In the first of an occasional series of visits to historic houses, museums and art galleries, I take a look at the William Morris Gallery in London.
Anyone fancying a change from the well-known London museums and art galleries would be well advised to board a Victoria Line tube and head for its northern extremity, Walthamstow Central. Not far from the station the novelty-seeking lover of art – and craft – will find The Water House, now better known as the William Morris Gallery.
Here, the most energetic of the Pre-Raphaelites spent some of his teenage years. Recently refurbished rooms on two floors (all free of charge) take us through Morris’ life while opening our eyes to the remarkable achievements of this great craftsman and socialist.
When I visited on a hot Sunday afternoon the place was healthily bustling. Families gathered for light lunches in the conservatory-style café. Outside, the gardens leading out to Lloyd Park were looking threadbare, fenced off by high wooden stakes, but the paths were wide enough for the inevitable baby buggies. More mobile toddlers were drawn to a rockery and a bridge over a pond.
I had always known that Morris was a busy, busy man, but had presumed that this was because he spent his days on painstaking designs for wallpapers and evenings on hefty Icelandic-inspired poems. I now recognise that he was a businessman as well as artist, and his nine-to-five must have been spilling over with the work commissioned by owners of grand homes and the following-up of his own creative ideas.
That there were compromises to be made is not surprising, even for a stubbornly principled man. He may have abhorred the industrial division of labour, but it seems the men and women crouched over looms in his workshops did not pass enjoyably varied days. Factory-style production was a predictable consequence of the need to fulfil popular demand (and, in some cases, to achieve the machine-engineered perfection that the human hand could not).
Appreciation of the Pre-Raphaelites is a fragile commodity. I’ve liked them consistently, but can see why people are put off by the moralising, religious tone of some of the best known works. But there really is something for everyone among the Burne-Jones/Morris oeuvre represented at this north London gem, from stained glass windows to cushion covers. The dreamy, Arthurian Britishness of it all should win over even the most mildly romantic of visitors.