The national portrait gallery used to be the national gallery’s poor cousin until that iconic figure, Roy strong stepped in and injected new ideas in it and a new purpose for it. I had, therefore, no hesitation to step inside it (it’s bang next to the Ng) and headed straight for the william Morris exhibition. Having lived within easy cycling distance of the red house in bexleyheath and having known its former owners who rescued it from almost certain demolition at a time when Victorian was almost a swear word and happily seeing this most original and beautiful creation by the gruff Philip Webb inspired by Morris’s concept of what a house should be like, be embraced into the safe keeping of the national trust (another arts and crafts inspired movement) entered into the entranced world envisaged by the arts and crafts movement .
The exhibition could have easily concentrated on the visionary himself but for me what made it so intreaging was the way it developed the concepts of that pioneering movement all the way up to the 1951 festival of Britain. Woven into the fabric was the strong sense of Britain’s own idiosyncratic interpretation of socialism with its ally in the Fabian movement. Here there was an amusing swipe at George Orwell’s perception of sandal-wearing vegetarian poofy utopians inhabiting garden cities (there was even a pair of rather worn socialist sandals displayed)
This was the first time the strong connections between such diverse people as Ebenezer Howard, Bernard Shaw, Herbert read, heal and Eric gill were impressed upon me. Doubtless there would have been more had space permitted. I’m sorry Kenneth Clark was not even mentioned, for example.
Bringing it into the era of my first entry into the world I was so pleased to see the young Terence Conran represented and the designer, too, of that record-breaking (and mind expanding) festival of Britain.
The exhibition finally confirmed that Britain has a peculiarly firm tradition of exquisite workmanship, honest design and cottagey-style that, while never reclaiming the exuberance of Belgian art nouveaux or Italian stile liberty, had something immensly valuable and English, therefore, to be proud of. How many of those continental manufactures from the nineteenth century can still be said to exist, even flourish and sell their products in the way that the continuing firm founded by poet, lecturer, artist, designer, Icelandic saga translator, teacher, encourager, promoter, prophet and supreme visionary William Morris creates even today?