London for William Morris fans
London's William Morris Gallery is a free museum showcasing the designer’s pioneering work. (John Lee)
When London’s William Morris Gallery reopened to the public in August 2012 after a two-year, multimillion-pound refurbishment, aficionados of the father of England’s Arts and Crafts movement packed their curlicue-patterned suitcases and rolled in for a visit. The movement – which reached the height of its influence between 1860 and 1910 – saw the emergence of handcrafted design ideals as an antidote to what some saw as an age of low-quality machine-made items.
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 – if you know where to look.
Museum of beauty
The first stop for any fan should be the newly renovated William Morris Gallery. Colonising a handsome Georgian villa in Walthamstow’s Lloyd Park in northeast London, Morris lived here with his mother and siblings for eight years until the age of 22, experimenting with the arty 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 museum showcasing his pioneering work.
Within its nine artefact-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 & Co, the trailblazing design firm he created in the 1860s to supply the fashionable interiors of many well-to-do Victorian homes.
But Morris was not just a designer. The museum’s upstairs exhibits – particularly his books, pamphlets and lectures – 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 (do not miss the lavishly illustrated edition in the museum) he suggested tantalizing glimpses of his perfect world. In the book, there are no schools, marriage is abolished and a society at harmony with nature keeps its citizens busy with creative and enjoyable work.
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 is a central philosophy that is explored even further in another 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 (who both helped him design and decorate it), Red House in the southeastern London suburb of Bexleyheath was completed in 1860. Described by Morris as a “palace of art”, the house’s steeply gabled roof and rustic redbrick exterior fused his love for the Gothic medieval 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 the Red House 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’ 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 free-entry Victoria & Albert Museum holds an extensive collection of Morris’ work, from wallpaper to furnishings and from tiles to tapestries. And there is also a preserved Morris & Co interior: the firm was commissioned in the 1860s to create the museum’s Green Dining Room; it is now a walk-though exhibit of forest-hued wallpaper and painted wood-panelling, complete with elegant stained glass windows.