Review: Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, at the National Portrait Gallery, London

NPG 1078; William Morris by George Frederic Watts

Portrait of William Morris, G.F. Watts, 1870

2. morris by frederic hollyer

Portrait of William Morris, Frederic Hollyer, 1887

This week I visited the National Portrait Gallery’s William Morris spectacular: Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy.  The exhibition successfully displays Morris’s own unique and extensive talents (textile designer, poet, novelist, translator, social activist, Pre-Raphaelite associate, publisher), whilst equally revealing how he informed and inspired the artistic practices of successive generations and of most domestic design since his death; the exhibition takes us right up to the Festival of Britain in 1951. Most welcome is the theme of political activism that runs throughout the exhibition, and for which Morris is as well known as he is for his contribution to the Arts and Crafts movement; in our current atmosphere of political apathy and disappointment, it’s refreshing to remember how far we’ve come since Morris’s time, and to note that art and design played an active role in manufacturing change. For example, on display are suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst‘s Angel of Freedom design for the Women’s Social and Political Union imprinted on Suffragette paraphernalia, as well as Walter Crane‘s banner designs for trade unions.

 Wallpaper by William Morris

‘Daisy’ wallpaper by William Morris

4. WSPU badge

The Angel of Death designed by Sylvia Pankhurst, on a WSPU badge

It’s also invigorating to visit an exhibition with a healthy portion of female subjects:  Arts and Crafts were particularly open-minded and democratic for their time and the curator Fiona MacCarthy has used this exhibition highlight women whose achievements had previously been overshadowed by those of their male contemporaries: from Mary Lowndes (a suffragette-turned-stained glass artist), Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl the Communist) all the way to Lucienne Day, whose instantly recognisable Calyx fabric hangs proudly behind Terence Conran‘s famous basket-weave cone chair. For inhabitants of West London, and for the Boundary Space studio (based as we are in Fulham), there is a particular local interest in this story as well. Morris lived at Kelmscott House in Hammersmith (which can be visited today) and also ran his political activism from that area by setting up the Hammersmith Socialist League there, (on display at NPG is Morris’s membership card designed by Walter Crane) and inspired William De Morgan, an bourgeois gentleman who took up ceramics and was directed by Morris to the Fulham Pottery at Sands End, just around the corner from our base in Fulham Palace, where he created the beautiful lustreware vase on display in the exhibition.

5. The_church_of_SS_Peter_and_Paul_in_Shropham_-_stained_glass_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1761429

Stained glass window at the church of SS Peter and Paul in Shropham, by Mary Lowndes

6. calyx and cone chair

Calyx fabric by Lucienne Day, and cone chair by Terence Conran, on display at the National Portrait Gallery, London

7. kelmscott-house-body

Kelmscott House, Hammersmith, London

The exhibition is an unusual one for the NPG as it includes very few actual portraits of Morris at all; he famously hated his own image and banned mirrors from his house. However, insofar as it is a portrait of a great man and his legacy, it is enormously successful. One leaves the exhibition with the feeling that yes, life would be improved if it centred around the simple satisfaction of artisanal creation. Our advanced technologies, shiny sparkly consumerism and sophisticated metropolitan lives are all very well, but truly Morris must have been right when he categorically stated that happiness and contentment are to be found in the unity of man and nature, and the pride in manually labouring over an object of great beauty and/or utility. If this has proved unachievable in a post-modern society though, at least Morris’s main dream has been realised for the most part: that anyone, regardless of class, race or gender, can have good design in their homes and access to beauty. He famously urged us to “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”, and this challenge was taken up by Terence Conran some 80 years later when he opened the first Habitat store on the British high street in 1964.  It seems odd that we can trace something so commercial and mundane to an artist and craftsman of the highest standing, political activist and theoretician to boot. But this is Morris’s charm: he refused separate high art from everyday lives, and for this, we should be thankful.

8. Hammersmith-Socialist-League

William Morris’s membership card for the Hammersmith Socialist League, designed by Walter Crane

9. bottle kiln at fulham pottery today

The Bottle Kiln at Fulham Pottery today

Anarchy & Beauty. William Morris and his Legacy, 1860-1960 exbibition, National Portrait Gallery, London, Britain - 15 Oct 2014

Lustreware pot by William de Morgan

The exhibition runs until 11 January 2015.

By Helena Louise Cuss

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