Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and his legacy 1860-1960

800px-William_Morris_age_53[1]It seemed entirely appropriate that on the day I visited the Small Publishers’ Fair in Conway Hall, London, that I should also go to the current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and his legacy 1860-1960. Not only did Morris live for a time in a house on Red Lion Square, where Conway Hall is situated, but also Conway Hall, founded in 1929, has always been a hub for free speech and independent thought so I think Morris would have approved!

As I reflected on the hand-crafted books I had just purchased for the WSA Library’s artists’ book collection, I was able to indulge in viewing printed matter in the exhibition ranging from Morris’ utopian novel News from Nowhere to the Kelmscott Chaucer via Walter Crane’s beautifully illustrated pamphlets for the socialist cause. The importance to Morris of the handmade object is a legacy that is still with us.Kelmscott_Troilus[1]

As I moved through the exhibition I started to get to know Morris through the objects he owned, such as his weathered satchel, beautifully crafted furniture and intimate cartoons and caricatures of Morris made by friends such as Rossetti and Burne-Jones. They all worked on the Red House, Morris’ home at Bexley Heath designed by Philip Webb and now in the care of the National Trust. This friendship group grew into ‘the firm’, later Morris & Co. and items from this time feature in the exhibition.

Morris’ belief in socialism ultimately led to him joining the Social Democratic Federation in 1883. The Hammersmith Socialist Party’s banner is displayed alongside other connected objects. As part of Morris’ legacy a direct link is made to contemporary artist Jeremy Deller and his work with banners, particularly in relation to the 1984/5 miners’ strike.

The exhibition stresses the importance of Morris’ ideas in influencing future generations and just how wide-reaching this was and is still is reflected in the subjects covered: the arts and crafts movement, the National Trust, the Victorian Society, the Garden Cities movement, Heal’s, The Festival of Britain and Terence Conran’s Habitat shops. The energy created by those designers involved in the Festival of Britain led ultimately to the expansion of art schools in the 1960s, including our very own Winchester School of Art.

800px-Royal_Festival_Hall_corner[1]I ended my day by walking over Hungerford Bridge and past the Festival Hall, the only remaining building from the Festival of Britain, and reflected on how important the Thames was to Morris and the South Bank is to his legacy. I had not realised how many of my interests and passions link directly back to Morris and his ideas. I would thoroughly recommend a visit to this exhibition, on until 11 January 2015.



Catherine Polley

December 2014