The wide-ranging influence of Victorian designer, artist, furniture-maker, poet and social reformer William Morris is explored in a new exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery. Far more than a straightforward display of portraits, the exhibition includes drawings, paintings, objects, textiles and writings by Morris and his contemporaries, and later artists and designers who were influenced by his work, as well as artifacts and ephemera, including his gold-tooled handmade copy of Karl Marx’s “Le Capital” (in French), the spectacular hand-painted “Prioress’s Tale” wardrobe by Edward Burne-Jones (on loan from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), together with jewelery by C. R. Ashbee, Eric Gill’s erotic “Adam and Eve” garden roller, and Edward Carpenter’s “socialist sandals” that began a sandal-wearing craze among the English left-wing intelligentsia (which some might argue continues today among a similar demographic).
As a child growing up in a middle-class British home in the 1960s and ’70s, I found William Morris’s wallpaper and textile designs very familiar, with his nature-inspired prints and their twining rose-briars, birds and small animals. Even as a young child, I had an idea that these designs were in some way special, and later a visit to Standen, the home of Philip Webb, the designer and architect who worked closely with Morris, helped to put my parents’ taste in interior design in context. We also had pottery by Bernard Leach, another Morris “follower,” prints by John Piper and books about Eric Gill.
Morris’s sensibilities about design and functionality, that one should “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” still hold true today; one of the leading exponents of Morris’s design philosophy is the British designer Sir Terence Conran, who describes himself as “an entrepreneurial designer interested in the quality of life” and who has actively embraced Morris’s original campaign for making good design available to everyone through the establishment of his Habitat stores in the 1960s. Conran’s designs are featured in the exhibition as an example of the ongoing influence of Morris, together with work by other British designers Robin and Lucienne Day, and the creative team behind the Festival of Britain.
Morris believed that beautifully made, hand-crafted objects and furniture could not only enhance one’s physical domestic landscape but also one’s mental well-being. He believed art was for the people, and vital within society, bringing together people of varying backgrounds and nationalities. Alongside this, his preoccupations with craft skills and the environment, locally sourced goods and vernacular traditions find common ground today with, for example, the environmental movement and those concerned with sustainable design, and even the “slow food” and anti-globalization movements.
But Morris’s preoccupations went beyond the artistic. He was fervently interested in social reform and, concerned by the extreme inequalities of Victorian Britain, he joined the early socialist movement and began writing pamphlets and even a novel (“News from Nowhere”) which promoted radical utopian ideals of fair conditions for workers, equality between men and women, sexual freedom, health care for all, and living unwastefully. He was interested in overturning the accepted values and social mores of his time, and was associated with Russian anarchists Prince Peter Kropotkin and Sergey Stepniak, as well as the movements for women’s suffrage and education; one of his closest female associates was Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx.
In a succession of elegant displays, the exhibition shows how the “art for the people” ethos had its origins in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s challenging of accepted attitudes to art and John Ruskin’s assertion that every human being has inherent creative talent and that handwork was not inferior to brainwork. Furniture, glassware, china, textiles, wallpaper designs and jewelery are displayed, together with paintings and drawings, showing Morris to be a fine draftsman. The exhibition extends beyond Morris’s death in 1896 and reveals his influence on the National Trust and the Garden City Movement and the work of C.F.A. Voysey, Patrick Geddes and Raymond Unwin, pioneering home furnishing shops such as Ambrose Heals (which still exists today), leading craft practitioners of the 1920s and ’30s, including potters Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew and the weaver Edith Mairet, who evolved alternative ways of life and work in an increasingly industrial and materialistic age. There are also displays focusing on the Festival of Britain and British government-supported Council of Industrial Design, both of which drew inspiration from William Morris’s ideals. Taken as a whole, with its eemphasis on beautifully crafted objects, the exhibition seeks to demonstrate ways in which William Morris’s radical thinking still affects the way we live our lives today.