I did something the other week which I’d never achieved before: I went to the end of a London Underground line! I have to say that I was a bit disappointed that the Victoria Line remained resolutely Underground until Walthamstow Central – I had assumed that, like the District and the Central lines, it would pop up into the fresh air (like the Mole after spring-cleaning) once it was clear of the chartered streets close to the chartered Thames, but no such luck.
A short walk from Walthamstow High Street, down Hoe Street (past a staggeringly tempting array of cafés with amazing displays of cakes), and you come to Forest Road, on which lies the former home of the comfortable, middle-class Morris family, now the William Morris Gallery, fitting location for a museum dedicated to their renegade son.
To my shame, I had never been there before, but my reason for going last week was to catch the enthralling exhibition (over several rooms) dedicated to Morris’s daughter May (1862–1938), skillful designer and embroiderer, and Keeper of the Flame. It was the last week (though at least not the last day) of the exhibition, which was very well worth the trip. (NB the Gallery is now closed until 20 February for restoration of the floorboards, though the tea room remains open!!!)
William Morris (1834–96) was not born here (I heard one of the friendly and helpful front-of-house team tell somebody that his birthplace is down the road, opposite the fire station). As the family increased in wealth, they moved in 1840 to Woodford Hall, on the edge of Epping Forest, where William roamed on his pony and generally seems to have led an idyllic existence.
His father’s sudden death in 1847 and the need for retrenchment caused his mother to move back to Walthamstow in 1848, to Water House on Forest Road (today the Gallery): by this time William was at Malborough School (and hating it).
Water House remained the family home until 1856, by which time Morris had graduated from Oxford and become articled to the architect G.E. Street (his mother had destined him for the church – difficult to imagine how this would have worked …). The Lloyd family, who later owned the house, gave the grounds to the local council in perpetuity as a park, which has kept the house surrounded by greenery, and the Gallery was first opened in 1950, largely due to the efforts of the artist and designer Sir Frank Brangwyn (1867–1956), who was briefly a pupil in Morris’s workshop, and to whom one of the rooms in the Gallery is dedicated.
The permanent display takes you through Morris’s life, from his early days in Walthamstow and Epping Forest, to his refusal (aged 17) to step inside the ‘wonderfully ugly’ Crystal Palace, to his time at Oxford (including his formative meeting with Edward Burne-Jones) and his realisation that he was not going to become a clergyman – his letter to his mother, trying to explain his decision, is on show. A gratifying (to me!) amount of space is devoted to the Kelmscott Press, including a beautifully printed flysheet giving the binding options and prices for the Kelmscott Chaucer.
Morris owned, and annotated, a copy of John Gerard’s Herball, drawing information from it for the creation of plant dyes (he was not in sympathy with William Henry Perkin’s mauve and the other aniline dyes then being developed).
(I saw another copy of the Herball a few days later at the Garden Museum, but that’s another blog …) May Morris too was in sympathy with the importance of natural dyestuffs, believing that they achieved an unrivalled clarity and sheen of colour.
One room is devoted to the Firm – ‘Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.: Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and the Metals’ from 1861 to 1875, and then just ‘Morris and Co.’ until 1940. The original founders included (as well as Morris himself), Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, Philip Webb (the architect whom Morris met while working for G.E. Street, and who later designed the Red House), Charles Faulkner (Oxford mathematician, civil engineer and financial director of the Firm, whose sisters Lucy and Kate worked for it as designers) and Peter Paul Marshall, the most obscure of the group, a civil engineer, amateur painter and friend of Brown.
There are examples of the goods sold by the Firm, including a batch of tiles designed by William de Morgan (son of the mathematician Augustus and the spiritualist Sophia) whose 1907 novel Alice-for-Short: A Dichronism was dedicated to ‘E.B.J. and W.M.’. Sharp-eyed and sound-memoried readers (assuming they exist?!) will recognise the dodo!
May Morris must have learned embroidery from her mother and aunt, both of them skilled in the craft. She later attended the Government School of Design in South Kensington (now the Royal College of Art), where she studied textile crafts. (She had been taken out of Notting Hill High School when her elder sister Jenny, also a pupil there, and intellectually gifted, tragically developed epilepsy (possibly inherited from William’s mother – it has been suggested that some of William’s own legendary rages were in fact seizures), then untreatable – the sufferer was slowly poisoned with potassium bromide – and socially unacceptable.) By 1885, May was managing the embroidery section of the Firm, designing, supervising the embroiderers and herself making up commissions; she also designed wallpaper and lettering.
She wrote books, and taught and lectured on embroidery, as well as exhibiting her works. Ten years after her father’s death, she took on the task of editing and writing introductions to his prose and verse works, which came out in 24 volumes between 1910 and 1924; she also produced a pendant two-volume work: William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist, in 1936.
I knew that G.B. Shaw, who had contributed an essay, ‘Morris as I Knew Him’, to the second volume, had been – to put it very crudely – stringing May Morris along in the 1880s, but I had no idea until I visited this exhibition that in 1890 she married one Henry Halliday Sparling, a member of the Socialist League of which her father was one of the mainstays. It did not last (nor did the Socialist League, incidentally): there were no children, and they were divorced some time in 1898 or 1899 (when the average annual number of divorces in the U.K. was about 500). She reverted to (if she had ever given up) her maiden name.
Standing in the shadow of her father, and finding a creative outlet in a craft traditionally regarded as appropriate to women, and therefore lowly in the aesthetic scale of values, May Morris has been rather unfairly overlooked. What I most admired about this exhibition – even more than her design skills – is precisely the workmanship of her own embroideries: unbelievably fine and delicate, with never a stitch out of place. I like my art to be crafted by the artist, not by a furnace-man or an abattoir worker carrying out a ‘concept’, and you will not see art – in any medium – crafted better than this.