1970s, Bristol University, Epigram, fabric, Fashion, Granny takes a trip, Liberty, London, Oxford St, patterns, shopping, soft furnishings, University of Bristol, Walthamstow, William Morris, William Morris Gallery
This week I set out on a pilgrimage to the former home of one of Britain’s most illustrative fabric designers – William Morris. Despite the unglamorous surroundings of Walthamstow, North London chafing somewhat with my daydreams of Strawberry Thief curtains and peacock feathered dresses, my head remained contentedly full of flowers – and tea – as I walked up the gravel drive.
The William Morris Gallery has recently reopened following a period of intense regeneration. In all fairness, there should not be a gallery or museum on earth better equipped for such a project, given that Morris made his name as the head of a textiles and home furnishings firm. As it is, the decorations are less overt than they might have been at the hand of someone more Morris-obsessed (e.g. myself).
Modernised hints at the Arts and Craft style, rather than overt Victoriana is encouraged. For instance, the backs of the green chairs in the tearoom with stylized cutout leaf patterns nodded to Morris’s Willow Leaf wallpaper, instead of attempting to recreate something as grandiose as the Green Dining Room at the V&A. A rather funnier reference to Morris designs is also present in the tearoom, as Morris was often criticized for favouring style over substance and producing uncomfortable furniture and unreadable books (despite both looking, to the eye, incredibly beautiful). The William Morris Gallery continues this tradition by lining the tables with austere backless benches which even spritely youths such as myself found very hard to exit elegantly.
Like many a-historical minded folk, my mind instantly equates the lush, repeating designs of William Morris with the department store Liberty and indeed his designs – and close approximations of them – have been sold through the store for decades. However, the gallery itself made no mention of this, instead choosing to focus on the years when Morris was alive rather than his legacy. The writing in the room dedicated to his Morris and Co. shop remarked that its central London location was preferable in part because it was close by to ‘competitors’ such as Liberty.
Historically speaking, the gallery is correct to do this and, had it done the opposite, would have run the risk of being accused of commercialism. However, it does somewhat ignore that the reason many people are still sufficiently interested in Morris to travel all the way to the end of the Victoria line is because of the successful dissemination of his prints via Liberty and – nowadays – the V&A gift shop.
This may not be a traditional way of approaching an artistic movement, but it can be very interesting to see how contemporary views on an artist are created. I believe that much of the 2012 opinion of the Arts and Crafts movement and, in parallel, the Pre-Raphaelites, is tempered through the lens of the 1970s. During this period, Liberty prints –including those by Morris and Co. – were incredibly popular, as was an elongated Pre-Raphaelite maiden silhouette. The convoluted, rambling roses of Morris coupled well with psychedelic prints, such as those sold by Granny Takes a Trip, and the socialist politics of Morris himself, which lay behind his designs, also chimed well with political movements in the 1970s.
All of which made me wonder how much I, and many others, are actually liking the 1970s version of William Morris far better than the 1860s one.