The display of star items from the collection of the William Morris Gallery [currently under re-development] at the new exhibition venue 2 Temple Place on London’s Embankment has proved very popular with visitors over the past two months. Which is good news for the WMG and 2TP but ironic also. Two Temple Place is a curiosity building, designed by the ‘great Goth’ John Loughborough Pearson for the billionaire W.W.Astor as a pied-a-terre (his main house being Cliveden). Perpendicular without, the interior is all mock-Tudor panelling, timber staircase, elaborate ceilings, decorated with carved figures of Astor’s heroes and heroines, from history and fiction. When first proposed as a venue for the WMG collection, it seemed unlikely to work as a setting for Morris’s already elaborate designs, fabrics, stained glass, but it does – just.
The irony is that both Astor and Hoare’s Bank, funders of the Bulldog Trust that owns 2TP, are representatives of the rich capitalist sector whose downfall was energetically sought by William Morris the Socialist. This overlays another irony, of which Morris himself was acutely aware – even before he embraced Socialism, he deplored the fact that his high-craft furnishings were so expensive that his business was constantly ‘ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich’.
Then there is the contrast between the site of 2TP and that of the WMG, at the northern end of the Victoria Line in the blighted borough of Waltham Forest which struggles with impoverishment and social deprivation. Visitors no doubt flocked to 2TP in part to see a building only recently opened to public view, but they have never flocked to the WMG, owing to its location (when re-opened, it will have a café, which should help).
Artist David Mabb plays, seriously, with Morris wallpapers and wellie boots. He gave a thought-provoking presentation at the Courtauld Institution last week, laying out the unresolved contradictions between Morris’s political ideas and his pastoral patterns.
William Morris and the Swinish Rich