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  • Articles by Sonali

    William Morris Gallery - Lloyd Park, Walthamstow

    The William Morris Gallery in Water House, Forest Road, Walthamstow is a three-storey Grade II listed Georgian building where Morris lived from 1848 until 1856. As home to the polymath William Morris – artist, poet, writer, textile designer, businessman, philosopher and political activist – it examines the different strands of his extraordinary life.

    The Gallery was extensively refurbished and reopened to the public in 2012 with the refit being funded by a £5 million lottery grant. The result is an inviting space – light and airy and full of character. Period features such as the striking winding staircase, high ceilings, ornate cornices and wooden floorboards have been restored and enhanced. Morris’s career, achievements and legacy are explained with clarity in a series of nine rooms over two floors. It’s impressive that his story can be told in full here, under one roof. The building has been extended to include a cafe which overlooks scenic Lloyd Park.

    At the outset is a display entitled Meet the Man, providing a glimpse into aspects of his varied career under different categories. The labels are written in simple language aimed at children and school groups.

    Morris said ‘Don’t copy any style at all, but make your own’ alongside a framed original design for the printed textile African Marigold, where we see his imagination in action and working process. This introductory display includes a piece of tapestry, a stained glass window, political leaflets and miniature portraits of his mother Emma, and father William Senior, a successful city businessman. Morris was born on 24 March 1834 in Elm House also in Walthamstow.

    We learn about Morris’s influences. While at University he met and befriended Edward Burne-Jones, his lifelong collaborator. Both men set out to be artists and poets. They were concerned about the wider effects of Industrialisation, especially the Victorian trend for factory-produced home furnishings. They both looked to Medieval Art for inspiration, in line with the writings of art critic and tastemaker John Ruskin of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. We see a sketch of Rouen Cathedral, an example of Gothic architecture; a drawing by Durer, greatly admired by Morris, and the painting Saint George and the Dragon (1868) by Burne-Jones.

    There’s a series of charming vintage photographs of his family. This includes a picture of his wife Jane Morris (nee Burden) with his youngest daughter May, taken in Red House in Bexley Heath, their first family property. A sketch of the floor plan, designed by architect Phillip Webb is positioned nearby. The property was decorated by Morris himself, when he discovered his talent for interior design.

    Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, an interior design business was established in 1861 with six other business partners including Burne-Jones and Phillip Webb. The company’s understated designs with their muted tones and medieval feel (wallpaper, textiles, tiles, carpet, furniture, stained glass windows etc.) gradually found favour, winning prestigious commissions like the Green Dining Room at the Victoria and Albert Museum. We see framed examples of the original bespoke designs such as the Chrysanthemum wallpaper produced for Rounton Grange, which were created to decorate the homes of super-wealthy industrialists. We’re told that Morris was worried because his work often seemed to focus around them. To compensate, he developed an affordable range of furnishings, including the Sussex chair, to make his wares more accessible. The ‘everyday’ wallpaper designs would easily complement a Victorian terraced property. Despite his contradictory motivations, Morris was a savvy businessman, using famous artists, such as Dante Gabriel Rosseti, to boost the firm's reputation. In 1875 he bought out the other partners and launched Morris & Co. There’s an interactive screen where visitors can devise a strategy for Morris & Co which will appeal to budding entrepreneurs.

    The recreated ramshackle workshop is perhaps the highlight of the permanent display. It points at the firm’s emphasis on craftsmanship, adding value to the Morris & Co brand. It was his lifelong ambition to revive traditional crafts. There’s video footage demonstrating how tapestries and stained glass windows are made and how fabrics and wallpaper are printed using woodblocks. We see displays of printed cloth featuring birds, flowers and lots of leaves inspired by the countryside and his childhood walks in Epping Forest. The design for Strawberry Thief is a scene lifted from his own back garden, poeticized in fabric. He often looked further afield for inspiration. He turned to Indian textiles in terms of their pattern and jewel-like colours (he admired the use of natural dyes). An eye catching tile display refers to designs from the Middle East and the Netherlands. He favoured Turkey and Persia (Iran) for carpet patterns based on Arabesque traditions.

    There’s even a room which recreates the plush Morris & Co shop, complete with catalogues for carpets and wallpaper, which was located in Oxford Street. In the last years of his life, Morris established a printing company, the Kelmscott Press and began designing and printing books, based on his collection of medieval manuscripts. He set about developing new typefaces drawing on medieval calligraphy for inspiration. A reproduction of Kelmscott’s masterpiece, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, is on display. 

    In 1884 Morris joined the burgeoning Socialist movement, a decision which might have distanced him from the rest of the Arts and Crafts community. He challenged his privileged background and took on the cause of people living in Victorian slums. We see the brown leather satchel in which he carried leaflets when he went campaigning. In 1877 he and Phillip Webb also established the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) and called for action to protect the countryside from pollution, another effect of Industrialisation. In 1890 Morris published the ‘News from Nowhere’. This was his vision for a better future.

    The William Morris Gallery is certainly beautiful and takes in the collection of arts and crafts and the splendid architecture of Water House surrounded by Lloyd Park. What’s more, Morris’s story is underpinned by a contemporary message given his focus on the environment, business and politics. It’s intriguing to see how the understated display illuminates Morris’s philosophy and his personality. He was a visionary who really thought he could change the world. His textile designs have a timeless appeal. And his belief that household objects should be both beautiful and functional also rings true today.

    The gallery adds some sparkle to Walthamstow and his legacy also lives on through various societies including the Arts & Crafts Movement which he helped establish with John Ruskin, in the 1880s.

    William Morris Gallery, Lloyd Park, Forest Road, London E17 4PP



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