But Morris was much more than just a craftsman: he was a poet, storyteller and socialist. For Morris, art was essential to a fulfilling life and he was angered by the poverty, environmental pollution and terrible working conditions of Victorian life.
The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow reopened in August after a long and hard fought battle by local people to keep this inspiring place at the heart of their community. In 2007 Waltham Forest council closed the museum on weekdays and sacked its expert staff. The Friends of William Morris Gallery campaigned to reopen the museum and saved its world class collections. Despite the council’s protestations that Morris was no longer relevant to Walthamstow, this major redevelopment manages to show not only the beauty of his craftsmanship but also the significance of his political ideas.
The gallery’s home is the Georgian manor house where Morris spent his teenage years, following his birth in Walthamstow in 1834. Spread over two floors, Morris’s values run throughout the gallery, with different sections focusing on his art, his design and his politics.
Morris’s links to the local area are celebrated throughout. During Morris’s life Walthamstow was not the vibrant part of east London it is today, but an Essex suburb on the edge of Epping Forest. Morris drew inspiration from the surroundings he grew up around, with some of the most beautiful pieces on display being those that incorporate the animals and plants.
The environment was not just an inspiration for Morris’s art, but also a consideration in his politics. As industrial capitalism took hold, he campaigned against environmental destruction and the exploitation of the world’s natural resources. Morris believed that “there is no square mile of earth’s inhabitable surface that is not beautiful in its own way, if we men will only abstain from wilfully destroying that beauty.”
One contributor to a video in a room focusing on Morris’s socialism credits him as one of the first environmental campaigners. Although he came to socialism relatively late in his life, presented in the gallery is a wonderful selection of Morris’s political pamphlets and books. These include issues of Commonweal, the paper of the Socialist League – the party of Morris and Eleanor Marx – and News From Nowhere, his look at what a future socialist society would look like.
Morris led the Arts and Crafts movement, a group of artists who looked to traditional crafts as inspiration and resisted industrialisation, mass production and consumerism. The gallery also presents the work of Morris’s contemporaries. Detailed stained glass panels by William de Morgan and paintings by Edward Coley Burne-Jones are some of the highlights. Morris had a great influence on other artists, but some of the more unusual and beautiful works belong not to Morris but to these men and women.
More unexpected influences on Morris’s work are also explored. Traditional crafts of Persia and the Middle East greatly interested him, and he drew much inspiration from them, incorporating their techniques in his own work.
As well as the permanent collections, a changing space is currently given over to Everyday Encounters, an exhibition that responds to Morris’s assertion that you “should have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”. Here members of the Society of Designer Craftsmen – set up by Morris – present a varied selection of glasswork, textiles, prints and ceramics.
The most impressive works are those that relate clearly to Morris’s own approach: Peter Moss presents ceramic dishes inspired by the colours and spacing of his work, whereas Kate Standen’s “Dockpool” are beautiful pieces of sculptural ceramics that evoke the natural world.
Previously the temporary exhibition space held the wonderful Walthamstow Tapestry by Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry, connecting with the local area just as Morris did.
It is exactly because it is not just his art on show that the campaign to save the William Morris Gallery has been more than worthwhile. Throughout this place you get a real sense of what this inspiring activist and artist was all about.
The gallery is free and open Wednesday to Saturday, 10-5pm
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