A DAY AT THE WILLIAM MORRIS GALLERY
WORDS BY DIVYA SEHGAL AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY PAUL HICKIN
Exploring the legacy of designer, craftsman, poet, novelist and socialist William Morris.
It's a lazy Sunday afternoon in Walthamstow as I walk through the entrance gates of the William Morris Gallery. There are no hoardings that advertise current exhibitions. It’s clear right away that this is not your typical gallery.
A stately house stands in front of me. I enter through the doors to the front room that is now the gift shop, with rooms to either side of me and a staircase ahead. The Gallery is like no other I've been to. Charming and eclectic, it was and still is home to the legacy of William Morris, a designer, craftsman, poet, novelist and socialist.
The first room tells me everything there is to know about William Morris’s early life. The Walthamstow that we know today is very different from the Walthamstow that Morris grew up in. For starters, it wasn't the last station on the Victoria Line but a small countryside village in Essex. As I stand in front of a portrait of the designer, I overhear a woman telling her friend: “Imagine if Walthamstow was part of Essex today!” I smile and think: Imagine! The horror!
William Morris was born into a wealthy family in 1834 and led a privileged life. But he strayed away from the expectations that came with that life, defied societal norms and became an interior and textile designer. If you happen to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, take a seat at the Museum's café, indulge in a cup of tea and enjoy your surroundings. The westernmost room or the “Morris Room”, originally called the “The Green Dining Room”, is one of Morris’s finest works. The deep green and yellow hues are a testimony to Morris’s love for Gothic architecture. Inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites, Morris became enamoured with the magic of tapestry, weaving, ceramics and dyes, leading him to start his own modest company called “The Firm”.
The atmosphere in the room is uplifting. It feels like an appropriate setting to create a piece of art.
I walk into the second room where I'm met with a burst of colourful designs and mosaics. I read his personal history. He married beneath his class – another defiance. There's a piano in the middle of the room, but not for playing. On the wall next to it rests a button that you can press to hear Morris’s favourite folk song play – one that he and his wife played at their home in the evenings. I don’t press the button but walk further, and I’m met with a surprise – a pouffe, some wooden blocks that showcase a model of a medieval cathedral, a couple of brass plates with engravings of a knight and a dog with some paper and pencils next to them. An interactive room! I instantly feel like a child immersed in history.
Sitting on the pouffe, I go “a-brassing” – shading an engraving of a medieval knight and a dog on paper. I hear the music playing in the background. Someone has pressed the button next to the piano. The atmosphere in the room is uplifting. It feels like an appropriate setting to create a piece of art. Behind me, someone is building a medieval castle of their own with the wooden blocks. So much history in one house.
The house leads to Lloyds Garden, which is part of the Gallery. It’s believed that Morris and his brothers went fishing in the moat that runs through the gardens. It’s a beautiful day outside and, as expected, the green is buzzing with families having a Sunday evening amble with dogs in tow. William Morris’s former house serves as the perfect picnic spot during the summer.
William Morris has left a legacy behind: from aspiring local artists using the studios in the gardens to his designs that are probably dotted around the living rooms of British homes. As I sit having a cream tea in the conservatory and look out at the gardens, I can’t help but wonder what he would think of it.
William Morris Gallery conducts "Artists in Residence" programmes for mid-career visual artists. Find details here.
William Morris Gallery, Lloyd Park, Forest Rd, London E17 4PP. Phone: 020 8496 4390