London: The William Morris Gallery

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Before I get into my ol’ buddy William Morris, I’d like to tell you all that I’ve just written a guest post for the ever-informative blog These Bones of Mine, on the Bethlem Museum of the Mind…so please go check it out, and hopefully stick around to learn something about human osteology while you’re there (from David’s posts, not mine!).  Now, William Morris.  I volunteer on a couple local history projects in Merton, and William Morris is one of our big names (the other being Nelson (and Jack Dimmer, if we’re talking WWI)).  Even though he isn’t really one of the subjects I’ve worked on, you can’t come out of there without knowing something about William Morris and his factories along the Wandle (which is now a rather sad little river that occasionally produces headless bodies, but it used to be a regular hub of industry, surrounded by lavender fields and distilleries, breweries, and even a fireworks factory).  The factory buildings are still there, and have become Merton Abbey Mills, a “craft village” that I have tried very hard to like, but I just can’t, because everything they sell is tat, and the festivals I’ve gone to there have been extremely lame.  But I digress…  This post has to do with the opposite end of London – Walthamstow, where Morris grew up, and where the William Morris Gallery is located.

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The fact that I was even contemplating going to Walthamstow demonstrates the extent to which I’m running out of London museums to blog about, as this meant taking the Victoria Line to its end (a good five or six stops farther than I’d even been before, since King’s Cross is usually my limit), but nonetheless, I had a good book at the ready (I’ve been really into Willa Cather lately; don’t know why it took me so long to read her stuff considering how much I like pioneer fiction), and I was up for the adventure.  Of course, I immediately got lost upon leaving the station, because that’s what I do, and I swear there were no street signs about, but after walking around in circles for a bit, I eventually managed to locate the Goose pub that the museum’s website used as a directional marker, and I was ok from there (except for the area feeling a bit sketchy. I mean, I’m sure it’s fine, but I was still glad it was daytime).  Upon actually reaching the gallery, I was pleasantly surprised, as it is located within a quaint little park, and Water House, where the museum is housed, is a reasonably attractive Georgian dealy, if too plain for my tastes.

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Happily, the museum is free and consists of nine galleries plus a temporary exhibition space.  The first gallery pretty much just held a timeline of Morris’s life and provided some history of the house (Morris lived there with his family during his teenage years, after his father died).  I was more interested in the second and third galleries, which contained some early examples of his work, as well as a bit more background about his life.  For example, his wife, Jane, was from a poor family (in contrast to Morris’s wealthy upbringing), and served as an artist’s model for Morris and Rossetti (she appears in many Pre-Raphaelite paintings); she liked Rossetti better, but when Morris proposed marriage, she couldn’t turn down such an advantageous match, so just married him and had an affair with Rossetti later on.  I also enjoyed a story about Morris wearing ill-fitting boots on a trip to Italy (I think), and getting pissed off about his blisters, limping down the street loudly cursing all bootmakers.  I’ve been there, William.  So many times.

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The gallery I was most keen on seeing, however, was the fourth one, which talked about Morris’s factory at Merton Abbey.  Now would probably be a good time to add that this gallery seems like it would be fantastic for kids.  Don’t get me wrong, I was extremely relieved there weren’t any there, since I can’t stand children, but as I’m unlikely to return here any time in the foreseeable future, it seems safe to inform people who might be able to take advantage of the activities.  That whole middle workbench was full of creative projects that seemed really fun (basically steps of textile manufacturing, so weaving on a loom, enlarging a pattern, doing pencil rubbings, and lots of other stuff besides).  In addition to this, they had dress-up bins and blocks and things in many of the other rooms, so I could definitely see this being an entertaining place for people of all ages.

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Anyway, Merton Abbey.  They made all kinds of stuff there, like tapestries, wallpaper, carpets, fabric, and stained glass (another interesting fact is that William Morris fabrics were used to decorate the Titanic; I assume only the fancier rooms though).  Paradoxically for someone who considered himself a socialist, Morris didn’t treat his workers especially well, being a very demanding employer, albeit one with the ultimate goal of creating top quality merchandise (he also believed that everyone should be able to afford art, but priced most people right out of owning Morris & Co stuff).

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The next room was intended to be a mock-up of one of his shops – the rather exclusive Oxford Street showroom, where people could browse wallpaper samples (they even had a 2015 Morris & Co catalogue set out, you know, just in case, and I have to admit I was tempted by The Brook design, though I think it’d be a bit much for a whole room) and fabric swatches; there was even an option back in the day for craftsy people to create their own tapestries, using one of Morris’s patterns, though I personally think that’s taking things too far. I’m not going to pay someone to have to do all the work myself!

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Moving upstairs, I entered the section about Morris’s socialist leanings, which contained a short film (even though it was short, I of course didn’t watch all of it, what with my limited attention span and all) about his political activities.  He talked his daughters into becoming socialists as well, and used to give speeches at rallies, though he was very shy and apparently a lousy public speaker.  Despite his political leanings, it was in fact his upper class background and wealth that kept him from being thrown in prison on a number of occasions, which probably says something about the likelihood of socialism taking over the Victorian British government (not very).

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In his time, Morris was perhaps more well known as a writer than a designer or artist, and he started his own printing company to produce aesthetically pleasing copies of some of his esoteric favourites (including a book about monks that was so obscure it had to be scrapped due to lack of subscribers).  Morris was just as exacting about printing as he was about Merton Abbey, and he hated the greyish ink that was common in Victorian publications, so he ordered in a special pure black ink from Germany, despite it being very thick and difficult to use (I’m undecided on whether it was really black, or just a very very very very very very VERY dark blue).  His most famous publication was the complete works of Chaucer, which was admittedly a beautiful book, but due to his custom font, not the easiest thing to read.

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Morris wasn’t much of a traveller, but he did venture to Iceland in 1871 because he was fascinated by Icelandic life and sagas, and wanted to be inspired by the landscape there (his wife carried on having her affair with Rossetti whilst he was away, as they were sharing a house by this point). This trip produced my favourite picture in the entire museum, a sketch by one of his friends depicting Morris on horseback, seen above.  I also enjoyed seeing his special oversized teacup that his friends had to keep for him whenever he came over (better than being given a beaker because you always drop the Royal Doulton (with hand-painted periwinkles)).

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The eighth gallery just had some additional things inspired by Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement, including a cape made by his daughter May, who was an artist in her own right.  There was a small collection of various silver pieces; I liked the muffin dish in particular, because it seemed like an unusual shape to eat a muffin from, even if I do love muffins enough to justify giving them their own dish (I assume it was for the English variety rather than the American kind, but still, it was a weird dish).  And the owl tapestry, because I like owls.

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The final gallery contained some works by Frank Brangwyn, who briefly worked for William Morris, and was one of the founders of the gallery.  Brangwyn was around during WWI (unlike Morris, who died in 1896 at the age of 62, supposedly brought on by “overwork”), and was very keen on the plight of the Belgians, having been born in Belgium himself, so he produced a number of propaganda posters to encourage Britons to provide assistance.

The temporary gallery downstairs was a decent size, but it looked odd because it only contained three pictures, which left loads and loads of empty space.  The exhibit when I visited was about some guy who re-created photographs of Morris’s family, using modern sitters, which was fine, but why were there only three of them when they had all that space?  Aside from the temporary gallery, I was pretty impressed with the William Morris Gallery.  It was informative and varied, and offered plenty of activities for those who were so inclined.  I also think it did a good job capturing the captivating yet contradictory nature of William Morris (that’s so alliterative that reading all the “c”s kind of hurts my eyes).  The only bad part is that it’s all the way in Walthamstow, so I imagine only people who live out towards E17 or dedicated William Morris fans visit it (or bloggers running out of things to write about), which is a shame, because it’s a step up from many other smallish museums.  3.5/5.

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4 comments

  1. I’ve always loved William Morris’s designs and so it’s a treat to read about your visit. Also, I’m so pleased to hear you enjoy Willa Cather too!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! I actually don’t read much fiction (but I read loads of historical nonfiction) because I find it so hard to find authors that I like, and I get really annoyed by poorly written novels. Maybe I’m spoiled by having read so much fantastic children’s literature as a kid…I don’t know why most adult fiction is so uninspiring by comparison. I do love Willa Cather though!

  2. The William Morris pub has applied for planning permission to become a micro brewery – so there’ll be craft beer on the former arts and crafts site …. mmmm beer

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