diamond geezer

 Thursday, August 16, 2012

William Morris, the esteemed Victorian designer, left echoes all over London. His Red House in Bexley. His riverside terrace in Hammersmith. His mill and factory in Merton. But for an overview of his life and work you need to head for Walthamstow, to the neighbourhood where the great man grew up. A few years back it looked like this would no longer be possible. Waltham Forest council looked ready to shut their bespoke museum, blaming lack of funding (and, one expects, lack of footfall). The curator was sacked, opening hours were threatened, and only a Heritage Lottery grant saved the entire project. More than four million pounds have since been pumped into the building, and the William Morris Gallery duly relaunched in the middle of Olympic fortnight. What do you mean, you didn't notice? You really should have, because the revamp is fabulous.

William Morris Gallery
Location: Forest Road, Walthamstow, E17 4PP [map]
Open: Wednesday - Sunday (closed Mon, Tue)
Admission: free
Website: www.wmgallery.org.uk (& Friends)

The Morris family moved into their Georgian home on Forest Road in 1848. They were downsizing after William's father's death, but the house is still larger and grander than anywhere you'll ever live. This was the middle of the countryside at the time, though it's hardly that today, about a ten minute walk from the end of the Victoria line. The Gallery stands at the entrance to Lloyd Park, currently undergoing restoration of its own. The house looks pretty much the same as before from the outside, and the entrance hall's familiar too but scrubbed up rather better. Here's where the shop is, selling a wider range of Morrisiana than before, which you'll likely be tempted to dip into after working your way round the exhibition.

Room one's on the right, where you'll get an overview of the great man's life. A preview, if you like, from wallpaper to tapestries and carpet to books. At the heart of the room is an interactive map of the local area, so you can see what used to be here and where various related places used to be. The map's the first hint that the museum is hitting well above average - seamlessly modern, glidingly smooth. Back across the hallway Morris's career begins, inspired by education and a love of nature. Stand back and enjoy the lovely things, and maybe press the button to hear a favourite tune on the piano - charming. A pair of chairs exhibit the difference between fussy Victoriana and the Morris philosophy, here too the bright simplicity of stained glass and early wallpaper. On another interactive screen you can test your business acumen on an excellent simulation of Morris & Co's early years. Pick your product, designer and price carefully, else you'll be bankrupt instead of on the way to glory by the finish.

In The Workshop, it's hands on. Interspersed among the textiles, wallpapers and stained glass are all sorts of semi-creative activities, like weaving, and assembling, and copying designs on graph paper. That's appropriate, because this is the room that showcases Morris's craft-y techniques alongside examples of the variety of his work. This was the busiest room on my visit, and probably the one families with children will gravitate towards, for what might best be described as a little intelligent play. Don't forget to open the drawers to see additional examples of further work. The following room's smaller, and darker, and recreates the showroom that William opened to service London clients. First at 499 Oxford Street, which is where Primark now stands, then at a more upmarket address in Hanover Square. The captions beside the wares are quotations from the catalogue, extolling the art, the furniture, the tiles, the beautifully repetitive fabric. Your living room probably couldn't withstand four walls of Morris paper, but why not flick through the samples and imagine.

Upstairs there's more, perhaps a little more oblique, including a room devoted to the Arts and Crafts movement (and a quiz where you can prove what you've learned). Frank Brangwyn gets a mention, one of Morris's apprentices who helped bequeath many of the exhibits to the council in the first place. Books were important to William, especially in his later life, and his Kelmscott Press specialised in illustrated woodcut literature. If you prefer a proper font to firing up a Kindle, you'll approve. And finally, possibly unexpectedly, an outbreak of politics. Morris knew how privileged he was, and always regretted that the majority of the population wasn't wealthy enough to enjoy good design. As a lifelong socialist he campaigned, he leafleted, and he was there at the birth of the emerging labour movement. A businessman with a social heart, and a creative genius to boot.

I mentioned the shop, but another retail addition downstairs forms a key part of the museum's complete makeover. A tearoom, a proper tearoom, that does lunch and sandwiches and salads and cakes as well as a nice pot of tea and a sit down. It's bright and airy and modern, and on a nice day there's even a rear terrace where you can look out over Lloyd Park and wonder how lovely it'll be when it's finished. And if you get here before 23rd September the one-room gallery nextdoor contains a very special treat. In an echo of what's on display elsewhere, here's a 15m Grayson Perry wall hanging, The Walthamstow Tapestry. It's not his latest Channel 4 piece, you've missed that elsewhere, but a 2009 piece subtitled The Seven Ages of Shopping. Be warned that the first age really is birth, so small children should probably look away. The tapestry is littered with brand names, entirely out of context, with the expectation that in a century's time they'll make no sense but the design will still shine. A mini maxi masterpiece, as you'd expect.

For an attraction that might have died, the restored William Morris Gallery is all the more impressive. The displays are diverse and colourful. The commentary across the walls has light and depth. Technology has been incorporated sparingly, but intelligently. But best of all it's well designed, which the great man would surely have appreciated. And you'll appreciate him more, in all his aspects, after a trip to E17. [BBC London report]

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