In the late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, a group of radical artists, craftsmen, architects, town planners and social reformers looked at ways to bring their worldview to the general public, at the centre of this movement was William Morris who was a textile designer, poet, novelist, translator, and political activist. Morris played a major part in the British Arts and Crafts Movement, leading to a revival of traditional British textile arts and methods of production.
This exhibition considers the impact and legacy of Morris’s politics, thought and design. The exhibition features portraits, furniture, books, banners, textiles and jewellery, many brought together in London for the first time.
Morris had become interested in medieval history whilst studying at Oxford, it was also at Oxford where Morris met Edward Burne-Jones, who became his lifelong friend and collaborator.
Both Morris and Burne- Jones rejected many of the values of Victorian industrial capitalism and were attracted by a growing interest in Romanticism and Medievalism . Morris’s ideas about ‘art for the people’ movement was widely influenced by the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the philosophy of John Ruskin.
Morris and Burne – Jones interest in the Pre- Raphaelites took a more personal interest when Morris and his wife Jane became friendly with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his wife Lizzie Siddall.
The pictures and drawings in the exhibition illustrate some of the works at the time when Jane becomes a muse for Morris and Rossetti. Morris had been encouraged to take up painting by Rossetti but did not consider that his work was at a high level therefore began to concentrate on Textile and other designs.
Although in the present day, Morris is known primarily for his Art and Crafts designs, in the Victorian age he was better known for his novels and poetry.
Morris with his distaste for the modern industrialised capitalist system was at any early stage attracted to the early socialist and anarchy movements, he became known to a number of political activists and played a contributing role in financing and promoting some of these groups.
One of his prized possessions shown in the exhibition was a beautifully bound volume of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.
His creation of a firm that produced some of his many designs on a large-scale and for a predominantly middle class market often seemed at odds with his socialist beliefs but he always believed that the firm was more about controlling the production of his work rather than purely profit.
The exhibition extends beyond Morris’s own death in 1896 to show how his ideas were further developed into the twentieth century.
The work of Eric Gill seems to offer a clear connection to Morris’s legacy, however Gill’s sexually charged work as illustrated by the bizarre erotic Garden roller ‘ Adam and Eve ‘ was considered far more scandalous.
Less controversial was the Garden City movement , the ruralist revival of the 1920s and 1930s, and the 1950’s Festival of Britain which all paid homage to Morris’s ideas of high quality goods, mass produced to provide ‘art for the people’.
William Morris was one of the rare breed who was able to find a practical way of fulfilling his visions , this exhibition offers a brief taste of the incredibly wide range of areas in which he excelled. His story is often due the rather complex domestic relationship with his wife tied up with the Pre Raphaelites especially Rossetti. However it was his friendship with Burne – Jones that provided a stable background to his many endeavours.
This exhibition will appeal to the many fans of Morris and the Art and Crafts movement but equally to those who wish to consider how design has developed over the last 150 years. As the many modern designers confirm on the wall outside the exhibition, the ideas of Morris are still an inspiration and that is perhaps his true legacy.
Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended
If you would like to find out more or buy a ticket , visit the National Portrait Gallery website here
Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860-1960 (16 October 2014 – 11 January 2015),
Tickets with donation*
Full price £14.00
Senior citizens (aged 60 and over) £13.00
Concessions £12.00, children 12–18 years, registered unemployed, students, disabled people (with free entry for one carer)
Family: one/two adults or concessions
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