When William Morris died, his doctor said that he died of being William Morris – of doing the work of ten men. The enormous endeavours of his lifetime, the things he achieved, are nicely represented in the exhibition ‘Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy 1860-1960′ at the National Portrait Gallery. At first, looking at the familiar faces of his circle in the portraits on display, seeing the swathes of familiar Willow pattern fabric, the beautiful Prioress’s Tale wardrobe, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the comfortable familiarity of it all. The sheer versatility and energy of the man is apparent in his craft, his politics, and his writing – but we also get a sense of the man himself, from delightful small exhibits such as his membership card of the Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist League, or the cartoons of ‘Topsy’ by Burne-Jones. Possibly one of my favourite items here was Morris’s leather and canvas satchel, battered but serviceable, in which he carried books, tools, lecture notes etc; somehow its sturdy, practical beauty seemed to sum up the man himself.
The early part of the exhibition, then, is inspiring. Even though I know quite a lot about Morris, it was appealing to see so many objects relating to aspects of his life, and so many of his friends and acquaintances featured. Aspects of his work, from his subversive gender politics to his anarchic socialism, his rehabilitation of craft as a form of art, his emphasis on the accessibility of education for all and his interest in social conditions and housing, are all touched on here. The exhibition gives you a real sense of how connected the nineteenth century world was, where one man’s life could touch so many others.
And this, of course, is the point of the exhibition. Morris’s legacy began during his lifetime, and spread outwards rapidly. Like John Ruskin, his energies were spread wide, and he had a huge effect on the world around him. But as the exhibition moved on, I must confess I was disappointed. Though there are some clear links to Morris’s ideas about design in the Festival of Britain, for example, or his ideas about social living in the garden city movement, not enough was made of these, particularly visually (apart from a chair by Terence Conran, and a few pieces of fabric by Lucienne Day, the Festival of Britain section seemed to mostly include photographs of men sitting at desks). Outside the exhibition there were some photographs of and quotations from artists and others who have been inspired by Morris, including the writer A S Byatt, who comments on the inspiration of how he lived his work, and how she now lives with his designs.
I must confess that I did find the exhibition lost impact, then; there is so much more that could be said about the direct influence of Morris’s work and ideas right up to the present day, and so although I was inspired by the early parts of the exhibition, by the end it left me with the impression that Morris’s legacy was not as vibrant and alive as I know it to be. Nonetheless, it was encouraging to see a final board which reminded those leaving the exhibition of Morris’s relevance today, for a revival of craft skills, issues of the environment, and ‘art as a vital force within society’ which crosses cultural divides.