Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The William Morris Gallery

Lloyd Park, Forest Rd
Walthamstow E17 4PP London

Thursday  July 25th 2014

For anyone not immediately local the easiest approach to this, one of three William Morris-linked sites on our list, is via the Victoria Line which leaves you in busy Walthamstow Central; I was more than happy to revisit one of London’s better bus stations but we decided to walk following the directions usefully painted high on the brickwork. The side roads we followed obviously took a pride in being on a designated route and there were ample displays of window boxes and pots, most people’s front gardens now taken up with the borough’s bins – a common problem this.

Our plan had been to picnic in  Lloyd Park named for the last owners of the Water House, a wealthy printer who left the estate to the borough in 1900. It seemed an ideal area with something for everyone – tennis courts, some wild areas, children’s play equipment and formal and less formal flower beds. The gallery’s tea-room opens onto the gardens so doubles as a park café. However like everyone else we were caught out by a sudden downpour and, having abandoned that very British habit of never going anywhere without a brolly (sunshine goes to the head), instead of a good explore of the park we had to shelter under a tree generous enough to allow us to eat our rolls in comparative dryness even if standing up.

We made a dash for the front of the house, which is where William’s parents moved (from somewhere quite local) when he was 14. It’s a handsome house, on the solid side, and its own history is not forgotten as you tour through the rooms. The terrazzo floored entrance hall is now the shop with the main exhibition room off to left and right in the bays or wings.  The gallery was re-vamped just two years ago and the exhibits are well presented: a balanced combination of artefacts, interactive games (brass rubbing/make your own stained glass window), information and context.  The rooms are both chronological and thematic so we have ROOM  1 – Morris the Man which allows his own quotes to mingle with those of his peers and admirers, and explains  how his love of local nature round the ‘suburban village ‘ of Walthamstow and Epping influenced some of his later designs. Largely educated at home – he ‘left’ Marlborough College after some anti-teacher demonstration and university life at Oxford was more about making formative friends and contacts rather than the degree itself (does that sound familiar?). At Exeter College he met another like-minded artistic spirit – Edward Burne-Jones  – and the rest as they say is history.

To be fair to William Morris he never forgot how privileged he was to be able to follow his inclinations, to have inherited wealth from his canny investor father, and how capital was never in the hands of the workers.  He was even aware that many of his hand produced goods – the wallpapers and textiles – were beyond the reach of many people and ironically chafed against some of his more expensive and expansive clients.  Surprisingly for such a life-long idealist he was quite a canny entrepreneur and managed to secure several jobs at churches undergoing restoration, using his friends and wife as both agents and in Jane Burden, now Morris’s wife, an adept embroiderer.

Later on the firm exhibited at trade events and eventually opened a prestigious showroom in Oxford Street, charmingly evoked in a separate gallery room.  The museum follows this expansion of his business with opportunities to understand block printing/tile making/weaving on a loom with a section on his work at Merton Abbey (we shall doubtless be going there in due course) and indeed the Red House – the first marital home in Bexley are included also. Getting your friends to help decorate is always a good ploy, especially if they are all artists, but unfortunately it also meant breaking up the marriage as Rossetti seduced Jane away from William.

The upstairs rooms of the Gallery were today unbearably hot and stuffy so we gave them less attention – they look at Morris’ legacy inspiring others such as Voysey, Webb, Crane and the wonderfully named Mackmurdo in the Arts & Crafts Movement. Morris was always ‘hands-on’ be it as an artist designing for the company or as a socialist out campaigning (100 lectures a year) or demonstrating – banners abound. He founded the Kelmscott Press also and there are examples of beautifully produced but rather turgid works. 

To tie in with the anniversary of the start of World War I the special exhibition room is devoted to the posters and art work of Frank Brangwyn who spent his early years in Belgium and campaigned on behalf of the refugees the war brought from that country to this one. 

The café has been built onto the side complete with glass roof vents etched with a Morris design, and the Unisex toilets have large scale colour reproductions of the ever popular wallpaper designs : there can be no-one who  has not seen  a sample of his work somewhere, and the gallery as a whole makes an excellent job of celebrating his life and work.

PS We had planned to photograph the tiling down on Walthamstow Victoria Line platform to prove the above point but the tube was having none of it today as the line was suspended from Seven Sisters so we made our way home via Liverpool Street.



  1. This is very local to my daughter - in fact, she was having coffee there this very morning with my grandsons, although I suspect they had babycinos rather than actual coffee....

  2. I do hope you make it to the Vestry House Museum next time you're up in Walthamstow! It covers the history of the borough of Waltham Forest and has a beautiful garden. http://www.walthamforest.gov.uk/vestry-house