When you think of Walthamstow what do you think of? For me Walthamstow has always been synonymous with 'going down the dogs' after the old Walthamstow Dog Racing Track, or for music fans of my generation it might conjure up thoughts of the artwork for Blur's iconic 'Parklife' album featuring photos of the band at Walthamstow Stadium, or (more impressively) as the birthplace one of the greatest British pop groups of their time; East 17 (later renamed E17 after the actual Walthamstow postcode). Or perhaps, maybe that's just me!
However, the last thing Walthamstow is likely to strike you as is as the birthplace of a cultural, artistic design revolution. But that's exactly what it is. Sort of.
I was lucky enough to pay a visit to The William Morris Gallery this weekend, based in the heart of E17. The Gallery is set in a beautiful grade II listed Georgian house (realistically more of a mansion), built in the 1740s and set in Lloyd Park, Walthamstow. The house was Morris's family home from 1848 to 1856 and is the only public gallery devoted to William Morris. The Gallery is like a beacon of beauty amid the local kebab shops and asphalt backdrop of East London. It's about as unexpected as finding Downton Abbey down the back of the sofa.
I went to the William Morris Gallery with the sole intention of seeing David Bailey's new 'East End Faces' photographic exhibition. Bailey's iconic photographs of 1960s London. However, the visit turned out to be so much more than I had expected it to be. And actually turned out to be one of the most inspirational galleries I've ever been to. As an added bonus, weekend visits allow free parking at the close-by Walthamstow Assembly Hall a beautiful but imposing art deco building that wouldn't look entirely out of place as the backdrop to a Nazi war movie.
As far back as I can remember (i.e my GCSE Art Class 1995) the name William Morris has always been associated with the British Arts & Craft Movement. Essentially, he was just the guy who made those pretty patterns you find in Liberty of London and who made the odd bit of wooden furniture. How wrong could I have been? Having been fully immersed in his history and absorbed by his work I now come to realise that he is one of the most important artist-designers of his age. As we at BrandOpus should well know following our Christmas party trip to the Tate Britain: Morris was an important part of the brotherhood who revolutionised art in the Victorian era, the Pre-Raphaelites (along with Holman Hunt, Millais and Rossetti).
Screenprinted on the wall of the entrance to the exhibition is a quote from when William Morris died aged 62 in 1896. His doctor promptly proclaimed the cause of death: "The disease is simply being William Morris, and having done more work than 10 men." The doctor was hardly joking. The quote became clear once I'd had a good look around the gallery, where I discovered that he was not just a artist-designer, but that amongst other things he was a best selling poet and author, who not only wrote beautiful verse but designed the typeface to write it in, developed the print process to print them with and beautified all the books he published under the publishing house he founded, Kellmscott Press.
Morris was also a hugely talented furniture designer who simplified all of his designs in defiance of the opulent style of his era, taking influence from a simpler time before him. As a result of the popularity of his work, Morris founded his business Morris & Co. and set up a small but profitable shop at 449 Oxford street (which currently houses an equally profitable Phones 4U shop). Regularly suppling textiles and furniture for the crown, including the now famous St. James Damask for George V's silk coronation throne. The recognisable textiles of William Morris' Morris & Co. were one of the first global brands.
He pioneered the creation of new dyes for his textiles and championed the advancement of weaving, wooden block printing and stained glass window art.
As if this weren't already enough, Morris was an active Socialist campaigner for the poor, whom he felt lived in the best circumstances to appreciate his simple, well made furniture but were the least likely to be able to afford to buy it. On top of this he created a organisation to save old and dilapidated buildings in the City of London: The Society of Antiquaries of London, which is still working to preserve the cultural heritage of London's most historic sites to this day.
In addition, William Morris is without question one of the most quoted artists of all time. None of his quotes is more widely recited than, "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."
Everything contained in the gallery complies with aspects of his strongly held beliefs: everything is either useful or beautiful, and most often both. And what's more, entry is totally free. Who can question free inspiration?
Craftsman, Artist, Socialist, Designer, Typographer, Poet, Author, Businessman, Conservationist and most of all, British: Morris truly was the Duncan Bannatyne of his age. In short, and in the words of East 17 "everybody in the house of love."
William Morris Gallery, Lloyd Park, Forest Road, Walthamstow, London, E17 4PP. Wednesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm. Free entry
David Bailey's 'East End Faces' Until 26 May 2013. Open Wednesday to Sunday, 10am - 5pm; Free