The William Morris Gallery – the Art Fund Museum of the Year
The winner of Britain’s biggest art prize is a Georgian building devoted to William Morris, textile designer, businessman, artist, writer and utopian socialist
Once, long ago, I went to the dentist in Walthamstow – an experience that served to make me wary of this once grand but now dilapidated patch of north-east London. So it was with some trepidation that one gloomy day two months ago, I caught the Tube and ventured forth once more.
On arrival, Walthamstow’s main road bears every sign of the poverty that makes it part of one of the most deprived boroughs in Britain. But then, suddenly, a huge, graceful Georgian building hoves into view.
Its original lines and bow-fronted facade are beautifully complemented by a sweeping new drive, with an elegantly executed disabled ramp leading up to the white front door. Behind it is an attractive public park, peopled – even at 9 am – with a good number of walkers, joggers and mothers with pushchairs. Promisingly, on the back of the house is a welcoming glass house of a café, with what look like excellent cakes being loaded on to the counter. The steps from the restaurant run easily into the park.
This was my initial encounter with the William Morris Gallery, which has just been awarded Britain’s biggest art prize – £100,000 – as the Art Fund Museum of the Year. I was one of the judges who gave it that prize, and I have absolutely no doubt that it deserved it. My fellow judges were the historian Bettany Hughes, MP Tristram Hunt, the artist known as Bob and Roberta Smith and the Art Fund director Stephen Deuchar, and we all agreed about the excellence of what we saw there.
We visited some fabulous places as we travelled around the country looking at our shortlist of 10, but the William Morris Gallery was exemplary, a pattern, despite its relatively small size, for what a museum can and should be.
Back on that spring morning, the thing that first impressed us was the reason for the £5 million transformation of the gallery. Chris Robbins, Labour leader of Waltham Forest council, admitted that in 2007 the building where the great craftsman, designer and socialist pioneer William Morris grew up was a “problem”. Unloved and crumbling, it left successive councils uncertain what to do with it, or with their famous son.
His administration decided on a radical course. Inspired by head of cultural services Lorna Lee, who was passionate about Morris, the building and all it stood for, the authority matched the £1.5 million available from the National Heritage Lottery Fund for renovation with £1.5 million from its coffers – no small commitment from a borough with such pressing social problems. But, in words that brought a lump to the throat, Mr Roberts declared: “I didn’t stand for office to close things down.”
So the house and its surrounding park were renovated in such a way as to open them up to the public, to make the place inviting. Hence the tea room, with its direct access to the park; immediately popular with the strolling mothers and children, it says explicitly that this museum belongs to the people that Morris wanted all art to appeal to. This belief in making museums places that show their very best face to the widest possible world was something we judges encountered over and over again.
But what also made the William Morris Gallery exceptional is what it did next: it linked the conviction that culture can lead a wider regeneration programme with another equally powerful notion, that Morris’s life and work were so important, and the collection so revelatory, that it must be displayed with world-class curatorial expertise.
You can see this from the moment you walk through the front door. In a little room on the right, there is an introduction to Morris, perfectly displayed, cleverly pitched. It explains why you should care about this man, and sets his significance in the context of his times.
Then you walk through beautifully fashioned rooms that explain aspects of his work. All the best devices of the modern museum are on display: there are drawers that contain secrets, looms at which you can weave your own fabrics, little areas for children to dress up, and clearly written labels. But, crucially, you are not talked down to: your intelligence and interest are taken for granted in exhibits that tell you a lot without ever patronising you.
My favourite moment is when you walk into a darkened room that seeks to recreate the atmosphere of Morris’s shop on Oxford Street – something I had read about, but never been able to imagine. The excitement of being surrounded by the kind of rich fabrics and carpets that he put on sale, transforming the art of home decor, was wonderfully evocative.
This curatorial intelligence runs throughout the building. It asks and prompts questions. For example, Walthamstow is now an incredibly mixed area culturally, so one of the displays shows how Morris’s interest in using flowers and leaves as decoration on fabrics and tiles links directly to the Islamic traditions of transforming the natural world into design. In the education room upstairs, children are shown his original wooden printing blocks, and encouraged to make their own patterns. A description of the workers in his factories invites you to consider how uncomfortable and difficult the conditions might have been.
History is gently brought to life, in a way that is easy but never stupid. Morris’s famous statement “I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few” stands as a slogan for what the gallery seeks to do. It is impressively full of life.
It also stands strong in tribute to another Morris line: “We are only the trustees for those who come after us.” That is exactly what the best museums and galleries do: they hold the past, explain it to the present, and preserve it for the future. It is valuable work, and those that get it right deserve many prizes.
WILLIAM MORRIS: a very modern Victorian: textile designer, businessman, artist, writer and utopian socialist
WILLIAM Morris is a great British figure whose name is familiar to most, but the extent of whose influence is little appreciated. In photographs, the leading spirit of the Arts and Crafts movement appears every inch the eminent Victorian, with his furiously energetic hair and beard, thickly buttoned-up suit and surprisingly cool, knowing eyes: the embodiment of a period that feels fabulously remote and exotic. Yet his career as textile designer, businessman, artist, writer and utopian socialist demonstrates the extent to which the Victorian era determined the course of our own.
Aspects of Morris can appear slightly ridiculous: his political ideas are beyond dippy, his novels unreadable and his designs, with their frantic, pseudo-medieval elaboration, hopelessly removed from today’s taste. Viewed from a broader perspective, however, Morris can be seen as the author of ideas about the relationship between art, design and everyday life which fed into everything from the Bauhaus to Ikea.
Traditionally, beautiful things were seen simply as luxuries you either could or couldn’t afford. Morris, however, believed that everyone was entitled to be surrounded by beauty, that the way things were made was as important as the way they looked, that rather than being an eclectic mish-mash – on the classic Victorian model – a living environment should be an integrated whole that had a moral impact on the people living in it.
Yet on the face of it, there was little that was modern about what Morris did. In keeping with the historicist spirit of the time – in which it was assumed that the things of the past were more meaningful than those of the present – the Arts and Crafts movement looked back to a romanticised medieval world in which simple craftsmen worked together for the common good. While his ideas were strongly influenced by the critic John Ruskin, another huge Victorian figure, Morris applied them in practical terms. His company Morris & Co (like many highly idealistic people, he was an astute businessman) set about emulating this mythical past by creating exquisite products that finally only the rich could afford.
Yet his idea that traditional craftsmen preoccupied with simple function would create artefacts with greater beauty and greater nobility than the hybridised, over-decorated products of 19th century mass-production had a considerable influence. His notion of artists and designers coming together in pursuit of a higher goal provided one of the inspirations for the Bauhaus, the most influential art and design school of the 20th century. He pioneered the idea of the businessman-designer as social entrepreneur that Terence Conran has developed in our time.
Ultimately, though, Morris, with all his paradoxes and furious polymathic energy, is most interesting as an embodiment of his own age, the Victorian era, when hardship and inequality were everywhere apparent, but optimism and self-belief – certainly in this country – knew no bounds.
© Daily Telegraph 2013