London museum to present William Morris exhibition
LONDON – The first exhibition devoted to William Morris and his influence on 20th-century life, will open at the National Portrait Gallery this autumn.
“Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860-1960” will run Oct.16 to Jan. 11. The exhibition will focus on Morris’ far-reaching politics, thought and design. With portraits, furniture, books, banners, textiles and jewelry, the exhibition will include many extraordinary loans that will be brought together in London for the first time.
Starting with late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, the exhibition and accompanying book will explore the “art for the people” movement initiated by William Morris and the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It then displays the work of Arts and Crafts practitioners inspired by Morris and “simple life” philosophers such as Edward Carpenter and Eric Gill, before showing how Morris’s radical ideals developed through to the Garden City movement and from the Festival of Britain onward to young postwar designers such as Terence Conran who took up Morris’ original campaign for making good design available to everyone.
Key exhibits include William Morris’ own handwritten Socialist Diary from the British Library, his gold-tooled handbound copy of Karl Marx’s Le Capital, lent from the Wormsley Library and Burne-Jones’s spectacular hand-painted Prioresses Tale wardrobe coming from the Ashmolean in Oxford.
C.R. Ashbee’s Peacock brooch from the Victoria & Albert will be joined by Eric Gill’s erotic garden roller, Adam and Eve, from Leeds City Art Gallery and Edward Carpenter’s sandals from Sheffield Archive – the sandals that began the sandal-wearing craze among the English left-wing intelligentsia.
“Now in the 21st century our art and design culture is widespread. But its global sophistication brings new anxieties,” said curator Fiona MacCarthy. “We find ourselves returning to many of Morris’ preoccupations with craft skills and the environment, with local sourcing, with vernacular traditions, with art as a vital force within society, binding together people of varying backgrounds and nationalities. This exhibition, as I see it, will not only explore what William Morris’s vision was but will suggest ways in which his radical thinking still affects the way we live our lives.”
Starting with the sometimes violent state of flux of late Victorian and Edwardian Britain as a group of brilliantly radical artists, craftsmen, architects, town planners, sexual and social reformers set out to remake their world, the exhibition introduces us to Morris, a craftsman and designer of extraordinary talent who MacCarthy believes still needs to be recognized as the truly revolutionary figure that he was.
The exhibition will show how the “art for the people” movement had its roots in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s challenge to accepted attitudes to art and also in John Ruskin’s politically radical perception that every human being has inherent creative talent and that handwork was not inferior to brainwork.
On display will be work by the artists and craftsmen of Morris’ inner circle: his lifelong collaborator Edward Burne-Jones; the potter William De Morgan; the radical architect Philip Webb; the furniture makers Ernest Gimson and the Barnsley brothers. A number of important female artists and craftswomen will feature in the exhibition since this was a circle in which women were accepted as co-practitioners with men.
Arts and Crafts idealists who set up their own working communities, often in defiance of sexual norms, will be included, such as the openly homosexual Edward Carpenter at Millthorpe; C.R. Ashbee and his Guild of Handicraft in Chipping Campden and the controversial Catholic artist-craftsman Eric Gill in Ditchling.
“Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860-1960” highlights the element of anarchy within the “art for the people” movement which demanded a total overturning of accepted values. Showing how Morris was associated with the Russian anarchists Prince Peter Kropotkin and Sergey Stepniak, visitors will be able to see a strong link between “art for the people,” women’s education and the suffrage movement – one of Morris’ closest female associates was Eleanor Marx.
The exhibition extends beyond Morris’ own death in 1896 to show how his radical ideals developed through the Edwardian decade, highlighting Patrick Geddes, Raymond Unwin and the Garden City movement and the way in which “good design” became available to a wider market through such pioneering home furnishing shops as Ambrose Heal’s.
It explores the ruralist revival of the 1920s and 1930s when leading craft practitioners – the potters Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew, the weaver Ethel Mairet, the hand-blocked textile printers Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher – evolved their own alternative ways of life and work in an increasingly materialistic age.
Morris’ visions of “art for the people” were realized in the early postwar period with the Festival of Britain and the government supported Council of Industrial Design. “Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860-1960” will show how the young designers at this time channeled Morris’ idealism into a concern to bring high standards of design within reach of everyone.
Fiona MacCarthy is a cultural historian, broadcaster and critic whose widely acclaimed biographies include studies of Eric Gill, William Morris (which won the Wolfson History Prize and the Writers’ Guild Non-Fiction Award), Stanley Spencer, Lord Byron and, most recently, Edward Burne-Jones. She is a Senior Fellow of the Royal College of Art and was awarded the OBE for services to literature in 2009.
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