The home of William Morris
An archive embracing the designer, poet, author, philosopher and socialist
Words: Jane Audas
Photography: William Morris Gallery and Vitsœ
To most, William Morris (1834-1896) was an English wallpaper and textile designer, heavy on pattern and colour. But to his Victorian contemporaries, he was best known as a poet, perhaps the most respectable of his many occupations. His fame as a designer came later. He ran a long-lived and successful interior decorating business: Morris & Co (whose designs are still sold under licence to this day). But there may have been too much of a whiff of ‘trade’ about it to be considered gentlemanly. And his lifelong socialist politics (surely) were best swept under a nice carpet. Morris’s life and work were also entwined with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists and poets, who were fond (as was Morris) of Arthurian legends and imagery depicting women with waterfall tresses and rosebud lips (Morris married one of these women, the Pre-Raphelite muse Jane Burden).
Today, in north-east London, you can find the museum that bears Morris’s name tucked into a corner of Walthamstow’s Lloyd Park. Built in 1762, William Morris Gallery (WMG) is a handsome listed Georgian house, originally known as The Water House because there was (and is) a moat in the park behind the building that had outlived the earlier house it once protected. The Water House was the home of Morris’s family from 1848 to 1856. William, born in 1834 in Walthamstow, was the third of nine children and by all accounts an early reader. He was 14 when his family moved into The Water House. He saw out his teenage years there, quite likely lost in his own medieval-obsessed fantasy world. And anxiously waiting for his famous beard to start growing.
In 1898 The Water House was given to the borough of Walthamstow by the then incumbents: the Lloyd family. So began its slow journey towards becoming a museum. In the early 20th century, artist Sir Frank Brangwyn, architect & designer Arthur Haygate Mackmurdo and art-teacher & antiquarian Walter Spradbery solidified plans for a museum commemorating William Morris and his circle. But it wasn’t formally opened until 1950, by the then prime minister Clement Attlee. In 2012, a capital project saw a handsome extension attached and a grand refurbishment that brought new life, sweeping away the dusty old local council-style museum in favour of an award-winning, visitor-friendly rebuild.
On the top floor are staff offices, an education room (which you can hear before you see it) and a low-ceilinged room overlooking the front of the building. Previously this had been an object store, but it received a make-over as part of the 2012 refurbishment, and now has a sign on the door announcing the ‘Reading Room’. Or, to name it as we see it, the library. It is open to researchers, by appointment, and serves as the library for the gallery’s curators. The room is lined with books almost from floor to ceiling. In fact, it is almost too full of books (if there is such a thing). It must be a constant struggle to maintain tidy bibliographic order. There is an old municipal library-ladder in the room and some index drawers for paper card catalogues. All in all, the Reading Room looks as if it is well used on a regular basis, as any good library should be.
The books in here are not, by any means, all drawn from William Morris’s own library but are a collection of gifts and donations and purchases. Museum co-founder Frank Brangwyn donated a substantial contribution. And many books contain stamps from Walthamstow Reference Library, from where they were transferred in 1951. Roisin Inglesby, curator at WMG explains, “The library collection (and the collection generally) is a lot more varied than you might expect thanks to Brangwyn. It’s not just about William Morris. Brangwyn was such a mover and shaker in the art world and had an extensive collection. He gave (the WMG) lots of things that aren’t explicitly related.”
There are lovely sweeps of old book spines around the room. Some spines have ‘Tipp-Ex’ reference numbers, some have browning and curling stickers, evidence of their library provenance. There are handsome leather bindings and fading dust-jackets. Some velum-bound tomes, on close inspection, reveal pores in the calf skin they’re made from. Lots of the books are cloth bound, with a stamped title and just enough decorative flourishes. Roisin pulls out a book by William Morris called Love is Enough, a poem in the form of a morality play. It has a dark green cloth-binding and a gold-stamped cover, with the title nestling in curling Morris leaves. Inside it is inscribed: Emma Oldham, from her most affectionate brother William Morris, Dec. 7th 1872. And just like that a simple book becomes an object redolent of Morris’s life and loves.
Tucked into a cabinet in the library are a group of well used beige books which reveal themselves to be The Artistic Crafts Series of Technical Handbooks, a series of design education books edited by WR Lethaby and published by John Hogg in the early 1900s. The volumes include: Stained Glass Work, a text-book for students and workers in glass by Christopher Whall, “the go-to man for stained glass”, says Roisin. Writing & Illuminating & Lettering by Edward Johnston, designer of the incomparable sans-serif typeface Johnston, which was used to make sense of the London Underground. And Hand-Loom Weaving. Plain & Ornamental by wallpaper and textile designer Luther Hooper. These are the sort of books which led up to a revival of craft in the inter-war years, as arts and crafts theories took hold in art colleges. Or were disseminated via a flourishing local authority evening class culture, accessible to the working classes.
On another shelf is a copy of the poem Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (c 1909), illustrated by Frank Brangwyn and inscribed by Brangwyn to Eleanor Pugh, niece of WMG museum founder Arthur Haygate Mackmurdo. Brangwyn was a close associate of Morris. In his teens he apprenticed to Morris. But after passing over decorative arts for the fine arts, he became a well-known artist, printmaker and etcher, potter and maker of large-scale murals. “In the early 20th century, he was probably the most famous oil painter in the country,” Roisin explains: “But by the mid-century he was right out of fashion and seen as the last Victorian. As a collector he was a real magpie, his personal collection of art has everything from 15th-century oil paintings, to 20th-century prints. In the 1940s he donated it and it became the founding collection of the museum.”
When she reaches for the book The Story of the Glittering Plain, Roisin reveals that today Morris is considered the father of fantasy fiction. Who knew? Glittering Plain is a ‘fantasy novel’ written by Morris in 1891 about a romanticised past world, a past future world, if you will. It was also the first book to be published by his (then) newly founded Kelmscott Press in Hammersmith. As an author, Morris is often considered “The bridge between medieval literature and Game of Thrones”, Roisin reveals, smiling. But the books aren’t, she says, light reading. “I confess the only way I can get through them is using audio books. Books were the last great enthusiasm of Morris. He had enthusiasms that lasted about five years. He would get really into something and then move on, and books were the last of them.” More of Morris’s heavy offerings sit on other shelves in the library, in the form of his many published lectures. Moving to Kelmscott House in Hammersmith in 1879 (named after his country house of the same name) Morris stepped onto the socialism train and began touring the country lecturing his creed. Later he founded the Hammersmith Socialist Society and held weekly lectures.
In keeping with his ideas, Morris’s words and thoughts were made available in cheaper, more portable (if not necessarily more digestible) forms. In amongst the hand-printed pretties in the library, Roisin pulls a small insignificant book out that opens to reveal a title almost bigger than the book itself: Art and socialism – a lecture delivered (January 23rd, 1884) before the Secular Society of Leicester by William Morris, author of “The earthly paradise,” etc. There are advertisements at the back of the book for more light reading. ‘The Secular Review – a weekly journal of Freethought Literature and Philosophy.’ ‘Christian Socialist – a journal for those who work and think.’ and ‘Progress – a monthly magazine Darwinian in Science, Human in Religion, Radical in Politics, Honest in Criticism.’ Never let it be said Morris only kept close company with flowers and ampersands.
A recent addition to the library at WMG is a copy of Morris’s utopian novel News From Nowhere in Japanese. Just before the pandemic it was hand delivered to the gallery by the widow of the man who translated it. He had made it his life’s work. Morris was known in Japan from the 1890s but they saw him more as a pattern maker than a philosopher. They love him there still. When Roisin was in Japan recently, researching her forthcoming exhibition (see below) on the connections between Mingei (Japanese ‘folk craft’) and Morris, she spotted William Morris ‘quintessentially English’ patterns everywhere, on everything. Even some of the WMG’s own shop products were on sale.
Today the WMG is a bustling museum and art gallery that embraces Morris for the designer, poet, philosopher and socialist he was. They have the largest public collection of objects about Morris. A rolling temporary exhibition programme at the gallery swings through textiles, fashion, and the fine and decorative arts. It is a museum that welcomes all visitors, whether they’ve come for cake or culture, something that would surely warm the cockles of William Morris’s egalitarian heart.
Art Without Heroes: Mingei
William Morris Gallery,
Lloyd Park House, London E17 4PP United Kingdom