The William Morris Gallery is one of those venues in London which makes you wonder, when you finally get there, what took you so long.
I knew a little about its namesake, William Morris, before my visit: could have told you that he was a designer and identified some of his designs; was aware, also, that he was a founding father of socialism – but that would have been pretty much it. Where better, then, to learn more about him than in the house that William called home during his teenage years?
The Gallery was renovated prior to the 2012 London Olympics – and looks amazing. It’s a beautiful, light, airy building and I was enthralled by its various exhibitions about William’s family, life and work. Here’s a little of what I learned…
William Morris was born in 1834, in Walthamstow – in those days, a village in the Essex countryside. You may be surprised, like me, to hear that he came from an affluent family: his father was a stockbroker and commuted into London by stagecoach. When William was six, the family moved to a mansion on the edge of Epping Forest with a 50-acre park; here, William experienced an idyllic childhood, exploring the woods with his Shetland pony, dressed in his very own suit of armour. He loved Epping Forest, and explored it inch by inch – it is where his interest in textiles stemmed from, sparked by a visit to Queen Elizabeth I’s hunting lodge, where the rooms were hung, floor to ceiling, with tapestries.
School, for William, was somewhat less idyllic. Having been a sickly child (during which period he developed a life-long love of books), he was sent to Marlborough College aged 13. He did not perform well at his studies, and spent most of his time exploring the surrounding countryside. Eventually, his family withdrew him from the school and hired a private tutor to prepare him for university.
In the meantime, William’s father had died and the Morris family moved to Water House – now the William Morris Gallery. Although not as opulent as the family’s previous homes, this was still a luxurious residence, complete with kitchen gardens, stables, a moat and the extensive grounds which now form beautiful Lloyd Park.
William gained a place at Oxford University – and a whole, new, influential chapter of his life began. It was there that he met fellow artist and life-long friend Edward Burne-Jones. It was also where he met Jane Burden: a stunningly attractive woman, she used to model for William and his artist friends. He would go on to marry Jane in 1859, despite the reservations of his family about her very poor background.
This wasn’t the only time that William would upset his family. His mother had long nurtured an ambition for her son to become a clergyman – he, however, had other ideas and there’s some revealing correspondence between them on display, in which William defends his decision to become an architect.
During their time at Oxford, both William and Burne-Jones were heavily influenced by the writings of John Ruskin and his abhorrence of what he perceived as the moral bankruptcy of Victorian art and society. Ruskin was in favour of a return to the values of the medieval past – a view which appealed to William’s rebellious nature and instinctive appreciation of times gone by.
It was through Ruskin that William and Burne-Jones discovered the group of young painters known as the Pre-Raphaelites, whose defiance of the art establishment both admired greatly. They soon became friendly with DG Rossetti, with whom they formed a business (and with whom Jane would have an affair), winning their first commission with Oxford University in 1857. It was an unmitigated disaster.
Undeterred, the group persevered, with William discovering a passion for interior design through decorating his own home, Red House (some of whose furniture is on display in the Gallery). As is often the case, it was a stroke of luck which propelled William et al into the big time: winning a commission in 1860 to decorate the Armoury and Tapestry Rooms at St James’s Palace, and another to refurbish the refreshment room in South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria & Albert Museum).
I loved learning about William’s approach to his work; he was so passionate about everything he did, be it decorating, embroidery, wood-engraving or calligraphy. His love of rich, jewel-like colours shines through in the beautiful objects I saw today, such as this stained glass window:
It wasn’t just his attitude towards his work which set William apart, though – it was the way in which he treated his employees and everyone else around him. Quoted as saying that he wanted a world “in which all men would be living in equal condition, and would manage their affairs unwastefully”, William believed that more could be achieved if like-minded people worked together.
Aged nearly 50, William declared himself a socialist – a deeply radical move, then. At the heart of his beliefs was an overwhelming desire for social equality, which he believed could only be achieved by demolishing the class system and bringing about a revolution. The final section of the Gallery goes in to much more detail on this subject – every bit as interesting as the earlier exhibitions about William’s childhood, university days and career.
Human beings are contradictory creatures though, aren’t they? From what I learned today, the irony was not lost upon William that, social equality campaigner and caring employer he might be, but his interior design business made hefty profits by selling products that only the very wealthy could afford; some of his clients were very high-profile indeed, and photos of their commissions can be found in the Gallery, together with examples of the wallpaper, friezes, carpets and ceramics used.
I loved the time I spent in this beautiful building, getting to know William Morris. He would approve of what they’ve done with the place, of that I feel sure – and be rightly proud that his legacy, in so many different ways, lives on.