5 January 2015

William Morris at the NPG

Six years before he died, William Morris (1834-96) published his novel News from Nowhere (above right), set in an idealistic vision of 1952. Nearly 120 years after his death the UK may be far from being the particular Utopia he imagined but Morris’s legacy is hardly inaccessible. His homes at the Red House (South East London), Kelmscott Manor (Oxfordshire) and Kelmscott House (West London) can be visited, as can the William Morris Gallery (East London). Morris & Co lives on to produce “authentic versions of his original designs”, and has a handsome website which would surely have met with his approval. Moreover Morris is currently the subject of an exhibition at Modern Art Oxford (post to follow) and the National Portrait Gallery in London is showing Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860 – 1960 (above left).

As its title suggests this is an ambitious exhibition in terms of its scope but, perhaps inevitably, is constrained by its NPG location: not all that much space and its strengths being portrait painting and photography, for example GF Watts’ William Morris (1870, above left) and Frederick Hollyer’s William Morris (1884, above right and in the poster). Nonetheless anyone who has an interest in Morris will be pleased to see items which, although in public collections, are not always on show or accessible. For example, the Prioress's Tale wardrobe, painted by Edward Burne-Jones on the exterior, (1859, below left) and Morris’s own La Belle Iseult (1858, below left) for which his wife, Jane, was the model.

Perhaps wisely, given that Tate Britain’s Pre-Raphaelite blockbuster was only two years ago, the NPG show plays down Morris’s relationship with the Brotherhood (he was not one of the PRB seven) and instead gives visitors a chance to appreciate his other interests, like the Arts and Crafts movement, socialism in the years before the Labour party was founded in 1900 and the Suffragettes. Eric Gill (1882-1940) was one of many influenced by Arts and Crafts –Adam and Eve garden roller (1910-20, below upper) while a painting by Roger Fry of one of the Labour’s founders, Edward Carpenter (1894 below lower) provides a link to the Bloomsbury Group.

Various aspects of Morris’s legacy up to 1960 are examined in a fairly rapid succession: Cotswold Arts and Crafts, the Garden City Movement, particularly at Letchworth, and then, following the Second World War, the Festival of Britain and the flowering of one of its assistant designers, Terence Conran. In 2012 the V&A exhibition, British Design 1948–2012, had had the space to cover the latter period more thoroughly but some of its exhibits reappear here, for example Lucienne Day’s Calyx fabric (below left) produced for the Festival in 1951. The interesting portrait of Herbert Read by Patrick Heron (1950, below right) was given to the NPG in 1968 by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.

Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860 – 1960 ends on 11 January.

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