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William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow, London

Caroline Worthington, Museums Journal

Like many others, Caroline Worthington welcomes the reopening of a gallery dedicated to the designer, artist and writer William Morris.

Caroline Worthington, Museums Journal, Issue 112/11, p60-63, 01.11.2012

William Morris was 49 when, in his own words, he crossed “the river of fire”, becoming a socialist with a capital “S”. One of the unexpected delights of the redisplayed and revitalised William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, east London, is finding the artist, craftsman, poet and design entrepreneur’s humble-looking satchel. It is easy to imagine it stuffed with pamphlets and a copy of a speech expounding his vision of a better world. In the 1890s he was averaging 100 speeches a year, giving three in one day sometimes. The small museum that celebrates his life and work, which is in the house where Morris grew up, reopened in August after a £5m modernisation. A further £5m has been spent on the surrounding garden and park. Morris had a fairly conventional middle-class upbringing at Water House, a Georgian villa that was a healthy distance from London’s suburban sprawl at the time.
The displays aim to help visitors meet the man in his many guises. We learn that he was originally destined for the priesthood. There is a touching letter to his mother explaining why he decided instead as a young man to devote his life to art, having encountered the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood at Oxford. There he met his lifelong friend and fellow artist, Edward Burne-Jones. His model and muse, Jane, became his wife in 1859. The museum owns the newlyweds’ piano from the home Morris commissioned, called the Red House, in Bexleyheath. Visitors can listen to the folk music that the Morris’s enjoyed recorded on the piano and love poems he wrote inspired by medieval legends. The young Morris rode around Epping Forest in a suit of armour. You can see the armour that an Oxford blacksmith made him, alongside an account of the short-tempered and chubby Morris struggling to get out of it.

William and Jane Morris’s happiness was not to last, however. Jane’s lengthy affair with Brotherhood founder, the poet, painter and womaniser Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is rather glossed over. It is poignant to imagine Morris finding solace in Iceland, having left his wife, daughters and Rossetti at Kelmscott Manor in the Oxfordshire countryside. By the time of his temporary exile to Iceland, Morris had established the firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co to offer good design and affordable luxury to discerning Victorians. Morris was a savvy businessman and he actively promoted the company at trade fairs in Philadelphia, Boston and Paris. This meant he found clients as far afield as the Barr family in Adelaide, Australia.
“Swinish luxury”
There are some choice quotations reproduced in the museum’s gallery about some of their major commissions, including this one: “I spend my life ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich.” One of the museum’s galleries is dressed as Morris & Co’s Oxford Street shop. Visitors can flick through books of fabric swatches and wallpaper patterns just as the shop’s customers did in the past. There is a vivid image of the impression Morris the shopkeeper made on one visitor: “His hair on end and in a nonchalant way, he began show me one or two of his curios.”

Horrified by industrialisation and working conditions in factories, Morris established his enlightened alternative, the Merton Abbey Mills. The model workshops on the banks of the Wandle in south London had gardens to grow dye plants, a dye works, which made use of the river water to rinse fabrics, as well as a weaving shed. The story of Abbey Mills is particularly well told. Long swags of fabric are draped from the ceiling and printing blocks from the collection are suspended in mid-air – a reflection of the young Morris’s ambition to “transform the world with beauty”. A workbench provides space for simple interactive displays. You can have a go at carpet knotting, designing stained glass or scaling up a tapestry, while drawers are designed as showcases and home to delicate textiles. Among the apprentices at the workshops was Frank Brangwyn, who became a successful artist and designer. Without Brangwyn there would not have been a William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow. Brangwyn shared Morris’s view that art should not exist for the privileged few and donated most of his private art collection to the borough as “a humble offering to the people of Walthamstow in the hope that they will enjoy art and remember Morris”.
Future shows

The gallery was opened in 1950 by Clement Attlee – then prime minister and the local MP, another middle-class boy turned socialist. A small display of Brangwyn’s work is featured upstairs. While a computer provides glimpses of what is in store, it is a shame more space has not been found for the Welsh artist’s work. The same is true of non-arts and crafts work in the collection, so you find a Rodin bronze tucked away in a small room downstairs called rather grandly the discovery lounge. The artist Grayson Perry is an admirer on Morris and has a studio in Walthamstow. Post-refurbishment, the museum’s opening exhibition featured Perry’s Walthamstow Tapestry. Charting man’s journey from cradle to grave in contemporary Britain, it is peppered with leading brands encountered along the way, making it feel very Walthamstow for those who know its thriving street market.

Hopefully, the museum will continue to aim as high with its future shows. The artist Jeremy Deller seems a natural choice. In the room about Morris the socialist and firebrand conservationist, Deller appears on a video refl ecting on Morris’s politically inspired art and life. Arts and crafts pilgrims will rejoice that the William Morris Gallery has reopened, especially when a decade ago its future looked bleak due to underinvestment by the local council. Waltham Forest’s decision to secure Heritage Lottery Fund money to restore the museum, and the grounds that surround it, is to be applauded. When I visited both were busy with families rubbing shoulders with Morris enthusiasts.

Caroline Worthington is the chief executive of Bexley Heritage Trust

Project data

Cost £10m
Main funders Heritage Lottery Fund; Big Lottery Fund
Other supporters the Allchurches Trust; Clothworkers Foundation; the Drapers’ Company; Esmée Fairbairn Foundation; Foyle Foundation; Friends of the William Morris Gallery; Garfield Weston Foundation; Heritage of London Trust; the Hintze Family Charitable Foundation Morris & Co; J Paul Getty Jnr Charitable Trust; Kathy Callow Trust; Leche Trust; Mercers’ Company; Monument Trust; Pilgrim Trust; Radcliffe Trust; Sanderson & Co; Textile Society; Wolfson Foundation
Architect Pringle Richards Sharratt
Exhibition design GuM Studio
Interpretation consultant BT Museum Consultancy
Graphic design Thomas Manss & Co
Lighting design DHA
Project management Faithful+Gould
Engineer Ramboll UK