25 September 2012

Very Morris

If a chap can't compose an epic poem while he's weaving a tapestry, he had better shut up, he'll never do any good at all
A truth uttered by Morris

Everyone knows that William Morris was a pretty awesome guy; that flat pattern, floral motif, arts & crafts design vibe he had going on was all-out great. What I did not know is that the William Morris Gallery is only one swift bus ride from my front door to that of the museum's - the Morris Express if you will. The gallery is a house in Walthamstow that Morris lived in as a teenager. It's been newly spruced up for 2012, what with all the culture and festivities in London this year. The gardens and grounds out back are beautiful, with a specially designed William Morris Garden directly behind the house. The plants and flowers are supposed to represent different aspects of Morris's philosophies, ideas and artistic endeavours. I don't really know how a garden can reflect these, but I think it just needs some time to grow into itself.

Come back in ten years...

The first room is an overview of Morris's life, with a sculpture of his wondrous bearded head placed beneath these words emblazoned upon the central wall: 'I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.'

Morris is eminently quotable. I shan't bore with all the many many wise words and lovely phrases I scribbled down all over the gallery booklet. I covered three sides in tiny writing. A favourite is a section of a letter he wrote to his sister Emma - so ordinary yet a clear and intimate insight into the personality and humanity of a growing boy with appetites for everything:

'As you are going to send me the cheese perhaps you would set Sarah to make a good large cake, and I should also like some biscuits and will you also send me some paper and postage stamps also my silkworm eggs, and if you could get it an Italian pen box.'

There are also quotes from other notable figures in the world of art and literature about Morris written along and around the top of the ceilings in this first room. I reckon Engels summed him up with his alliterative description: 'a settled sentimental socialist'. And John Ruskin enriches this by stating grandly that 'Morris is beaten gold'. Well, he was certainly glowing with passions - for beauty, for politics, for equality, for nature, for workmanship, for ART. He loved stories, classical myths, Icelandic sagas and medieval tales. And moments of his life read like wonderful fairy tales and vivid anecdotal images. When he was six and settled at Woodford Hall, with its 50 acre park, he was given a suit of armour and rode around the grounds on his Shetland pony. A little later in life, when hangin' with all those wicked, riotous Pre-Raphaelite fellows, he dressed up in armour commissioned from a local blacksmith to model for the paintings. He got himself stuck in a helmet, 'embedded with iron, dancing with rage and roaring inside'. He married the timelessly-beautiful Jane, and daily life in the Morris household was a hoot, with guests playing hide and seek and pelting each other with apples in the garden. They lived in 'more a poem than a house' as Rossetti said of Red House in Kent, which is oh so on my list of places to visit and gawp at and revel in very soon.

The gallery is absolutely packed to the rafters with information, little tales,grand ideas, facts, artifacts, meticulously printed and illustrated books, paintings, sketches, furniture, carpets, wall-hangings, wallpaper, objets tres tres beau! I can only but glance across them here. But Morris's first biographer put it perfectly when he wrote that 'people dressed themselves with his wall-hangings, covered books with them, did this or that according to their fancy, but hang walls with them they would not.' I wanted to wrap myself in Morris, to touch and feel and luxuriate as well as look look look. 'I determined to do no less than to transform the world with beauty' said Morris. He's certainly transformed this little bit of Walthamstow.

Gallery grounds

11 September 2012

Lovetokens (lying lank)

On occasion I cloak myself in black, dig out my one pair of sensible black shoes that my mother bought me for my university interviews, pin back my flyaway hair and flex my muscles as I stand with loaded silver trays of champagne glasses at the top of the stairs of 50 Albemarle Street, the home of John Murray. I push drinks and the most beautifully crafted canapes upon the great, the good, the toffs of various foundations, associations and societies. Last night the quaffers and munchers were all members of The Byron Society. Interestingly (and disappointingly) there was no scandal, excess, incestuous love affairs or anything of the kind that Byron would have instigated or indulged in. They all seemed to leave for an early night.

This year marks the bicentenary of the publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Byron also took his seat in the House of Lords in 1812. All this means that laid out in the ground floor display room at John Murray's are the objects, trinkets and letters that were left to the publishing house by Byron. It turns out that this means mostly hair.

The first thing I'm asked on walking into the kitchen area is 'Have you seen all the hair?!'. This was not the most settling thing to hear in such close proximity to canape preparation. But in the little room just along the corridor, there was indeed a great deal of hair. Two hundred year old hair. Belonging to the ladyloves of Byron. Ranging from rich auburn to chestnut brown, locks of female hair were displayed in scant coils tied with thread, ropes of little ringlets and, in one disturbing case, a thick cascade that curled down off the table. Faded handwritten labels dictated whose heads these samples were once attached to. The current John Murray urged me to stroke the dangling strands. I refused with a nervous grimace.

Alongside the hair were Byron's inner boots. He had very tiny feet. The right foot much smaller of course. Tiny feet and a rather large collection of hair.

1 September 2012

I have travelled home to Northumberland for two short stays in the past week and a half. The length of the country, four times over, provides time for reading. I am tackling Wolf Hall (finally). Hilary is supercool: blood, guts, and well-researched history made real. Snatches of humour too. I read this passage - which makes reference to Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland, who had been betrothed to Anne Boleyn before she made a play for the King - and had a little lol:

'My lady', he turns to Anne,'you would not like to be in Harry Percy's country. For you know he would do as those northern lads do, and keep you in a freezing turret up a winding stair, and only let you come down for dinner. And just as you are seated, and they are bringing in a pudding made of oatmeal mixed with the blood of cattle they have got in a raid, my lord comes thundering in, swinging a sack - oh, sweetheart, you say, a present for me? and he says, aye, madam, if it please you, and opens the sack and into your lap rolls the severed head of a Scot.'

Tru dat. Born and bred on delicious bloody oatmeal pud.

How lasses roll in Northumberland