Head along to Walthamstow Central tube station, the northernmost terminus of the sky blue Victoria line and, like its antipodal partner Brixton – a location about which I’m a lot more familiar, having resided near there for the quarter of a century preceding my westerly relocation – it seems to be home to the kind of slightly scruffy, shabby but undaunted, vibrant, cosmopolitan, just-about-managing community common to so many of those living on the fringes of the great metropolitan capital. And during the course of the ten-minute walk I subsequently take in careful consultation with my mobile googling map application device, I pass all the usual selection of coffee shops, betting shops, charity shops, boarded-up shops and other high street highlights, being careful to sidestep the bustle of those elderly amblers who still obstinately prefer to exercise their lower limbs while shopping rather than merely tapping out purchasing requests on the keys of some Amazonian keyboard, as is the wont of the youthful consumer demographic who are so very much less inclined to follow in the analogue hardcopy footsteps of their inevitably ageing predecessors.
Well, fashions change and the norms of one generation are inevitably superseded, for better or worse, by those of the next. And while technological developments are probably the most important agents of generalised societal changes, occasionally there are individual influencers who determinedly rebel against the contemporary consensus and manage to make a lasting mark on some specific area of aesthetical opportunity. All of which is my meandering means of arriving at today’s starting point, the William Morris Gallery which, as its name suggests, does indeed provide a very reasonable potted introduction to the life and works of that eponymous designer, craftsman and radical free-thinker who dedicated so much of his life to trying to change the tastes of a nation.
So, what were the revolutionary aesthetic principles that guided Morris in his stated aim to, ‘transform the world with beauty’? Well, as explained by the many educatory wall panels that run through the display spaces here, his main idea was to try to offer an alternative to the inherent coarseness and brutalities of the capitalist factory system of production that had arisen as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution. As such, individual craftwork was to be favoured above the fruits of mass production and – perhaps somewhat tangentially – a purer understated style of interior decor was to be promoted in place of the typically adulterated clutter that more usually filled the over-ornamented parlours of the standard Victorian dwelling. The model for this great stylistic shift being a return to the future by way of a romanticised version of the earlier British Gothic styles that mixed a sort of rugged no-nonsense simplicity with a fanciful myth of golden age nobility and integrity.
Of course, the problem with this sort of proto-hippyish idealistic approach to market place merchandising becomes apparent as soon as practice meets theory and the high costs associated with producing the carefully constructed items of Morris’ workshops meant that they were only ever within reach of the wealthier subsets of the middle and upper classes consumer deciles. And as to whether there was ever any associated aesthetic trickledown effect that might finally allow the lower orders to enjoy the benefits of this kind of stylistic innovation, well, that seems to me to definitely be open to question.
I suppose the other matter that has always slightly confused me when it comes to the gap between Morris’ theory and its propagation, is the fact that so much of his own output – whether it’s the wallpapers or ceramics, tapestries or tiles – is itself so stylistically stodgy. Frankly, just the thought of spending long, lamp-lit TV-less evenings sitting in a room looking at all those interlocking twirls of acanthus leaves and sprigs and twigs of eternally repeating patterns of lilies and laurels, birds, buds and berries, makes me feel quite dizzily nauseous. Which is perhaps not all that surprising when, as already said, tastes change with the times and my own personal preferences were cultivated at the end of the last century when the smart set fell happily under the influence of prophets like Conran, Corbusier and Eileen Gray. And at that time sparsity and minimalism were chic and cool whereas the work of Morris and his latter-day acolytes like Laura Ashley were considered to be the most ghastly old hat.
No matter, the two floors of exhibition displays here that offer up a broadly chronological tour though the Morris biography are illustrated by a fulsome collection of samples of many of his design favourites as well as copious other items of ephemera, and it all makes for an entertaining introduction to an undoubtedly talented and interesting individual. Finally, as a happy coda to the visual treats of the main permanent collection, a separate space, set aside for temporary exhibitions, is currently filled with The Enchanted Garden, a small but pleasing collection of a couple of dozen paintings showing how artists like Monet, Pissaro, Burne-Jones, Vanessa Bell (see below) and other less well-known but equally devoted articulturalists have tried in various ways to capture on canvas the colours and contrasts of the natural world that was growing outside their studios.
After which I head off to Sloane Square and another ten-minute walk to get to another new destination: that of the National Army Museum. And this stylish new building houses a sort of mini-version of the Imperial War Museum with glass cases full of small arms, historical uniforms and all manner of other items of contemporary and historical militaria. I suppose I tend to find all the displays of guns and associated bellicose paraphernalia a bit depressing since it’s such a grim reminder of the seemingly never-ending propensity that humanity has for engaging in ever more appalling examples of state sponsored violence. But maybe I’m in the minority and judging by the squeals of excitement emitted by the gangs of schoolkids racing around the exhibits, machine guns and rocket launchers, tin hats and fatigues are still the stuff that dreams are made of
My reason for coming to the museum today, however, is not to engage in such reveries. No, once again my attention has been drawn to this museological outpost by having seen an advertisement for a specific temporary exhibitions – in this particular case the promise of a display of works recording the First World War exploits of the Canadian Expeditionary Force by the British artist Alfred Munnings.
In later life, Munnings gained the reputation for being a dreadful old reactionary who hated all forms of Modernism and who made one famous tired and emotional speech in his role of President of the Royal Academy during which he said that if he saw Senor Picasso walking down Piccadilly he’d personally kick him up the arse. Although, as this current showing of some of his earlier works reveals, he did at least on occasion allow his usually highly controlled brushwork to loosen into an almost Impressionistic finish. For the most part however, the several dozen paintings here offer little scope for much artistic adventurism and are instead very direct, almost diaristic recordings of the mundanities of military life amongst the equestrian divisions of the Canadian patrols as they kill time from positions far behind the front line. Indeed, there are no scenes of muddy bomb craters or shredded trees, just picturesque visions of statuesque horses parading among pretty green fields.
There is one exception, however, that does shatter the idyllic scene and bring back the real horror of the times. And that comes from a dramatic reconstruction of a full-on battle charge with hooves galloping and sabres raised. As the accompanying label explains, Lieutenant Gordon Flowerdew led his 75-member cavalry squadron directly towards the machine gun and artillery fire of a troop of 300 Germans with the result that most of his men and horses were immediately shot down although he at least was rewarded with a posthumous Victoria Cross.