William Morris is best known as a prolific poet and artist. But his socialist politics are also on display throughout this National Portrait Gallery exhibition.
There’s a huge reproduction of his Socialist League membership card in the reception.
Different radicals’ and artists’ reactions to Morris’s legacy hang on the wall. But a tension runs throughout the exhibition, between understanding how socialist politics informed his art and just looking at his aesthetic legacy.
The first room focuses on Morris’s socialism, with original copies of his utopian novel News from Nowhere.
Morris was won to socialism relatively late during his life. But it had a crucial impact on his art. He argued that capitalism robbed working people of their innate creativity—and that for the “new art” to be born, capitalism would have to go too.
But Morris wasn’t just a dreamer. There’s a copy of the Socialist Diary, written at the height of his political activity in the late 1880s.
Walking into the second room, there’s a sketch by Dante Gabriel Rossetti where Morris plays his muse. Rossetti’s rejection of the Royal Academy was a big influence on Morris.
There’s several interesting portraits of radicals, but it also reminds us of some important parts of socialist history.
There’s a striking portrait of Edward Carpenter, Morris’s comrade and one of the first campaigners for LGBT rights.
Natural forms were an important influence on Morris’s art—in particular his wallpaper designs that are on display. This reflected his opposition to how the Industrial Revolution was destroying the natural world. But the tension becomes more apparent as the focus turns to his impact on subsequent art movements.
We see his impact on the Arts and Craft movement, which resisted capitalism’s mass production. Then there’s a whole installation about the Garden City movement, which looked back to self-sufficient rural communities.
Perhaps this partly reflects contradictions in Morris’s opposition to capitalism. But this quickly degenerates into celebrating the 1951 capitalist showcase, the Festival of Britain.
Yet even with its limitations, this exhibition doesn’t try to hide Morris’s socialist politics from its broad audience. That can only be a good thing.