Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy 1860-1960
National Portrait Gallery
Until 11 January 2015
As with most exhibitions these days, exiting through the shop has become part of the overall visitor experience, not only so that everyone can have a ‘shopping opportunity’, but that the institutions can increase their revenue, particularly if their grants have been reduced.
Britain’s museums and galleries generate over £100m through merchandising alone, and that is not taking into account catering, tours, audio guides, corporate hire, commercial services, visitor donations, membership to Friends’ organisations, sponsorship of exhibitions and galleries, private donors and patrons. Bolted onto the side of the William Morris exhibition, the National Portrait Gallery has created a line of deeply ‘tasteful’ merchandise, including stationery and toiletries adorned with William Morris designs, William Morris ties, cufflinks and earrings, William Morris cushions, William Morris fringe scarves selling for £90, William Morris coasters, William Morris umbrellas, William Morris colouring books and, of course William Morris mugs. They even have William Morris inspired decorations to adorn the Christmas tree, as well as Arts and Crafts gift tags and crackers which, one imagines, will go down a storm in the Home Counties.
But what of the exhibition itself? The curator Fiona MacCarthy has focused not just on Morris’ design achievements, but also on his radical politics and philosophy, which harked back to a ‘simple life’, and making ‘good design’ available to everyone. She tells us that ‘we find ourselves returning to many of Morris’s preoccupations with craft skills and the environment, with local sourcing, with vernacular traditions, with art as a vital force within society, binding together people of varying backgrounds and nationalities.
The exhibits include many portraits of the people he influenced or knew, including Walter Crane, the book illustrator, the architect Philip Webb, who designed The Red House for Morris, Elizabeth Siddal, the muse and model for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including Millais and Rossetti, who finally married her, Ford Madox Brown, William de Morgan, the tile designer and potter, the designer, C R Ashby, and Eric Gill, the fabled stone carver and typeface designer.
Morris’ erotic Adam and Eve garden roller, carved by his apprentice David Kindersley, is also on display, somewhat gratuitously, but presumably because the curator is fascinated by the sex-mad sculptor, of whom she wrote a biography. She has also written biographies of Stanley Spencer, Edward Burne-Jones and, of course, Morris himself.
The Robinson family, who bought Gill’s old home Pigotts in Buckinghamshire, sold the garden roller to Leeds Art Gallery for £43,000 in 1991, much to David Kindersley’s surprise, as he regarded it as his.
Morris married Jane Burden, another beautiful muse, who sat for his close friend, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and with whom she had an affair, the first of many. Before that, Morris painted her as King Arthur’s equally unfaithful Queen Guinevere, called La Belle Iseult, on loan from the Tate; a work which says more about his interior design than his portraiture. The philandering swordsman Rossetti, meanwhile, immortalised the pouting ‘Janey’ as Proserpine and La Donna Della Finestra.The long-suffering Morris chose not to acknowledge her infidelities, as he was madly in love with her and did not want her to leave. On loan from The Ashmolean in Oxford is the extraordinary Prioress’s Tale Wardrobe, painted by Edward Burne-Jones as a wedding present to the newly-wed Morris couple.
The exhibition shows just how strong an influence Morris was, with his ‘art for the people’ movement which had its roots in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In its second part, it takes the visitor past his death in 1896 into the Edwardian era, and beyond, through the Festival of Britain and the emergence of Terence Conran in 1960. An odd potpourri of a show, this, and one gets the feeling that it has been, if not upholstered, certainly padded out.