NPG unveils its blockbuster autumn exhibition with major William Morris show

By Richard Moss | 28 May 2014

The NPG has announced its autumn blockbuster - a major exhibition exploring the work and influence of William Morris

an oil portrait of a bearded man
William Morris by G F Watts, 1870© National Portrait Gallery, London

Plotting a creative arc from the Pre-Raphaelites to Terence Conran, the National Portrait Gallery's autumn exhibition on the life and influence of William Morris is nothing if not ambitious.

It’s also the first major exhibition to really explore the influence the great man had on British design – and ergo life – in  the twentieth century.

The curator of the show is also a coup, with Morris biographer Fiona McCarthy lined up to guide us through the fascinating world of Morris’s far-reaching politics, thought and design via portraits, furniture, books, banners, textiles and jewellery – many of them  brought together in London for the first time.

That McCarthy also counts influential and polemical tomes on Eric Gill and Edward Burne-Jones among her works merely adds to the expectation at the London museum, ensuring that the exhibition will raise some interesting questions about Morris’s enduring influence.

McCarthy believes that we are still “returning to many of Morris’s preoccupations with craft skills and the environment, with local sourcing, with vernacular traditions”.

“Art as a vital force within society still binds together people of varying backgrounds and nationalities,” she adds.

“This exhibition, as I see it, will not only explore what William Morris’s vision was but will suggest ways in which his radical thinking still affects the way we live our lives.”

The cast of characters helping to tell this story is decisively worthy with Ruskin, Burne-Jones, Bernard Leach, Michael Cardew, Abram Games and Terence Conran among the principal actors.

Key exhibits will include Morris’s own handwritten Socialist diary, his gold-tooled handbound copy of Karl Marx’s Le Capital, lent from the Wormsley Library and Burne-Jones’s spectacular hand painted Prioresses Tale wardrobe coming from the Ashmolean in Oxford.

There is also the chance to see Eric Gill’s typically erotic garden roller, Adam and Eve, from Leeds City Art Gallery and Edward Carpenter’s sandals from Sheffield Archive – which are said to have started the sandal-wearing craze amongst the bearded members of the English left-wing intelligentsia.

At the core of all this creativity and pioneering thought is Morris a craftsman and designer of extraordinary talent who, despite his standing in British design, MacCarthy believes still needs to be recognised as the truly revolutionary figure that he was.

With Rembrandt at the National and Constable at the V&A in October it’s now a three horse race for the biggest Autumn blockbuster in the capital.

Click below to see more images from the exhibition.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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