The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, east London, has won this year’s £100,000 Art Fund prize Museum of the Year.
William Morris is famous as the Victorian artist who said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
His revolutionary socialism is less well known but it is now at the heart of the gallery.
The gallery was set up in 1950 after a campaign by artists Walter Spradbery, Frank Brangwyn and Arthur Mackmurdo.
It was to be a place for Morris’ work and all related works from the Arts and Crafts movement.
They also donated the core collection of work to the people of Walthamstow.
After a struggle with the local council, Waltham Forest, Morris’s famous saying “Fellowship is life” became the borough slogan.
The gallery now has one of the finest collections of applied art, from furniture ceramics, tapestry, and textiles to wallpaper and stained glass.
Waltham Forest council tried to close the gallery in 1988 to save money.
It was saved by a massive campaign.
The council’s cuts in 2007 again threatened the gallery.
One Labour councillor was heard to remark, “Who cares about an old bearded white man?”.
Another intense fight by artists and socialists saved the gallery and led to intervention by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
It has since been remodelled by sympathetic architects and is now more open and engaging for visitors. This led to it winning the prize.
However the pragmatism of the council covers its philistinism and means that the gallery is still open to attack. We will be watching them.