William Morris any way you like at the V&A

A major survey that leaves interpretation of his achievements to the visitor



As one of Augustus Welby Pugin’s most important successors, this exhibition of the life and work of William Morris at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 9 May until 1 September is an appropriate and fascinating follow-up to the 1994 Pugin show at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and a chance to see some very direct progression from the developments cut off by Pugin’s untimely death at the age of forty.

Not that Morris was so very long-lived himself; the exhibition marks the centenary of his death at the age of sixty-three, precipitated if not caused by a life of constant overwork. The organisers will hardly be thrilled to have the links with Pugin too much stressed—Morris, after all, can stand on his own—but the immense industry and force of character, the eager questioning mind, the great variety of pursuits and the driving interest in design reform, these are common to both, and the exhibition comes by courtesy of the same sponsor, Pearson’s, who envisaged the two as an illuminating package. Morris was a true man of parts, poet, artist, designer, printer, political campaigner and theorist, and by his own description, proprietor from 1861 of a decorating business.

Even during his own lifetime Morris’s reputation was often obscured by the diversity of his talents, the poet eclipsing the designer, and vice versa across the whole of his endeavours. The V&A’s comprehensive collection of his prolific and varied production is uniquely suited to a survey of his career.

With the addition of significant loans, more than 500 examples have been assembled. The earliest museum purchases were made in 1864 and Morris kept his contacts with them for life, gaining inspiration for his designs and advising on purchases, notably in the field of Persian carpets of which he himself was a collector.

The basic premise of the exhibition is to present factually and undogmatically the man and his works, leaving the public with the option of judging between the conflicting views of his place in design history. We have the right to judge Morris because he was his own master from a very early age, and, at least at first, his private funds allowed him to sustain his activities when they were not making money.

Morris was an entrepreneur of vision, enticing into the firm artists of repute like Madox Brown and Rossetti, and identifying the still untried Burne-Jones. His lifeline was the architect Philip Webb, recognised by Morris as the one with the dogged and practical approach needed to ensure the survival of such a hazardous venture. He is acknowledged as a pattern-designer of genius and an important instigator of the modern conservation movement.

Whether he was a “Pioneer of the Modern Movement” as claimed by Nikolaus Pevsner has since been doubted, but if his long-term legacy is more subtle it may, in the final analysis be more important, not less.

William Morris, edited by Linda Parry, curator of the exhibition, is published by the V&A in association with Philip Wilson, £39.95 (hb), £18.95 (pb)

Charlotte Gere

...and Jane Morris, styled by Rossetti in her best dress

This unpublished photograph of Jane Morris, posed by her lover Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the William Morris exhibition.

It is from an album given to the V&A by the Morris family, who originally requested that the photographs should not be reproduced.

This picture of Jane was taken on 5 July 1865 in the garden of Rossetti’s house in London’s Cheyne Walk. By this time William Morris’s marriage to the “stunner” of the Pre-Raphaelites had become a looser relationship and Jane was having an affair with Rossetti, who had long been infatuated with her.

Rossetti posed a series of shots and they were taken by John Parson, a professional photographer. Jane Morris was then Rossetti’s favourite model, and she appears wearing the same clothing in some of his paintings, such as “Blue Silk Dress” of 1866 (now at Kelmscott Manor).

The photographs were later put into an album for May Morris, Jane’s daughter, and after her death in 1938 it was presented to the V&A.

May Morris had written that she did not want the photographs to be reproduced, but it was not a formal condition and others in the album were later published. V&A selector Linda Parry says, “The relationship between Jane Morris and D.G. Rossetti is now regarded as historically important”.

The V&A has arranged for the William Morris exhibition to tour Japan, where it will be shown at three venues next year.

These are Tokyo National Modern Art Museum (March-April), Kyoto National Modern Art Museum (May-July) and Aichi Prefecture Museum (August-September 1997). The exhibition will be a smaller version of the London show, consisting mainly of works from the V&A’s own collection.