William Morris: Story, Memory, Myth, Two Temple Place, London

Portrait of William Morris, by George Frederic Watts, 1870

Artist, designer, writer and socialist, William Morris was a powerhouse of the Victorian age. So widespread were his talents and interests that it is difficult to pin down exactly who, or what, he was.

This exhibition attempts to address this conundrum through one facet of Morris’s life and work – his love of stories and myth.

Bringing together selected objects from the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, which is closed for renovation until July 2012, and important pieces from private collections, the show is far from comprehensive, but is nonetheless authoritative.

The works on display are grouped by the story that inspired them, allowing the visitor to explore Morris’s singular vision of the narrative through the scenes he chose to depict.

Morris was fascinated by fable and myth from early childhood. By the age of seven he had read the complete works of Sir Walter Scott and owned a suit of armour, in which he would enact tales of fairies and knights in the garden of his childhood home in Walthamstow.

William Morris, Guinevere and Iseult. Cartoon for stained glass, 1862

Although some Greek and Roman myths are represented, mediaeval stories dominate the exhibition.

Among them are the 13th Century French poem, The Romance of the Rose, which Morris believed to have been penned by its translator, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the 12th Century English legend of Tristram and Isoude.

In these tales of courtly love and loss, Morris saw not just heroic stories, but also a historical narrative that challenged the status quo of the utilitarian age Morris was born into. To him, the mediaeval period demonstrated the past existence of a society based on nobler and richer values.

While the exhibition goes some way towards explaining the reasons for his love of storytelling, it stops short of fully addressing his politics. This is perhaps understandable given their militancy, but socialism was central to Morris’s beliefs and motivations.

Morris fervently believed that self-realisation lay in meaningful work. In a lecture in 1880 entitled The Beauty of Life, he said: “You cannot educate, you cannot civilise men, unless you can give them a share in art”.

That the vast majority of Morris’s work ended up in the private houses of the wealthy is a paradox that he would have been aware of in his own lifetime.

The venue is one such private house. Built by the 1st Viscount Astor in 1895 and rarely open to the public, its baronial splendour lends an air of authenticity to the exhibition.

The founding member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, Morris was preoccupied by authenticity. He fought to save buildings from renovation and “improvement”, preferring that their imperfections be allowed to tell their story.

That his work is today often associated with mass-produced reproductions of his pattern designs is just one more irony in a life that was filled with them.

Perhaps the greatest irony – and tragedy – of Morris’s life was that in spite of his love of heroes and heroines, and his almost messianic capacity to inspire others, his personal life was far from ending happily ever after.

His wife, Janey, whose distinctive willowy figure can be identified in many of the drawings and embroideries displayed, was the long-time lover of Morris’s friend, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Though he adored his wife, Morris never intervened.

Instead, he rented a house for them to share and sailed to Iceland. Morris had learned old Icelandic from Eriíkr Magnússon, with whom he translated several texts, including The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs. Edward Burne-Jones‘s illustrations for these are included in the exhibition.

Rossetti’s work only appears once: a watercolour of Janey Morris called The Loving Cup. An illustration of female beauty on a chivalric theme, not associated with any known story, its inscription reads: “Sweet night, and pleasant day, to the beautifully loved knight”.

Morris’s solace was his work, the extraordinary breadth of which is illustrated by the range of mediums on show, including poems, tapestries, embroideries, drawings, woodcuts, and of course, wallpaper and textile designs.

Though the visual impact of his pattern designs is modest in comparison to the large embroideries and drawings, the exhibition offers fascinating insights into the inspirations for some of his most well-known motifs.

Inspired by heraldry and the repetition of motifs in mediaeval designs, Morris wanted collective and personal memories to be triggered by his patterns, a process he described as “mind and memory”.

Just one of the designs on display, the original drawings for Medway, reveals the meandering tributaries of the river that flowed near Morris’ studio, laying bare his creative process.

William Morris, Design for Medway printed textile, 1885

Remembered variously as “a great man who somehow delighted in glaring wallpapers” by his contemporary, the architect Richard Norman Shaw, and “one of those men whom history will never overtake” by his biographer, EP Thompson, William Morris’s memory remains the stuff of legend.

2 Temple Place, London. Open 10am-4.30pm (12pm-5pm Sunday, closed Tuesday). Admission free.

Previously published on Culture 24: http://www.culture24.org.uk/art/painting%20%26%20drawing/art373726

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