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
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
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
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.
Context is also key at East London’s excellent,
Museum. A transformed row of 18th-century almshouses, the museum’s
13 antique-line 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 chair in the hallway.
Morris’ 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 occupies its small coach house, opening its
exhibition space 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,
including his celebrated, richly decorated Kelmscott
edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Many of Morris’s books and
writings are on permanent display in the society’s onsite library.