Public prepare to step inside as William Morris Gallery and Gardens reopen in Walthamstow

By Ben Miller | 31 July 2012
A black and white photo of a family of eight people in a garden during the 19th century
The Morris and Burne-Jones family at The Grange (1874)© William Morris Gallery
Reopening: William Morris Gallery and Gardens, London, from August 2 2012

Five years after coming within a wallpaper’s width of closing, the Walthamstow gallery dedicated to the district’s most influential designer, writer and philosopher, William Morris, is about to reopen to the public.

The Heritage Lottery Fund, who saved the somewhat neglected 19th century building from closure, have described the £10 million refurbishment – including three new galleries and an education centre augmented by a £3.7 million orangery-inspired extension – as one of the most impressive of recent times.

“William Morris famously said, ‘have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,’” says Wesley Kerr, the Fund’s London Committee Chairman, echoing the words of the 19th century socialist.

“Morris wanted ordinary people to enjoy quality artefacts – from furniture to stained glass, tapestries to pottery – and the gallery presents hundreds from a world-class collection, inside an expanded 18th century mansion which is now full accessible and expanded.”

The fund gave £1.5 million to the project, matched by an award from the local council. The space, encompassing a display Kerr neatly defines as “exquisite objects in a fabulous setting”, has 50 percent more room for its treasures, each shaped by Morris’s work as the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement which prevailed in Britain at the start of the 20th century.

An image of a black and white sketch of a woman in a robe playing a type of flute horn
William Morris, Jane Morris in medieval costume (circa 1861)© William Morris Gallery
His first ever wallpaper and a design for St James’s Palace stand alongside The Woodpecker (the only tapestry he designed alone) and masterpieces going by names such as the Beauty and the Beast panel and the Kelmscott Press Chaucer.

Works of his utopian fiction, paintings and furniture by contemporaries such as Ford Madox Brown, an extremely rare fretwork chair inspired by Morris and personal letters and inscriptions to his nearest and dearest are included.

And Lloyd Park, the Georgian sprawl of ornamental gardens, Medieval moats and parkland surrounding the museum, has also been spruced up.

The opening exhibition is as exciting as the restoration. The Walthamstow Tapestry, created by Morris devotee Grayson Perry, explores “the emotional resonance of brand names” and the public’s “quasi-religious relationship to consumerism”, moving from birth to death on a journey dotted with brand names, skateboarding, hoovering and shopping. It’s a prophetic tale partly informed by antique batik fabrics from Malaysia and eastern European folk art.

“Morris typifies what makes places like Walthamstow special,” suggests Perry. “A place that most people think is just an ordinary part of London is actually rich with interesting people, histories and social and political activity.”

An image of an illustration of a blue fairytale-style tree against a bright red background
The Woodpecker Tapestry (1885) was the only tapestry designed completely by Morris© William Morris Gallery
Perry has a studio in Walthamstow, where he designed the work with the Bayeux Tapestry in mind. “But I wanted the title to reflect that it is about all our lives,” he adds. “Walthamstow exemplifies the idea that behind the facade of the average is there so much more.”

The Grade II-listed gallery, on the site of Morris’s family home between 1848 and 1856, contains a total of nearly 600 exhibits across 12 galleries. “I admire him for the range and depth of activity he was able to explore and the lasting influence he has had,” says Perry.

“I love ornate pattern, and that is where Morris excels. His work has a joyous sense of design that provides visual delight and is immediately accessible to everyone. I always hope to achieve similar aims through my work.”

The thoughts of two of the gallery’s patrons, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and Tony Robinson, perhaps reveal the depth of feeling Morris’s legacy still fosters.

“He was a major intellectual figure – a socialist whose thinking was rooted in his English sensibility,” says Robinson, calling Morris a “magnificent designer”.

“There has always been a strong radical tradition in Walthamstow, and I think it's particularly appropriate that his life should be celebrated here."

Llewelyn-Bowen believes that even the most stylistically-opposed designers hold admiration for Morris’s “kindly, blokey, romantically British aesthetic”, lauding him as the champion of national style.

“I think the real secret of his universal, timeless appeal is the energetically engaging lack of any whiff of snobbery,” he believes.

“Like some wonderful, noisy, hand-wrought machine, he devoured the raw ingredients of design history and manufactured a look that was so easy to love, so easy to live with that we’ve never been able to surpass it.

“The transformed gallery is the place to immerse yourself in his mind and vision.” Previously imperilled, this idyll of north-east London has had a remarkable turnaround.

  • Open Wednesday-Sunday 10am-5pm (pre-booked group visits on Tuesday). Admission free.

More pictures:

An image of a wallpaper illustration design showing patterns against a blue background
William Morris, Peacock and Dragon (1878). Woven wool© William Morris Gallery
An image of a 19th century wallpaper illustration of red and yellow flowers against blue
William Morris, Snakeshead (1876). Printed cotton© William Morris Gallery
An image of a pre-raphaelite painting of various figures in robes playing instruments
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Parable of the Vineyard (1861-2)© William Morris Gallery
An image of a picture book illustrated in black ink on hardback from the 19th century
In News From Nowhere (shown here in 1893), Morris imagines a future in which capitalism, heavy industry and government have all been swept away© William Morris Gallery
An image of a computer-generated photo of a modern museum on parkland
The new east wing extension, shown on the right hand side of this picture, was created by Pringle Richards Sharratt Architects© PRS
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