10 December 2011

William Morris at Two Temple Place

The temptation to go to the William Morris Gallery has been there for some years but it is in a part of London, Walthamstow, which my version of the A-Z leaves blank apart from the warning "here be dragons".

Actually, if I believed the dragons story I would have gone but I take it as a metaphorical warning rather than a literal one and that is still good enough to keep me away.

Deprived of the primary source of matters William Morris I have had to settle for the Arts and Crafts section at the V&A and the fabrics department at Liberty.

Then a stroke of luck.

The William Morris Gallery is closed for a while for refurbishment and some of the exhibits have been moved to Two Temple Place. As the name suggests, this is next to Temple station (District Line) in central London on the north bank of the Thames and so is easy to get to. And so I got to it.

Two Temple Place is a late Victorian mansion built by William Waldorf Astor and while its ownership and role has changed a few times over the years the original grand designs are still very apparent.

The Gothic revival is clearly at play on the outside. Inside the theme continues with lashings of wood lining the walls and decorating the rooms.

This is also redolent of Liberty which has its own beautiful staircases.

The house has two large rooms along the riverside of the house and these make ideal galleries. Also helpful is the way that the other rooms link so that you can walk from one to the other without having to repeatedly return to the hall or landing.

The inaugural exhibition at the recently revived building is William Morris: Story, Memory, Myth and is on until 29 January 2012.

This showed several sides of William Morris' work that were completely unknown to me having previously associated him almost exclusively with fabrics and wallpapers.

What we see spread through the house are tapestries, ceramics and books as well as the expected designs for furnishings.

The other surprise for me was that a lot of this work was done in collaboration with Edward Burne-Jones who I also love and who also has a notable presence at the V&A.

The title of the exhibition, Story, Memory, Myth, gives a good clue of what is on display. All the images presented to us are from stories and these are usually based on myths.

A stunning example hit you in the first room with the depiction of Love Leading the Pilgrim through the Briars which is taken from the Morris/Burne-Jones tale The Romance of the Rose. Like many of the exhibits, this is large and rich in detail and so a photograph does it little justice. You need to be in the room with it, stand back to comprehend the full scope of the picture (there are more figures in the scene) and stand close to appreciate the detail of the craftsmanship.

The smaller rooms shows us some ceramics and the familiar floral designs. What is nice that many of these are shown as work in progress with, for example, only some of the patterns coloured.

The Great Hall upstairs has some more large tapestries including my absolute favourite, Pomona, the goddess of fruits and harvests.

A google search reveals that this is a figure that Morris/Burne-Jones interpreted more than once. The figure (Burne-Jones) is the same but the background (Morris) varies significantly.

Also in the Great Hall were some illistrated books. Not only was Morris responsible for the typography and illustrations but he did the words too.

One of the books of poetry was in its fifth edition so they must have been popular at the time.

Another, The Volsunga Saga, a translation by Morris of a 13th century Icelandic epic poem could yet find its way on to my Christmas list (I'd like the copy on display but an ebook is more practicable).

William Morris: Story, Memory, Myth is a sumptuous exhibition that surprises and delights in equal measure.

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