Getting Inspired: The William Morris Gallery
Let's be honest; my first experience of William Morris wasn’t the most auspicious.
It was our kitchen blind when I was quite small, printed in a classic Morris & co. pattern of flowers and birds in a particularly 1970's palette of orange and brown. Consequently, I never really had much time for William Morris as a designer; throughout my childhood his patterns seemed to be scattered liberally over all kinds of objects aimed squarely at the 'gifts for old ladies’ market.
I have always been drawn to his approach though. The idea that we should give nothing house room that is neither beautiful nor useful would be a guiding principle if I only could manage to stick to it! And the concept behind the Arts & Crafts movement of the maker being an intrinsic part of the product and it’s worth has always fascinated me.
This year I’m trying to make a point of going out and getting inspired in the real world - it’s incredibly easy to stay behind a computer screen looking for inspiration! So when a few weeks ago, completely by chance, I discovered the William Morris Gallery existed (thank you Instagram!) I was intrigued enough to head to London and take a look.
The first thing that really surprised me was the gallery’s location; in my head Walthamstow was gritty, grey and urban. And some of it is. But alongside sit utterly charming Victorian terraces, little leafy oases of calm. The gallery itself is housed in a grand old building set in the local park; the former home of Morris’ family, with plenty of room for the permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. When I visited there was a small room of exquisite Japanese woodblock prints by British printmaker Rebecca Salter ( http://www.rebeccasalter.com/ to check out her work)
Chronologically organised displays take you through Morris’ life, right from his early schooldays. I have to confess I fairly quickly skimmed over the family history side of things, though there’s plenty of information there if you’re interested. One of the biggest highlights for me was being able to see many of Morris’ original drawings. What got lost for me in all the William Morris patterned product of my childhood was his absolute passion for nature. Clearly Morris’ chosen subjects were always drawn from the natural world, but the delicacy with which he treats botanical details in those original drawings is quite breathtaking.
From examining his (for the time) radically modern design work and the shift in interior design trends it led to, the display moves on to the Morris & Co. workshops and a celebration of the artisan proceses used to bring the work to life. A long table down the centre of this room is dedicated to a demonstration of haw a complicated wallpaper design was printed, showing the series of printing block applied in sequence until the finished product appeared. To get it right would have required an immensely practiced hand; registration (placing the print correctly) can sometimes be tricky even with a vacuum to keep the paper still and a screen I can see through. Faced with a distinctly moveable length of paper and a hefty wooden print block to position I think I’d struggle!
The other genius stroke by the gallery’s curators is an immersive recreation of the Morris & Co. shop on Oxford street. Painted in a rich deep blue, you are surrounded by beautifully crafted Morris & Co. furniture supplemented with sample books and carefully sourced treasures. I can only imagine the experience was something like spending an afternoon in Liberties is today.
Emerging inspired from the gallery into the surrounding garden, it’s hard to believe that entry to this place is absolutely free. Walthamstow is a little off the beaten track, but a visit here is completely worth the effort.
William Morris Gallery
Lloyd Park, Forest Road Walthamstow, London, E17 4PP 020 8496 4390
Opening times: Wednesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm Free entry