William Morris – Retro by Design

Looking for somewhere interesting to take my parents last week during one of their increasingly infrequent visits, I discovered a real gem just twenty minutes by car from here. I must have passed it dozens of times on my way to and from Stansted Airport but never gave it a second thought. However, this surprisingly modern-looking building which can be seen clearly from the main road is actually a Georgian villa. It was home to none other than the great William Morris during his childhood and is now a wonderful tribute to him and his work, set in several acres of delightful parkland.

This is in fact the only building of its kind dedicated to his life and memory, and has the most comprehensive collections of his creative output in the world. How I could have missed it for the past three decades beats me, but there you go. We spend years looking for exotic places to visit in the far-flung reaches of Europe and beyond, whilst all the time a place like this is hiding in clear view a mere stone’s throw away, practically in our own back yard.

Morris was a writer, designer and political activist who rebelled against the increasing conformity and mechanisation of the Victorian era. His head was full of things like Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, gothic cathedrals and hand-printed books. I have a facsimile copy of his Wood beyond the World and it’s a real object of beauty, printed in black letter Gothic script and with lovely ink drawings.

The galleries are arranged in such a way that each provides the visitor with a different personal aspect of Morris’s life. So there’s a general introduction to the man and his times in Gallery 1, moving on through a background to the Pre-Raphaelites in Gallery 2 and a workshop in Gallery 4 showcasing his extraordinary commitment to craftsmanship and quality.

He became a radical socialist later in life, dedicating his remaining energies to the foundation of a fair and free world in which art was available to everyone. He inspired generations of craftspeople united by their enthusiasm for hand-craftsmanship and the use of quality materials.

The house itself was built in the 1740s and is a prime example of Georgian domestic architecture. The great man lived here until his early twenties, from 1848 to 1856, and he wrote his first poetic pieces in the alcove of a window on the main staircase.

Opened to the public in 1950, the Gallery houses Frank Brangwyn’s extensive collection of William Morris’s work, which he donated to the people of Walthamstow. Lloyd Park provides the natural setting. It is a public recreation ground now but for centuries before that it was a private estate, and Morris recounts how he used to use the moat for fishing and boating when he was young.

I was full of admiration, although my dad – famous for his cynicism – remarked that Morris seemed to him to be just another rich boy with the means to indulge his pet passion. The thought had indeed crossed my mind, but on the other hand it would have been easy for him to have simply sat back and enjoyed his inheritance without lifting a finger. The fact that he chose to devote himself to creating so much beauty, and to standing as a figurehead against the rampant capitalism and consumerism that increasingly blights our lives, is I think a big mark in his favour.

I for one felt very comfortable and very much at home amongst the etchings of Chartres Cathedral, woodcuts in the style of Durer, handmade wallpaper and books, and exquisite Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Morris commented that as a boy he’d felt that he’d been born into the wrong century, and I can readily share in that conceit.

Call me old-fashioned, but you can give me gargoyles, vellum and woodcuts any day over our vacuous media personalities, the internet and mass-produced, consumer-driven, tasteless trash. As he said, we need real art in our lives as never before, and if that was true in his day then it’s infinitely truer now.

The trouble is that an appreciation of, say, Wagner’s Ring or Joyce’s Ulysses requires an effort before the dividends start to pay off. With the next generation typically having an attention span of a nanosecond, today’s kids look like being effectively barred from the enjoyment of such rare pleasures as adults.

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