Monday, 15 December 2014

Review: Anarchy & Beauty

Second exhibition of Saturday was Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, 1860-1960.  I attended the massive William Morris exhibition at the V&A years ago and remembered getting gorgeousness-fatigue about halfway round so was looking forward to seeing how the National Portrait Gallery were going to interpret Morris.  The result was fascinating…

While attending the exhibition at Leighton House, I must confess I didn’t bother reading the room notes, or using the audio guide much.  You knew what you were dealing with, there was no need for a narrative as such, it wasn’t that sort of exhibition.  It was an exhibition in the literal sense.  Anarchy & Beauty however is a story, a narrative of how one man’s vision influenced a century. 

First clue is the date range given in the exhibition title.  Those are not Morris’ life dates but the reach of his thought and influence.  It is unusual to consider an exhibition of someone’s vision beyond that of their own work.  As you would expect, the National Portrait Gallery displayed many and varied portraits of the people involved in their narrative, from photographs to painted self-portraits, alongside the objects which also acted as a portrait of sorts.  As soon as you enter the exhibition, for example, you can see the satchel that Morris carried to political meetings, a battered canvas bag that contained so much of his writings. Such a personal object was displayed alongside his willow wallpaper, as if to show you both the personal and public sides of the same man.

Gill's Garden Roller
 The clue is in the title and it is a very beautiful exhibition, from the Prioress’ Tale Wardrobe to Eric Gill’s garden roller.  It is about the appreciation of the creation of beauty, for the craftsman and for the world.  It is impossible not to be astonished in front of any of the Kelmscott books, they are works of magnificence on a massive scale. The way the exhibition shows the extension of Morris’ views beyond his life, through two world wars and on to the Festival of Britain in 1951 made me consider how we see craft, design and the associated philosophy today.
Morris soap, for the filthy anarchist in your life...
 William Morris is a difficult man to talk about in many ways because there is so much to say.  This exhibition is an exciting way of playing ‘tag’over a century with his influence and showing how relevant he was in an era that espoused antipathy towards Victorianism, while secretly using the philosophy of the most Victorian man in town. The counterpointing Morris with Gill or Terence Conran highlights how important people of vision are in our society and how they permeate everything from the font that our national broadcaster uses to the shape of chairs in our houses.  As we were going into the exhibition, Miss Holman questioned the use of the word ‘anarchy’ and I think that is an interesting point.  Art historians know that Morris was a revolutionary but nowadays Strawberry Thief is wrapped around a bar of soap to give to your granny.  The extension of the time-frame to the 1960s did nothing to help this as all the amazing and revolutionary design and thought is now taken in our stride because it is right and fits our lives to improvement.  

William Morris (1870) G F Watts
If I have a complaint (which is borne out of the excellence of the exhibition in making me think far too much about everything) it is that it did not address the position of craft for the later time period.  Craft has had a bit of a renaissance of late, but it is viewed as a natural byproduct of the recession and the uncertainty of future and like a luxury of the middle class.  Handmaking things is seen as a retro act, something of a pretense and most decidedly feminine (and a folly for it).  I make stuff, I was raised by parents who made stuff as a default, and a question I am asked a lot is why bother, when I can buy it? I’m sure Morris would have had my back when I explain the beauty of hand-craft, that an object I make is imbued with time and love that money cannot buy.  Looking at Morris’ sketches, De Morgan’s pots and Lucian Day’s fabric, all so familiar and commonplace today, it is good to remember that they existed as thought, then were crafted, to make the world a beautiful place. Anyone who wants to make the world a more beautiful place is definitely worth a visit.

For further information on the exhibition, see here.


  1. Thanks for your write up on this. And your perspecitive on Morris is spot on as usual. I have studied his work and I am so curious as to how he came to be the poster boy for soap, wallpaper and needlepoint canvases (very popular in the US) by a generation who has no idea what an anarchist he was. So thanks for the reminder. And maybe I know a few filthy anarchists who might enjoy that soap. (By the way, I often don't leave comments, but I love your blog. Have followed for some time. Bought one of your books! Big fan.)

  2. Many thanks Teresa, both for your comments and for buying my book!


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx