London for William Morris Fans
When London’s William Morris Gallery (http://www.wmgallery.org.uk) reopened to the public this year after a multimillion-dollar refurbishment, aficionados of the father of England’s arts and crafts movement packed their curlicue-patterned suitcases and rolled in for a visit.
But the city that was home to the designer, artist and campaigning writer for much of his 19th-century life has more than one attraction for Morris-minded travellers – so long as you know where to look.
Museum of beauty
The first stop for anyone, though, should be the newly renovated William Morris Gallery. Colonizing a handsome Georgian villa in Walthamstow’s Lloyd Park, Morris lived here with his mother and siblings for eight years until the age of 22, experimenting with the artsy ideas that would inform his later life. More than 50 years after his 1896 death, the house was transformed into a gallery and is now a free-entry museum showcasing his pioneering work.
Within its nine artifact-packed rooms, visitors can peruse Morris’s rich wallpaper designs – often dense patterns of lush foliage – as well the highly decorative tapestries, furniture and stained glass windows that became the backbone of Morris and Co. This was the trailblazing design firm he created to supply the fashionable interiors of many well-to-do Victorian homes.
But Morris wasn’t just a designer. The museum’s upstairs exhibits explore his radical politics, illuminating a campaigning socialist who lectured across the country about what he saw as the dehumanizing effects of industrialization on the working classes. In his bestselling utopian novel, News From Nowhere – there’s a lavishly illustrated edition here – he suggested tantalizing glimpses of his perfect world.
Needless to say, art, creativity and beauty were the common foundations of both his politics and his design ideals – this is the man who said “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” It’s a central philosophy that’s explored even further in a Morris attraction that may also be London’s finest arts and crafts home.
The experimental paint box of Morris and his arty chums Philip Webb and Edward Burne-Jones, Red House (http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/redhouse) in Bexleyheath was completed in 1860. Described by Morris as a “palace of art,” its steeply gabled roof and rustic redbrick exterior fused his love for the Gothic mediaeval look with the decorative functionality of his emerging arts and crafts principles.
The only building Morris ever designed to live in himself, financial pressures forced him to sell after just five years. Heartbroken at having to abandon his dream home, he vowed never to return. Described by Pre-Raphaelite friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti as “more a poem than a house,” it was in private ownership for almost 150 years before the National Trust acquired it, opening it to eager Morris fans in 2003.
Visiting Red House today – with its interior arches, round upstairs windows and splendid country garden – is like stepping into Morris’s presence. Some rooms are studded with his monumental, almost church-like wooden furniture while friezes, embroideries and painted wall tiles and windowpanes recall a man convinced of the uplifting power of beautiful decoration.
Context is key
By the time Morris died, the arts and crafts movement was firmly established, paving the way for the even more decorative art nouveau and art deco ideals that would soon follow. But before leaving the city, London visitors have plenty of additional opportunities to see just how important Morris was in the history of design.
South Kensington’s Victoria & Albert Museum (http://www.vam.ac.uk) holds an extensive collection of Morris work, from wallpapers to furnishings and from tiles to tapestries. And there’s also a preserved Morris & Co. interior: the firm was commissioned in the 1860s to create the museum’s Green Dining Room; it’s now a walk-though exhibit of forest-hued wallpaper and painted wood-paneling, complete with elegant stained glass windows.
Context is also key at East London’s excellent, free-entry Geffrye Museum (http://www.geffrye-museum.org.uk). A transformed row of 18th-century almshouses, the museum’s 13 antique-lined living rooms illuminate 400 years of home interiors. The 1890 room has some Morrisian flourishes but the 1910 room has a real arts and crafts feel – look out for the Morris & Co. rush chair in the hallway.
Morris’s last London home was Kelmscott House in Hammersmith, a handsome Georgian mansion on the banks of the River Thames. He leased it in 1878, building a tapestry loom soon after and staging regular socialist gatherings with speakers including George Bernard Shaw.
Now a private residence, the William Morris Society (http://www.williammorrissociety.org) occupies its small coach house, opening to the public on Thursday and Saturday afternoons. Its collection is dominated by the printing press that Morris used in his final years to produce some of the most beautifully illustrated books ever created. Many of them are on display to visiting Morris fans.