a wonderful all-round man,” wrote the acerbic Max Beerbohm. “But the act of walking round him has always tired me.” The inexhaustible Morris — who famously declared that “if a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he’s weaving a tapestry, he’d better shut up, he’ll never do any good at all” — can feel dauntingly prolific. But the newly restored displays have been designed with a simplicity that seems almost understated. The galleries, though small, for the most part feel fairly sparse (Morris detested Victorian clutter). Only the best or most illustrative objects are on display. The gallery has an outstanding collection, thanks in great part to Frank Brangwyn, who served a brief apprenticeship in Morris & Co — though it seems an irrelevance to find a room of this artist’s work.

Here is anything from the wilfully unsophisticated tub chair in which he celebrates his love for the Gothic, through a series of painted tiles designed by the Pre-Raphaelites that, in medieval fashion, mark each of the year’s 12 months and their labours, to wallpaper designs, tapestries and stained-glass windows. Here are family photographs and memorabilia (a letter, for instance, in which he tries to persuade his mother that a career as an architect, rather than a cleric, as he had initially planned, would not make him “an idle and objectless man”). And here are the business sample books and political banners of a man who went to public rallies and published radical newspapers.

Together they illustrate his life and his beliefs — a selection of his philosophical edicts (almost as well known as his wallpaper prints) — with eloquent clarity. Their quality makes this gallery a rich resource for the scholar. But with interactive displays ranging from a build-your-own Rouen cathedral to an “are you as good a businessmen as Morris?” test, it has also been designed to appeal to children.

A new extension will host a series of small, related shows, Grayson Perry kicks off a contemporary programme with his Walthamstow Tapestry, a fantastically subversive skit on class differences and branding. Morris’s influence is clearly still rife. He may have detested material restoration as “a lifeless imitation”, but what the William Morris Gallery sets out to renew is not merely material. The ideas it presents still feel very vigorous. “The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are helping to make,” Morris said.

© The Times