As a child William Morris lived near Epping Forest, a place he would later describe as “always interesting and always beautiful”.
Kathy Haslam, curator of Blackwell and co-curator of this exhibition with Helen Elletson, curator of Kelmscott House, sees Morris’s sense of place as a thread running through his life and work. The exhibition tries to show how important place was to him. It looks at the successive places where he lived and worked and shows the logical development from his early love of nature and history, through his designs to beautify his personal surroundings and the founding of the Firm to create good design for a wider public, and his conservation work, to his campaigning for a fairer society through revolutionary socialism.
In the first room we see designs for Morris and Co. These include “Design for Jasmine wallpaper” (pencil and watercolour), an earthenware tile panel, “Poppy”, and a screen panel, “Apple Tree” (wood, silk; designed by JH Dearle). These are simple yet very complicated and subtle and beautiful. The second room moves on to Kelmscott Manor in the Cotswolds, which Morris used as a retreat from London from 1871, and Merton Abbey, Morris’s works in Surrey from 1881.
Morris was always keen to learn new craft techniques. In the mid-1870s he spent much time in Leek learning textile and dyeing techniques at Thomas Wardle’s silk works. The experience confirmed his love of art and manufacture, and seeing the impoverished workforce in the town’s many mills strengthened his hatred of commerce and moneymaking and paved the way for his conversion to socialism.
Merton Abbey was where the Firm produced textiles, tapestries and stained glass. Here he tried to create an environment that gave his employees rest for the soul and brought them closer to mature. He created a flower garden and a vegetable garden on site with plots for his employees.
Among the exhibits in the second room are a “Hammersmith” rug, an adjustable armchair designed in 1861 by Philip Webb, and Morris’s “design for Willow Boughs wallpaper”, 1887. The armchair looks a little low, but otherwise extremely comfortable. Looked at closely, the leaves in “Willow Boughs” are stylised, but the overall effect of the design is a tangle of living branches. It is also a harmonious and ordered pattern.
A small final room displays items relating to Morris’s socialism – original copies of several of his booklets and his membership card of the Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist League, designed by Morris himself. The cover of the Social and Political Manifesto of the Democratic Federation, “Socialism Made Plain”, exhorts its readers to “Educate. Agitate. Organise”. Also in the display is “Under an Elm Tree or thoughts in the countryside”.
At first I thought it would be better if there had also been modern copies of these books on a table in the gallery for visitors to study, but on reflection, there is already a lot of information on the walls. Any more would have been too much to take in.
This is an inspiring exhibition in a wonderful Arts& Crafts house designed by Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, in a setting that is always interesting and always beautiful, with views of Windermere, the Coniston fells and the Langdale Pikes.