William Morris Gallery

In which I visit a charming museum and have a little too much to drink… again!

I love local museums and art galleries and always try to seek them out when I am travelling. Lots of towns still have a house tucked away somewhere, stuffed to the rafters with pottery, stuffed animals, mounted insects and butterflies, roman tiles, coins, sometimes even a mummy or two. Several of them also have substantial art collections. Some of them were the collections of Victorian travellers and explorers, sending bounty back home for the education of their townsfolk. When I was growing up in North London, it was Broomfield Park in Palmers Green to which I would eagerly go. This is, sadly, no longer open to the public and is slowly rotting away following a fire but many of these houses do survive. It is always a pleasure to find a museum tucked away in an unexpected place or in the corner of a public park. In Walthamstow, in North East London, is a museum dedicated to one of our foremost artistic and literary figures.

William Morris is primarily remembered as a designer and craftsman. Morris designs ‘rocked’ the Victorian age. They brought interior design out of grand mansions and into the middle-class villas of the expanding suburbs. They dragged Victorian interior design from the dark wood and heavy drapes of the morose mid-Victorian era and created light, beautiful spaces. So enthusiastic were the Victorians for these designs that they have become part of our design environment and reproductions of them are still popular today. You may not know who designed them or what they are called, but if you see ‘Chrysanthemun’ or ‘Snakeshead’, ‘Sweetbriar’ or ‘Willow’, I guarantee that you will recognise it immediately and, probably, remember a house from your childhood that was decorated with it.

William Morris

Morris was born, in 1834, at Marsh House, Walthamstow, where the gallery is now housed. He was sent to Oxford to train for the clergy. Whilst there, two life changing events befell him. Firstly, he met Edward Burne-Jones, who was to become his lifelong friend and collaborator and, secondly, he became disillusioned with the church and its teaching. William and Edward left Oxford for London, where Morris began training as an architect. He soon discovered a talent for design and, eventually, he set up his own company. He was inspired by John Ruskin’s revolutionary ideas about art and tried to produce beautiful, hand-made furnishings for the people, not just the better off. Morris was driven by a dislike for Victorian manufacturing processes, which he saw as soulless and exploitative. He was a committed socialist and a founder member of the Socialsist league. His home in Hammersmith hosted lectures on social reform from some of the foremost thinkers of the age, among them, George Bernard Shaw.

Morris was also well-known for his contribution to literature and was a prolific author, poet and translator. Some of his poems are built around his socialist beliefs in the dignity of labour and the need for social reform:

For that which the worker winneth
shall then be his indeed,
Nor shall half be reaped for nothing
by him that sowed no seed.”

The Day is Coming

Others reflect his love of ancient myth and legend, particularly Icelandic sagas, with which he had a lifelong fascination. He was also a prolific writer of fantasy fiction, such as ‘The Sundering Flood’, ‘The Well at the World’s End’ and The ‘Wood beyond the World’, which had a profound influence on a new generation of fantasy writers, among them JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.

I had agreed to meet my friend Mr Scott in Walthamstow on summer afternoon last year. He was in the area helping his brother to move house so, after first making clear that I would, under no circumstances, offer any help lifting heavy boxes (there are two things I don’t do: one is lift heavy boxes and the other is help) I availed myself of the opportunity to visit the museum before meeting an old friend for lunch. I made my from Walthamstow Central to Forest road, through the rich and vibrant suburb, where art galleries and rustic bakeries rub shoulders with the usual collection of takeaways and London Boozers, along with more barber’s shops than I would have thought a town of this size could support. The Museum sits in Lloyd park, just off the Forest Road, and is a stately sight from the busy London thoroughfare.

The exhibition is cleverly laid out, featuring separate galleries devoted to a different aspect of Morris’s life: there is an introduction to his life and work, the story of his initial forays into design and setting up his company and workshops. There is even a replica of the Morris & Co. shop on Oxford Street. I found the story fascinating and the designs intricate and beautiful. What I was really here for, however was on the first floor, where the story of the Kelmscott Press was presented.

Morris sets out his aims in founding the Kelmscott Press, William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow

Morris set up the Kelmscott Press in 1888. He believed that Victorian books were poorly made and mass produced and representative of all that was wrong with Victorian manufacture. He wanted to bring his ideas of affordable, beautiful design and traditional craftsmanship to the publishing industry. Morris’s idea was that a book should be a cohesive, beautiful object, with design, decoration and typeface all complementing each other. And they are certainly beautiful objects. In the gallery I was able to see examples of Morris’s own works, alongside his beautiful Canterbury Tales and the title page of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, and many other wonderful, beautiful books.

The Story of the Glittering Plain or the Land of the Living Men, William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow

The whole gallery was wonderful and I was sorry to leave but, despite the fan doing its best, the house was extremely hot. Too hot for tea even. There is a little tea shop in the gallery, and quite a nice little bookshop and I did visit the latter before I left. I met Mr. Scott just a short walk from the museum, in the Bell: a lovely, friendly, lively pub, that the young, trendy people in there would probably call ‘buzzing’. We took a seat in the small courtyard garden, enjoying the blazing heat of the English Summer. We sat and drank throughout the afternoon, moving into shade when seats became available and, aAs with all lunches with Mr Scott, the afternoon ended in a haze. I had a pleasant enough journey home, reading the books I had bought from the gallery on the train. That was the plan, anyway. I got home later that evening but, I cannot for the life of me remember how.

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