Just before Christmas, I finally made the trip to the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow. I have been meaning to go ever since they reopened after their recent refurbishment, but I was put off by the thought of the journey out to the bleak wastelands of Zone 3. I shouldn’t have been; the Gallery couldn’t be easier to get to. Hop on the always (comparatively) calm and efficient Victoria line to Walthamstow Central and take a short walk through the rather dilapidated Victorian streets of Walthamstow and you’ll find yourself unexpectedly standing in front of a grand Georgian manor house that looks like it should be in a Jane Austen adaptation. This is where William Morris spent a good deal of his formative years. It was once surrounded by parkland and countryside, when Walthamstow was a very desirable Essex village rather than a busy and cosmopolitan London neighbourhood. Now it’s on a main road and is surrounded by concrete and Victorian terraces, but once inside, the years fall away as you completely enter the world of William Morris.
I became fascinated by Morris after studying him as part of a Victorian Literature module at university. I had only known of him as a designer before my lecturer proved otherwise by having us read a selection of his utopian fiction. Idealistic and rather overwritten as it was, News from Nowhere was an intriguing insight into the mind of a man who had genuinely wanted a better, more equal world where craftmanship and community were keystones of a more thoughtful and humanitarian society. Amongst the predominant rhetoric of the Victorian world, Morris’ was a unique voice calling for a retrenchment to a simpler life in an age of relentless mechanisation. He was interested and involved in a huge range of activities during his lifetime, from writing and design to running a business and mounting political campaigns. As his doctor said, he did ‘more work than most ten men,’ which contributed to his relatively early death.
The William Morris Gallery tells the story of Morris’ life and work, interweaved with information about his contemporaries and the wider context of his times. Each gallery focuses on a different element of Morris’ life and work, and displays a huge range of gorgeous objects, from furniture and textiles to paintings and stained glass. One brilliant gallery is a recreation of a workshop at Morris & Co, showcasing the various types of craftmanship such as wallpaper printing, fabric design and tile painting, with videos of modern makers demonstrating how these techniques were achieved in practice. Next to this gallery is a faithful recreation of the shop floor at Morris and Co’s flagship London retail outlet, demonstrating the range of furniture, fabric and wallpapers customers would have had to choose from…and their hair raising prices! It’s one of the best small museums I have been to in its range of exhibits and the depth of its information, and I was delighted to be able to see so many outstanding examples of the work of Morris and his contemporaries up close. The gallery is a beautiful, inspiring place with an excellent tea room, lovely gardens, a well stocked shop and very helpful staff, and couldn’t provide a more pleasant visitor experience. To top it all, it’s free! I already can’t wait to go again; what a discovery!