Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860 – 1960
Past exhibition archive
16 October 2014 - 11 January 2015
Anarchy & Beauty explored the life and ideas of the great Victorian artist, writer and visionary thinker William Morris. Through portraits, personal items and fascinating objects, many of which were on public display for the first time, this major exhibition illustrated Morris’s concept of ‘art for the people’ and highlighted the achievements of those whom he inspired.
Curated by acclaimed author and biographer Fiona MacCarthy, the display featured original furniture and textiles designed and owned by Morris, as well as the work of his contemporaries including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. These were innovatively showcased alongside remarkable books, jewellery, ceramics and clothing by craftspeople such as Eric Gill, Bernard Leach and Terence Conran, demonstrating how Morris’s legacy continued into the twentieth century, influencing radical politics, the Garden City movement and the Festival of Britain in 1951.
Supported by the Anarchy & Beauty Exhibition Supporters Group.
William Morris and His Legacy
William Morris: Art & Revolution
Tomorrow, when the civilised world shall have a new art, a glorious art, made by the people and for the people
William Morris lecture Labour and pleasure versus Labour and sorrow, 1880
William Morris was the greatest artist-craftsman of his period, especially famous for his wallpapers and textiles. He was an extraordinarily creative designer of pattern. Morris ran a successful decorating and manufacturing business as well as a high profile London shop in Oxford Street.
But this was only one of his activities. Morris in his time was even better known as a poet, equal to Tennyson and Browning. He was a passionate social reformer, an early environmentalist, and an important political theorist. His Utopian novel News from Nowhere had a profound national and international influence.
Uniting all these activities was Morris’s belief in the power of beauty to transform human lives. In propounding this belief through his lecturing and writing, his energy was formidable in demonstrating and campaigning for the socialist cause.
When Morris lay dying in 1896 one of his doctors diagnosed his fatal illness as ‘simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men’.
William Morris and the Red House Circle: The art that is life
Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful
William Morris lecture The Beauty of Life, 1880
In 1860, after William Morris married, he and his wife Jane moved into a new house, Red House at Bexleyheath in Kent, purpose-designed by the innovative architect Philip Webb.
Here Morris’s ideals first found practical expression in the decoration of the house, carried out by working parties of his artist-craftsman friends, including Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This whole idea of camaraderie and joyfulness in labour was to be an influential Morris theme.
The design and decoration of the house was envisaged by these friends as the first stage in a campaign against the debased artistic standards of the mid-Victorian age. Resulting from this experience, the highly successful decorating company Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (later Morris & Co.) was formed.
‘The Firm’, as it was known, set up manufacturing workshops and opened its own shop. There was later a Morris & Co. showroom in Oxford Street, taking Morris’s challenge to ugly and pretentious prevailing design standards to the heart of the commercial market place.
The Fellowship of the New Life: Sexual Politics and Libertarianism
Edward Carpenter by Roger Fry, 1894 © National Portrait Gallery, London
The spirit of the new days, of our days, has to be delight in the life of the world
William Morris, News from Nowhere, 1890
William Morris’s hopes, as expressed in his visionary novel News from Nowhere, involved dismantling the existing structures of society and inventing a freer, more equal and creative way of life. Morris became convinced that only from the lives of a truly democratic people could come a genuinely living art. In his activist revolutionary years from the 1880s Morris inspired and was inspired by leading radicals and anarchists of his period.
It was a time of turbulence and violence as political and sexual norms were being widely questioned. Morris was associated with the exiled Russian anarchists Prince Peter Kropotkin and Sergey Stepniak. He was a socialist colleague of Edward Carpenter, a proselytising homosexual and exponent of the simple life.
Morris’s own involvement in traditional female spheres of domestic decoration, cookery and garden design connected him to the then burgeoning movements for women’s education and female suffrage. His colleagues in London socialist circles included Eleanor Marx, Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde.
Arts and Crafts: The Meaning of the Handmade Object
‘Craft of the Guild’ brooch designed by C.R. Ashbee and made by the Guild of Handicraft, England, 1903 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Nothing which is made by man will be ugly, but will have its due form, and its due ornament, and will tell the tale of its making and the tale of its use
William Morris article Art, 1891
Morris’s vision of productive and contented work in idyllically beautiful surroundings had an enormous impact on the Arts and Crafts movement as it developed in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Britain, northern Europe and the USA.
Central to the movement was the concept of the makers’ personal responsibility for what they made in contrast to the soulless repetitive mechanical processes of nineteenth-century factory production. Morris’s ideal was that every worker ‘must have a voice in the whole affair’.
The Arts and Crafts movement was concerned with skill and the perfection of technique. Among the artistic highpoints were C.R. Ashbee’s metalwork, Ernest Gimson’s furniture, William Morris’s daughter May Morris’s embroidery, T.J. Cobden-Sanderson’s bookbinding.
But there was more to it than superb artefacts. The Arts and Crafts was a socially revolutionary movement which brought about a blurring of class boundaries, a dawning recognition of women as creative co-workers and an end to false distinctions between work and leisure in a world in which work itself was seen as joyous. The movement involved the invention of a whole new way of life.
Cities in the Sun: The Garden City Movement
Ambrose Heal by Frederick Hollyer, c.1895–1903, Heal Family Collection
I want the town to be impregnated with the beauty of the country, and the country with the intelligence and vivid life of the town
William Morris lecture Town and Country, 1894
In the early twentieth century, William Morris’s imaginative concept of small self-sufficient ruralist communities gathered public support. The first Garden City was Letchworth, founded by Ebenezer Howard in 1903, followed by Welwyn Garden City, Hampstead Garden Suburb and other consciously humane communities which developed Morris’s thinking in attempting to reconcile urban and rural environments.
Garden Cities were Utopian in believing that high aesthetic standards would set a moral standard for the communities who lived there. Garden Cities were socially egalitarian, setting out to eradicate false class distinctions. They were anti-snobbery and anti-luxury. They allowed space for the things that really mattered: the life of the mind and human creativity.
The Garden Cities generated what became seen as a typically English architecture of homeliness and sweetness, exemplified by the consciously modest Arts and Crafts houses designed by Raymond Unwin and C.F.A. Voysey. Simple oak furniture supplied by Ambrose Heal, from his family firm Heal & Son in London’s Tottenham Court Road, expanded Morris’s aims in making good design available at affordable prices.
Heavens on Earth: Interwar Artistic Communities
Eric Gill by Howard Coster, 1927 © National Portrait Gallery, London
A society conscious of a wish to keep life simple, to forego some of the power over nature won by past ages in order to be more human and less mechanical, and willing to sacrifice something to this end
William Morris lecture The Society of the Future, 1887
William Morris’s ideas were still very much alive in the years that followed the First World War as artists and craftspeople struggled to find themselves a viable place within the modern world. Morris’s original ‘campaign against the age’ seemed essential at a period of increasing political cynicism and materialist frivolity and waste.
Attempts at achieving an integrated life of craftsmanship and domesticity were at their most extreme in Eric Gill’s Roman Catholic craft community at Ditchling in Sussex. Meanwhile at St Ives in Cornwall, the potter Bernard Leach grappled with the economic problems of handmaking to a high standard.
On a more ambitious scale were the inter-war experiments at Dartington in Devon where Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst strove hard to develop art, craft and culture in the context of the rural community.
The element of anarchy was ever-present with the questioning of conventional social structures. Opportunities for women continued to expand and in the craft world of the 1920s and ‘30s, where leading practitioners included the textile designers Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher and the potter Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie, a creative lesbian sub-culture found its place.
Art for the People: The Festival of Britain
Terence Conran in his cone chair by Ray Williams, 1950s © Estate of Ray Williams
What business have we with art at all unless all can share it?
William Morris letter to The Manchester Examiner, 1883
William Morris looked forward to a genuine rebirth of art as ‘the spontaneous expression of the pleasure of life innate in the whole people’. Morris’s ideals of art for the people were a central inspiration to the planning of the Festival of Britain of 1951.
The Festival was the regenerative project of a postwar Labour government. The Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, was influenced by Morris’s visionary socialism.
Over eight million people visited the South Bank Exhibition over the summer of 1951. This was a celebration of community on a massive scale in which art, design and architecture was of the essence. The Festival of Britain took up and expanded William Morris’s original view of the importance of involving artists and designers in the processes of making as setters of standards and a humanising force.
For many young designers – for example Robin and Lucienne Day and Terence Conran – the Festival inspired them with a direct sense of mission to bring the highest design standards within reach of everyone. The optimistic spirit of the Festival encouraged the expansion of the art schools in 1960s Britain, ushering in a whole new era of cultural and social realignments and creative anarchy.
To explore how William Morris’s legacy continues into the twenty-first century we invited a number of modern makers to respond to the exhibition and explain how his vision and values connect to their own practice.
Michael Ruh, Glass-maker
The portraits and few artefacts contained in Anarchy & Beauty made me more acutely aware of Morris' sense of purpose, drive and near missionary-like zeal to impress upon us and convert us to knowing the power of beauty to transform lives. The Arts and Crafts movement was more than intentional design and the perfection of skill. It was a socially revolutionary movement, intended to give voice to the worker and maker, and integrate ones life's work into a way of being, rather than an occupation. It is very much this aspect that has influenced my life. I sometimes describe the practice of my vocation as something akin to being a glass-making monk. In my life, there are few, if no boundaries between my work and other aspects of my life. Glass-making is what I do, and what I am.
William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement resonate in my own practice. The movement brought about “an end to false distinctions between work and leisure in a world in which work itself was seen as joyous." Although at times tiring, there is very little else I would rather be doing than working in my studio. Even at the end of a strenuous day of making I often have the sense I have not quite yet accomplished what I set out to achieve, and with each piece I have made there is an urgency to make another and to develop my ideas further into tangible objects.
Probably the most inspirational object for me in the exhibition was Morris’ satchel. Adorned only by the patina of its continual use, I felt Morris' great sense of purpose, the intention of his undertaking, and his zealous mission. It was doubtless both his humble companion and tool: a fully integrated and defining object within his life.
Lucille Junkere, Textile Artist
I learnt about William Morris and his indigo-dyed textiles in school. I was fascinated by how an ordinary looking plant could produce such a magnificent blue dye, not to mention the magical alchemy of the dye process. That introduction inspired my own indigo journey which led me to being selected as artist in residence at the William Morris Gallery for 2014. My residency is, of course, all about Morris and his relationship with this wonderful colour.
When I walked into the exhibition, it was Ethel Mairet's work that caught my attention. Her natural dye book was my first on the subject. Her extensive list of natural dye-producing plants is still an invaluable reference for textile artists who, like me, are concerned about the environment, waste and disposable fashion. Her exhibition piece, an elegant, understated hand-woven silk jacket celebrates her expertise in weaving and using natural dyes which have aged beautifully. It is hard to believe the jacket is nearly a hundred years old; a friend of mine said she would wear it now. The little finishing touches are exquisite, particularly the hand-turned wooden buttons where the grain is visible pulled together with traditional hand embroidered button hoops and indigo dyed accents. It’s a lovely piece and a memorable exhibition.
Sasha Ward, Stained Glass Artist
This small embroidered rectangle by May Morris is the best representation of the River Thames at Kelmscott that I have seen. I love the dense overlapping stitches she used to show the plants and the flat landscape beside the water. I spent last summer drawing along the banks of the river and in Kelmscott Manor, the Morris’ country home just a stone’s throw away. The huge expressive stitches on the embroidered hangings in the Manor gave me an incredible sense of the presence of William Morris, his wife Jane and their daughters Jenny and May. I wondered whether they would have approved of what I was doing there as Artist in Residence as I found my own way of depicting the house and garden in the melancholy Oxfordshire landscape.
I usually work to commission on projects that have taken me all over the British Isles and that have led me to consider the “sense of place” as my main subject matter. I started my career in stained glass and have also designed and made screens, floors, wallpapers and other features for interiors, so it is not surprising that I have always been interested in the work of Morris & Co. You can see how the patterns he drew from have a source and an appeal that is timeless, cross cultural and for a modern designer, sometimes feel inescapable.
When it comes to their stained glass, I was always asking myself why the Pre-Raphaelites were so backward-looking. But the more I learn about William Morris, the more I see him as a great but unconventional scholar, who believed that by looking closely at the past we could learn lessons that would lead to a better future. There is a clear path from the medieval inspired stained glass of Morris & Co. to the exciting new architectural glass of the twentieth century and the training that I received in three English art schools. When I look at windows that are more than five hundred years old and marvel at how much better they are than most modern glass, I hope to learn their lessons and help to move the art form forwards.
Zarah Hussain, Artist
When visiting Anarchy & Beauty, I expected to be inspired by Morris’s textiles and wallpapers; however walking through the gallery, I was most struck by Morris’s relationship with women.
Often the image of Morris is of a stern Victorian figure with a big bushy beard and voluminous hair, a little bit intimidating and perhaps with a difficult personality. Visiting this exhibition showed me a different side to Morris, and one that had not really been apparent to me before. At this time, women did not have the right to vote and many things we take for granted today were not available to most women at that time.
Morris took up the cause of women’s emancipation and worked closely with lots of strong, independent women. He had strong friendships with radical and revolutionary women of the day including Eleanor Marx and Sylvia Pankhurst. What came across for me was Morris’s passion for social reform. He was motivated by a keenly held belief in justice and fairness and was prepared to stand up and campaign for his beliefs, even if they were unpopular or unfashionable. He was a true rebel of his age.
In the exhibition, the picture that really caught my attention was the image of Annie Besant, a formidable character by all accounts. She was a socialist, women’s rights campaigner and theosophist. Most interestingly, from my point of view, she campaigned for Indian independence and was eventually elected to the Indian National Congress. Morris was full of admiration for her: ‘Mrs. Besant has been acting like a brick’.
I am an artist and of Pakistani heritage, so I am deeply impressed by Annie Besant’s passion and the way that she devoted herself to campaigning for Indian Independence from the British. In 1917, Annie was even imprisoned for her efforts! In the context of her time, it took a lot of courage and an acute sense of personal justice to campaign for something that went against the political and economic interests of the state.
Izzy Parker, Designer
The first piece in the exhibition that struck me was a 1988 caricature by Sir Edward Burne-Jones of Morris sitting at a tapestry loom demonstrating how to weave. This was part of a programme of educational lectures open to the public. Morris said that developing high-warp weaving techniques had been his “bright dream” for years. It was great to see an illustration showing Morris getting his hands dirty, and teaching his craftsmanship skills to others. A crafting element is key to my own design process: I need to be hands-on, my ideas and concepts developing as I explore new materials to work with.
In 2013 I spent over 300 hours creating a huge piece of jewellery called Tactile Treatment. I combined hand-weaving and pattern-cutting techniques to fashion a wearable cape from thousands of acupuncture needles. This piece asked whether the materiality and form of body-ware can encourage and influence social interaction and affect how we communicate with one another. This picture of Morris brought back the memory of all those hours obsessively working hunched over at my own hand-made loom.
My favourite piece from this show is Abram Games Festival of Britain poster. Many consider Morris’s ideals of “Art for the People” to have been one of the central inspirations to the planning of the Festival in 1951. For me this poster represents the power of community within art: over eight million people visited the exhibition, and it is thought to have encouraged contemporary designers to continue Morris’s mission, to bring the highest standards of design within reach of everyone.
Within my own practice I am always concerned with the accessibility of my work: I try to offset the time-consuming hand-crafted one off-pieces with cheaper-priced work and interactive installations, so that people can take part in my projects. Communication is key to my practice, and it’s important to me that my work is respected by a wide range of people from different backgrounds, not just from within the “art and design bubble”. For example, I am currently developing a new body of work that I plan to showcase through a series of short films. This way, I will hopefully be able to explore my ideas in a medium that can be accessed by all, and not just within a gallery context.
Izzy is a London-based designer inspired by cultural anthropology. Her project, Tactile Treatment was showcased at the Vaults Gallery, London, during the London Design Festival 2014.
Jo Davies, Ceramicist
When I look at this image of Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie at her throwing-wheel I find it reflects my imagined vision of my own distant future – still working, hopefully wizened, definitely still committed to making. Fundamentally this is of a person who has making under her skin; whilst the studio-paraphernalia is scattered, her focus is singular. My own ceramic practice is sometimes chaotic inside the studio, all attention on the one object that is being made, honing clarity into its design and form, forcing all other tools, clay-remnants and supporting objects into the status of ‘clutter’. Pleydell-Bouverie represents a now historical time that confronted mass-production in its entirety, a movement popularised by Morris and advocated in the ceramics world by Bernard Leach. This was a time that set mass-production against craft.
Pleydell-Bouverie was Leach’s first apprentice in the 1920’s. Their belief was that all aspects of their work should be done by the individual potter – from digging the clay and making the glazes from raw materials (which should be harvested locally) to gathering and chopping the wood for the kiln’s 36 hour firing. Many potters of this kind were independently wealthy, much like Morris himself, and Pleydell-Bouverie was no exception. In part her wealth allowed her to hold these paradoxically luxurious views. It also allowed her time to imagine, to think of each pot as experimental.
My experience as a London ceramicist in the early 21st century is quite different. I accept technologies that make my life easier. My creative decisions are guided by function and practicality, by beauty and an object just looking ‘right’. There’s a strong work-ethic in my studio-practice, that art must pay the bills, that there should be enjoyment of something I’m making. In this way I am a designer, making for an audience whose opinion is equally as important as my way of working and in this way I am a product of my own generation. Morris brought craft forward in his time by being selectively exclusive of contemporary technologies, now selective inclusion is our way forward.
Ed Hall, Banner Maker
It is common for me to be in a trade union office talking about a new banner and be surrounded by Walter Crane engravings, the work of stained-glass artist Mary Lowndes and William Morris quotations. In September I made a banner for the car workers of Dagenham and their meeting room has displays which would not be out of place in Fiona MacCarthy's wonderful exhibition.
The gas workers’ trade union banner included in Anarchy & Beauty has everything I love: the red caps of the revolution, fine slogans, the border of acorns and the oak, symmetry, the cause of labour, the embrace of liberty and the golden disc ‘Workers Unite’. It excites me that great artists and writers of Morris's day saw socialism as a response to rampant capitalism, and out of this they created beauty.
In my thirty years of banner-making I have made over 450 banners. I hand-paint and stitch them, I see their images everywhere. Within my ability I follow the arts and crafts traditions, the designs are collaborations. There is a paradox in offering the handmade as a counter to a society based on mass.