The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, 1860-1960

National Portrait Gallery

Reviewed by Gillian Darley

On the death of his colleague and fellow spirit, the modest architect Philip Webb remarked that he was ‘branded like a sheep’s back with William Morris’, and although Webb designed Morris’s simple gravestone, that poignant image in words is for me at least the more profound memorial.

Fiona MacCarthy’s National Portrait Gallery exhibition, which lives on in her elegant, thoughtful catalogue, focused on William Morris’s achievements and the journey of his ideas over the course of a century from 1860 until 1960. She begins with the formative, albeit turbulent, days at the Red House; Webb’s design being, as she writes neatly, both ‘flexible and fluent’. Starting with a selection of delectable (and generally unfamiliar) objects from the Pre-Raphaelite days, she moves on to identify the continuous thread of Morris’s influence in which the satisfactions and convictions of the creative maker – stone-cutter or weaver, architect or typographer, furniture maker or potter – are interwoven.

Radical politics and communal endeavours (whether craft guilds and workshops or garden cities) were central to that most enduring of mission statements, ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’ In theory, that message was as much for the aspiring poor as for the discerning rich. The 1890s banners designed by Walter Crane link to the series of (now lost) panels of heroic Londoners which Octavia Hill commissioned for Red Cross Hall, the community centre for her Southwark tenants. Cottage furniture catalogues were for the enlightened, and comfortably off, middle classes, but William Lever’s tenant-employees at Port Sunlight received paternalistic pamphlets through the letterbox exhorting them to wash thoroughly and keep their new Arts & Crafts terraces and crescents squeaky clean.

George Lansbury – who had been an avid reader of Morris’s News from Nowhere – was to be the first commissioner of the Office of Works, the beginning of government engagement with historic buildings and thus statutory protection. Herbert Morrison, a conscientious objector in WWII, worked as a market gardener in Letchworth Garden City during the war. Morris and Webb sowed the seeds of the conservation movement, founding the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) in 1877. The National Trust followed in 1895 (and now, in the early 21st century, claims to be ‘for ever, for everyone’). Its founders, notably Octavia Hill, were rooted in the writing and thinking of both Morris and John Ruskin.

As Fiona MacCarthy writes, ‘[Morris’s] arguments for the necessity of art as the measure of any just and civilised society affect us still today.’ Gordon Russell’s Council of Industrial Design (1947) can be seen, she notes, as ‘an aesthetic offshoot of the Welfare State’. Russell’s common sense, and his belief in the skills of both hand and (importantly) machine, created items of pleasing utility, things to lift the spirits of a public jaded by years of austerity. He was a key figure in the Festival of Britain, along with Hugh Casson, whose little 1948 book on Victorian architecture had a dust jacket featuring the Red House. Morris’s message was seized by battalions of admirable women, from his redoubtable daughter May Morris to Ethel Mairet to Lucienne Day. In old age, when disillusion might have taken its toll on her ideals, Barbara Castle eloquently and memorably defended Morris’s marriage of socialism and beauty to an SPAB audience in his beloved Great Coxwell barn.

Terence Conran founded his design group in 1956 and his first Habitat store opened in 1964: enterprises sparked by the verve and idealism of the Festival, held when he was twenty, and facilitated by a post-war art school education. But there is another, possibly more coherent and steadfast, example of a business that Fiona MacCarthy might have cited: David Mellor was a true descendent of William Morris and the products of the company now headed by her son Corin remain a benchmark for quality, beauty and fitness for purpose.

Essentially, as E P Thompson observed, Morris was ‘one of those men that history will never overtake’, and with this exhibition and catalogue, as well as her earlier fine biography, Fiona MacCarthy has done him proud.

2015 sees a series of events and activities to mark the centenary of Webb’s death, including the relaunch by SPAB of the Philip Webb Award.