The William Morris Gallery on Forest Road in Walthamstow is reopening this Thursday, 2 August following a 15 month refurbishment programme that has seen Water House, the building which houses the gallery, and the adjacent Lloyd Park benefit from over £10m of funding. Water House has long been a significant building in relation to William Morris – the celebrated pre-Raphaelite author, designer and conservationist was born in a house a very short distance away but this was his main family home from 1848 to 1856. The building has been the primary showcase for his work since it was first opened by local MP Clement Attlee in 1950.
The refurbishment and renewal of the Gallery has allowed more rooms to be opened up so that a larger selection of Morris’s work can be put on display – over 600 artifacts will be on show to the public at any one time. The building is also capable of storing the entire archive of objects and materials in the collection safely with the addition of a ‘conservation’ basement – having all the artifacts on site will allow pieces to be rotated through the public viewing areas on a regular basis. The William Morris Gallery was refurbished by Pringle Richards Sharratt Architects, who have also been responsible for the newly themed interiors – these now divide the museum into separate areas that focus on different aspects of William Morris’s life and the Arts and Crafts movement of which he was a part:
- Introductory Area – this room provides a brief overview of the local area and some significant items that emphasise William Morris’s role as a designer and an author. Dominated by a bust of Morris from Walthamstow’s Socialist Hall the room contains a large touch-screen display, the Woodpecker tapestry, volumes from Morris’s Kelmscott Press book-publishing house and an intricately woven Hammersmith carpet.
- Starting Out – this room looks at Morris’s formative years, his relationships, artistic influences and his early forays into design – you’ll discover for example that his first commission, to decorate the dome of the Oxford Union, ended in complete disaster. Due to inexperience, Morris and his collaborators did not treat the walls before applying their designs, which started to fade and peel in less than six months…
- Morris & Co – an examination of his business acumen and the development of a company which in modern terms would rival IKEA in popularity. Morris’s carpets, wallpapers, furniture and stained glass were all the rage amongst the more bohemian Victorians – there are vignettes of some of his wealthier clients in this area, as well as examples of his iconic Sussex chairs and the St James’ fabric.
- The Workshop currently showcases the myriad designs of Morris’s wallpapers which all revolved around natural themes. Visitors can also look at the processes of weaving, carpet-knotting, creating stained glass and textile printing.
- The Shop – this is a recreation of a William Morris & Co retail outlet from the mid-Victorian period. It includes a rather extravagant and unusual tapestry commissioned by a wealthy client and also some of the furniture and glassware that Morris had sourced in Europe, and which patrons often purchased to compliment their original Morris designs.
- Ideal Book – in one of the newly opened galleries on the first floor of Water House, Ideal Book looks at the founding and development of the Kelmscott Press company, another of William Morris’s business ventures. During his lifetime he was most well-known as a celebrated author – Kelmscott was usually the company that printed his volumes of poems and historical tales, often with elaborate illumination befitting the subject matter. There’s also a useful ‘pub quiz’ fact to be found in this space – the room houses the first Bible to be printed in Icelandic. William Morris adored the country, and learned the language so that he could translate the old Icelandic sagas and reproduce them in English for a fascinated British public.
- Fighting For A Cause – also housed on the first floor this is probably the oddest of the spaces in the William Morris Gallery, as it isn’t dedicated to art. It looks at William Morris’s decision in the 1870s to leave behind big business and throw himself into left-wing politics and conservation. An early socialist, he was also a co-founder of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings alongside architect Philip Webb and J.J.Stephenson.
- Arts and Crafts Movement – this space contains examples of the work of William Morris’s contemporaries. Taking pride of place at the centre of the room is a chair by Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo – also notable is an ornate black cloak which was embroidered by Morris’s youngest daughter, May. It is intended that this room will regularly showcase different pre-Raphaelite artists drawn from the gallery’s extensive archive.
- Frank Brangwyn – dedicated to one of Morris’s apprentices, and an artist in his own right, Frank Brangwyn was responsible for collecting most of the pieces that feature in the William Morris Gallery – without him it is likely that the museum would never have come into existence at Water House.
The refurbishment of the William Morris Gallery has also allowed the building of an extension which now houses the cafe, and there’s also a guest gallery that will feature artists with a local connection – for the next few weeks it is home to Jackson Perry’s controversial ‘Walthamstow Tapestry’. When you’re sipping your coffee in the cafe remember to look up, as you’ll see the most common feature of the new gallery – one of Morris’s fabric prints superimposed on the glass roof. They can be found everywhere, and not just in the main spaces. Morris’s patterns can be found in the carpeting of the main staircase, the curtains and even on the walls in the toilets!
William Morris’s life and work has long-deserved a space like this – I remember my previous visits to Water House and my abiding memory is of darkness, dust and a distinct lack of patrons! I’m sure that the transformation of the William Morris Gallery into the light and airy space it is today will draw in many more fans – the remodelled Lloyd Park, which now features both a formal garden and one dedicated to Morris, will also help to attract local visitors who won’t be greeted by the sight of a foreboding, shuttered building any longer. It will also help to finally put Walthamstow on the map for art lovers.
The William Morris Gallery is free of charge to visit – opening hours are 10am to 5pm Wednesday to Sunday. Even if you only have a passing interest in Arts and Crafts you’ll have a very rewarding visit – I highly recommend it.