William Morris and Kelmscott Manor

20170518_142652It is surprising that I’ve never been to Kelmscott Manor before, but this week I went with a group from the Birmingham Midland Institute. I gave a lecture about William Morris while we were travelling, so I spent the preceding week deeply immersed in Morris’s life and work, and it has increased my passion for him. Visiting Kelmscott consequently felt like something of a pilgrimage. The Manor has an interesting history anyway, dating from 1600, and Morris felt that it was “the loveliest haunt of ancient peace”, which seemed to be rooted in the soil and the people who had lived there. The image of Kelmscott is particularly famous for its appearance as the frontispiece for Morris’s utopian novel News from Nowhere, and it was wonderful to see it in the stone, as it were, and to feel the deep peace which the place exudes.'Kelmscott Manor' 1893  (Frontispiece from 'News from Nowhere')

Morris was fascinated by the medieval period, ideas and ideals as well as aesthetics, since his childhood when he rode around on a pony in his suit of miniature armour and made up stories in the woods about knights, ladies and fairies. As he grew up, rejecting the Church as a profession in favour of architecture while he was at Oxford, his thoughts and ideas all seem to stem from this childhood interest. Books influenced him deeply; he’d apparently read all of Walter Scott’s novels by the age of nine, and at University he discovered Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present, John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice and Charlotte Yonge’s The Heir of Redclyffe. What these books all share, I think, is dissatisfaction with the industrial, self-seeking present, and a desire to revisit the past which is more than nostalgia, but a genuine desire to put right what they felt was wrong with the world. Like the modern-day knight of Yonge’s novel, Guy Morville, Morris’s life demonstrates how he lived out the ideals he developed as a young man.

Morris is mostly remembered as a designer, now, and of course there are many of his designs at Kelmscott Manor, which is perhaps more simply furnished than one might 20170518_144830expect, but in a distinctive style (I’ve now discovered why my parents painted all their furniture dark green) with natural, clear colours. Many of the fabrics and objects there were brought there after his death, but it’s wonderful to see his bed, with the poem he wrote for it embroidered by Jane around it, which begins:

The wind’s on the wold
And the night is a-cold,
And Thames runs chill
‘Twixt mead and hill.

Morris’s poetry, his Norse tales, his Socialist work and his designs all demonstrate a remarkable sense of unity. Though his Socialism developed after he encountered Marx’s Das Kapital, he was always anxious for opportunities for all, and for a fairer system to be achieved in Britain, for which he was quite prepared for violent anarchy – indeed, he felt it was probably the only way, and in News from Nowhere it is apparent that such a revolution had occurred. His desire was 20170518_144819not only for equality but for dignity and respect for all, and that comes in a very Marxist form in News from Nowhere, where all receive the same pay and love their work. The guiding principal of ‘The Firm’ which Morris set up to produce useful and beautiful household objects was that art should be handmade, using the skill of the craftspeople, and that all should have access to it. Of course these things may seem improbable or even impossible, and Morris is nothing if not an idealist, but there is something incredibly appealing about his beautiful, medievalized utopia in which all can share in the beauty of life through art, nature and love. The environment was an important part of this, too: how we connect to what is around us – buildings, places, the natural world – indicates who were are, and it is very clear what he thought of the pollution and destruction of the natural environment in the nineteenth century:

Is money to be gathered? cut down the pleasant trees among the houses, pull down ancient and venerable buildings for the money that a few square yards of London dirt will fetch; blacken rivers, hide the sun and poison the air with smoke and worse, and it’s nobody’s business to see to it or mend it: that is all that modern commerce, the counting-house forgetful of the workshop, will do for us herein.

He is remarkably prescient, I believe: I’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate recently, and Morris’s views that we have lost connection with the environment, that we are wreaking havoc on the wo20170518_144014rld and there will be ecological payback, and that capitalism in the form of industrialised society is the main driver of climate destruction are echoed vividly in Klein’s arguments. Wandering the beautiful gardens at Kelmscott, and walking beside the Thames where Rossetti and Morris wandered, one can see why he felt so strongly about this, leaving behind the polluted rivers and skies of London.

Morris said that ‘History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created.’ To be creative was the source of life for Morris, and Kelmscott Manor provided the peace that he needed for this. He wrote in the late 1870s of sitting in the tapestry room one evening, watching the sun set over the fields and hearing the cows lowing in the pasture; there are still cows there, and it is possible to feel very close to the past here.

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Exhibition Review: Swinburne at Balliol

Algernon Charles Swinbourne (1837-1909)At the weekend we visited a little exhibition at the Balliol College Historical Collections Centre, on Algernon Charles Swinburne, his time at Balliol and his life and work. It was only on for two days, but if you missed it you might like to get hold of a catalogue, which is very informative. If you don’t know much about Swinburne, or even if you do, it’s a great opportunity to find out more and see some wonderful documentation about his life. A poet and associate of the Pre-Raphaelites, I imagine he would be extremely shocked to find that he is now considered ‘one of Balliol’s most distinguished former students’; precocious and talented, the examinations register notes him as ‘Industrious but eccentric’ (which is definitely better than some of his peers, who bask in the glory of ‘Respectable but indolent’, ‘Weak, but satisfactory’ (really?!), and ‘Still very unsatisfactory’). I’m often struck by how many ‘great Victorians’ had rather uninteresting University careers, but Swinburne won prizes , founded ‘The Old Mortality Club’, and wrote many essays as well as beginning to write poetry. However, as he became increasingly interested in politics – he was later infamous for his republican and atheist views – his studies faltered, and eventually he went downfine_swinburne without taking his degree.

His associations with the Pre-Raphaelites included his close friendship with the painter William Bell Scott, who painted the portrait above, as well as William Morris, whom he met through mutual friends at Oxford, and later Burne-Jones and Rossetti. The exhibition explores these connections through manuscripts of poems (including one ‘To William Bell Scott’), and a copy of the wonderful Kelmscott Press edition of one of Swinburne’s most famous poems, ‘Atalanta in Calydon’, of which this exhibition marks the 150th anniversary. There are also copies of his collection A Century of Roundels with the roundels on the cover designed by Rossetti.

Swinburne-apeSwinburne remained attached to his tutor, Benjamin Jowett, reading over his work in draft form and eventually writing a fond essay in memorial of his tutor after Jowett’s death. Swinburne had holidayed with Jowett, and there are some fascinating letters (in illegible handwriting!) from Jowett to Florence Nightingale expressing concern about the quantities Swinburne was drinking. The exhibition makes a good case for the poet’s ongoing fondness for Oxford and Balliol despite the unsatisfactory conclusion of his degree, as well as indicating Swinburne’s poetic appropriations of the classical myths and forms he learned from Jowett. Swinburne became a highly successful poet, but he was seen as decadent (though, as the catalogue says, he perhaps write about ‘vice’ more than he practised it) and John Ruskin described ‘Atalanta at Calydon’ as ‘the grandest thing ever yet done by a youth – though he is a Demoniac youth’. His preoccupation with republicanism and the non-existence of God made him also a figure of suspicion, along with hints of other things even less acceptable to Victorian society, such as sex and flagellation (neither of which get much of a mention in the Balliol exhibition, for which I am thankful, as there is more than enough modern salaciousness about these aspects of his life). These nonconforming views were most apparent in his 1866 collection Poems and Ballads, dedicated to Burne-Jones, and the manuscripts of some of the poems which were on display were a delight.roundels

The Balliol collection leaves no doubt, then, that he was a genius, if an eccentric one. His ideas did not conform to their time, but his work still reads as radical, as well as beautiful, today. The final case shows some modern editions of Swinburne’s work, indicating an ongoing popularity not only with readers but with illustrators; these more recent works are works of art in themselves and a fitting legacy. The exhibition indicates Swinburne’s importance as a Victorian poet and his connectedness to Victorian public and literary life, as well as suggesting, rightly, how formative the Balliol years had been for him. The collection held by the College is remarkable and forms a wonderful resource for those working on Swinburne or certain aspects of Victorian poetry, and it was marvellous to have the opportunity to see so much of it on display. I’m shortly going to be reviewing the new Selected Swinburne edited by Alex Wong, and I will do so with a renewed enthusiasm for the poetry.

Before the beginning of years
There came to the making of man
Time with a gift of tears,
Grief with a glass that ran,
Pleasure with pain for leaven,
Summer with flowers that fell,
Remembrance fallen from heaven,
And Madness risen from hell,
Strength without hands to smite,
Love that endures for a breath;
Night, the shadow of light,
And Life, the shadow of death.

(From ‘Atalanta in Calydon’)

 

 

 

The Importance of being William Morris

IMG_1531When 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 aIMG_1533nd 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 oIMG_1534f 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.AS Byatt
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.

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Janey Morris: Pre-Raphaelite Muse

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2014 marks the centenary of Jane Morris’s death, and to mark this the National Portrait Gallery have a small exhibition devoted to images of Janey. This includes photographs and paintings of her friends and family, including a marvellous, though unsmiling, photographic portrait of the Morris and Burne-Jones families which gives a real sense of how closely the families were entwined (and explains why the children were described as ‘medieval brutes’). The images of May and Jenny, the Morris children, are appealing but they are in many ways only a shadow of their more dramatic mother: the star images here are the late photographs of Jane by Emery Walker.

These are a series taken in 1898 at Kelmscott. Georgiana Burne- Jones described Jane at this stage as ‘still a splendid looking creature’, and so she is – serious, dramatic, melancholy, she is pictured here in profile (still that strong line of her earlier image) and straight on, facing down the camera with a challenging stare. In one, she gazes slightly past the camera, as if she has lost interest and is thinking about something more important – what to have for dinner, perhaps…
I’m slightly dubious about the decision to use the affectionate diminutive Janey in the title of the exhibit – though Morris and others called her this, it seems a little patronising (and not something we do for all historical figures). Although small, though, this exhibition is worth a look: I can’t say it added to my knowledge of Jane Morris, but I left feeling as though I had encountered the woman herself and seen something mysterious in her eyes.

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You can read more about Jane Morris at the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood site.

The Birmingham School of Art

Birmingham, as an industrial city, has held a complex place in the history of British art, becoming a centre for the anti-industrialist Arts and Crafts movement, heavily influenced by Pre-Raphaelitism and William Morris.  Prizing beautiful hand-crafted objects over cheap mass-produced goods, the craftsmen and women abided by Morris’ stipulation that Art should be “by the people and for the people” in the form of everyday objects in the home.  The Birmingham School of Art grew rapidly in the late 1800s as an educational focus for this movement in Birmingham.   In 1877 Edward Taylor became the head of the school and it was under his direction that it expanded in modern and often controversial ways.  The Birmingham school was radical in its new proposals – it was the first school to teach “executed design”, which involved not only the design process and the theory of design but also the practice of craftsmanship in working the design in the intended materials.   There was an obvious conflict of interest between the manufacturers who were keen to have well-trained, skilled workers and those who wished to pursue Art for their own careers.  Many of the local industrialists, however, were followers of Ruskin’s “Art industrialism” ethos and were on the board of the Art School, and with the rapid growth and development of branch schools in the 1890s any conflict of interest was quickly resolved. The Tangye brothers in particular were industrial entrepreneurs who provided the school with a considerable amount of funding.

The Central school, housed originally in Margaret Street (above right), and now part of Birmingham City University, was the more advanced school, while the Branch schools were more elementary.  Some concentrated on the jewellery or furniture trades, while others were along the more traditional Art School lines.  The Branch schools ran evening classes and traditional Art classes, while the newly built Central School in Margaret Street was equipped with airy, modern workshops for the execution of designs by students of craftsmanship.

One of the oldest and most popular Branch Schools was the purpose-built Moseley Road Art School (left), built in 1898 as a direct result of the expansion of interest in Art in Birmingham.  This was built to a design that was appearing all over Birmingham at this time, inspired by the work of architect John H. Chamberlain.  The architectural firm of Martin and Chamberlain was responsible for all the Birmingham School of Art buildings, being architects to the Board Schools from 1871 until 1902.  A journalist of the time commented that “All [these buildings] paraded the bright red brick of revolution and the pink terracotta symbols of municipal pride”.  This “parade” of new, bright, artistic buildings was a direct result of the “Civic Gospel”, a programme of municipal regeneration for Birmingham which planned to make Birmingham the centre of a new Renaissance.  This plan had been instigated in the 1870s by various members of the board for municipal regeneration and artistic committees in the city; the people of Birmingham had worked together as never before to produce a new, creative, thriving metropolis, and they had much of which to be proud.

Walter Crane, advocate of the Arts and Crafts movement and author of many books on the subject, was the Examiner for the Birmingham School of Art in 1889, and his Examiner’s Report praised the work of the School and suggested the extension of the School in line with the growing interest in arts and crafts, and the development of crafts workshops. This was partly due to an increase in the number of women students attending the municipal Art schools in Birmingham, both as fee-paying and scholarship students.  Crafts were seen as a suitable occupation for a woman, although many argued that it was merely fashionable, and that women “amateurs” were taking up the places at the schools which could have been more useful occupied by men.  In 1920 the Moseley Road school added an extension on to the back of the building, which can still be seen today, as workshops specifically for women students. Birmingham School of Art was the first Art School in the country to pass into municipal control, in 1883, and thus gain financial autonomy, and later they fought for and were to win independence in their teaching methods.  It became the model for similar schools in London and Leicester, and by the turn of the century the newly formed Board of Education, which covered Science and Arts, was so proud of the work of the Birmingham School that it sent the students’ work all over the world to be displayed.  The younger generation of artists that came from the Art Schools were more open to ideas and influences from diverse sources and soon made a name for themselves that was a tribute to the work of the Civic Gospel thirty years before. The Moseley building has been flagged as being at risk by the Victorian Society.

The Cult of Beauty

On Saturday we had a day-trip to London to see ‘The Cult of Beauty’ at the V&A, before it closes (on July 17th so not long now if you haven’t already seen it!) It’s had some amazing reviews, and everyone seems to have seen it, and I’m glad we made the effort to go. I can’t remember ever seeing such a remarkable collection of objects in one place, and the exhibition, true to the V&A’s approach, provided a fascinating mixture of objets d’art, paintings, furniture, books and other appropriate items (such as this marvellous William de Morgan dish).

I won’t write a detailed review, since there are so many out there (see this in The Guardian, for example, which suggests that this exhibition could revise our view of Victorian art and culture, or this glowing report by Waldemar Januszczak), but in my opinion the exhibition mostly lived up to its reputation. The exhibition is devoted to the work of the Aesthetic movement, the hedonistic offspring of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The exhibition therefore builds up to the apex of Aestheticism: beginning with Pre-Raphaelitism, some earlier Rossettis, some Burne-Jones, Rossetti’s bedroom, etc; then moving towards the Arts and Crafts movement with Morris and Burne-Jones furniture (so beautiful I wanted to stroke it – but resisted), with its morality and integrity combined with its beauty (summarised in Morris’s famous line “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”). Finally we reach the apex of Aestheticism, culminating in the hedonism of Oscar Wilde’s “art for art’s sake”, the designs of Beardsley, and the paintings of Moore and Whistler. By now, meaning and morality have vanished in a backlash against the earlier Victorians, and a modern, sleek aesthetic has replaced the more realist designs of the earlier artists.

This exhibition is not just a celebration of beauty, it is also a journey through the changing tastes of the Victorians. It’s a riot of colour and exuberance, and does credit to the designs and paintings of the nineteenth century, and will, I think, deservedly revive interest in them. The V&A website includes an interesting blog on Creating The Cult of Beauty if you want to find out more, or if you missed the exhibition.