Friday, 29 March 2013

May Morris Exhibition

An exhibition that I have curated is now on view until June in the Coachhouse at Kelmscott House, 26 Upper Mall, London W69TA.  It contains items from the William Morris Society collection - embroidery panels and designs, wallpaper designs and samples, books, correspondence, items from the Women's Guild of Arts, photographs and the brooch mentioned here in July, which holds gemstones in the Suffragette colours purple, green and white.

Opening hours Thursday and Saturday afternoons from 14.00 to 17.00 and at other times by appointment. Groups and private tours welcomed.

At the opening I was delighted to meet the daughter of the original owner of the beautifully-coloured and finely-worked Minstrel panel.  Her father was a   friend and admirer of May Morris in the pre-war years, and she recently presented the Minstrel to the WM Society, so her presence at the exhibition was a glimpse of living tradition.

Across town, on 24 July, Ornamental Embroidery will run a practical day workshop devoted to stitching samplers in the May Morris manner at the William Morris Gallery London E174PP.

Friday, 22 March 2013

William Morris's birthday

-  179 on Sunday 24 March
At 4.00pm  a blue plaque is being re-unveiled on Walthamstow Fire Station, close to his childhood home, followed by tea and songs at his next home now the William Morris Gallery in Lloyd Park.
It was then a different place, as his daughter wrote: a 'middle class world on the edge of London’  where he was "was brought up in an atmosphere of intelligent housekeeping of the old style – home-made beer and bread, real butter and real cream … and the best of everything for home consumption bought carefully at special shops who knew their customers personally … there were well-stocked gardens and orchards, horses and cows and pigs and poultry  … the place a model of the self-supporting unit of country life, without pretence of fashion…"

Here, Morris, who greatly enjoyed his food, fondly recalled
"Everyday fare in such an English home: the creams and wine-jellies and syllabubs, the pleasant home-made wines, the sweet-cured hams, the fine desserts of peaches from sunny walls and filberts from the nut-walks…"

But this world 
"Seemed to trouble little about the industrial struggle raging outside their quiet round … anything that ruffled the fair surface of that lake of prosperity and its creeds and loyalties was naturally viewed with uneasiness.  The Chartists were ruffians. Christian socialists were not true Christians... Despite the men of thought and vision who were wearing their hearts out over the problems of the changing world, the prosperous had no touch of the historic sense that could enable them to look back into the past nor to foresee the future; the present was solid reality, the world of change was not their world.  ‘The poor you have always with you’ explained most of the misery they encountered."

The reason William Morris is still so inspirational today, in his hometown and around the globe, is just this historic sense linking past and future.  Because he became such an eloquent  campaigner for a better, fairer, greener,  simpler, enjoyable world under socialist principles, we forget that he came into British public life only in his 40s – firstly with the heritage cause, preserving the best of the historic environment, and secondly against military intervention overseas.
The first Afghan campaign of 1840 was a disastrous painful memory, but Britain in the 1870s about to send the Army abroad once again.   In his appeal To The Workingmen of England,  William Morris attacked  Unjust War and its proponents:
"Let us look at these saviours of England's honour ... Do you know them? - Greedy gamblers on the Stock Exchange, idle officers of the army and navy (poor fellows!), desperate purveyors of exciting war-news for the comfortable breakfast tables of those who have nothing to lose by war, and lastly, in place of honour, the Tory [government]  that we fools, weary of peace, reason, justice, chose at the last election to 'represent' us!
0 shame and double shame, if we march under such a leadership as this, in an unjust war against a people who are not our enemies … against freedom, against nature, against the hope of the world."

A good reason to celebrate William Morris and his birthday.
[On this occasion, incidentally, Stop the War protests succeeded....]

PS.   another reason to celebrate:   the William Morris Gallery has just [4 June 2013]  been awarded the NAF Art Fund 'Museum of the Year' prize of  £100k   ! 
a big tribute to the activities as well as the building and displays renovation

Monday, 18 March 2013

First Plantings 7

From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
There were several young vines planted between the tea-roses against the walls of the stanzone, and one in particular grew just where I specially wanted to plant a Banksia rose for grafting purposes.  I was pottering about with my own gardener, and said to him cheerfully, “I think this vine had much better come out altogether.”  He was a reasoning human being, and not a machine, and among other gifts, possessed a most beautiful voice, with which, like St.Francis, he used to sing to his   brothers and sisters, the birds. He looked at me a little dubiously and said, with a suspicion of remonstrance in his voice, “Signora, it’s a Salamanna.”  Now, although I had a fair knowledge of Italian, not perhaps quite fit for court circles, of  technical terms I knew little, and I had not the faintest notion of what a Salamanna vine was, and, unfortunately, I was at that time so impressed with the superiority of my British ways that it did not even occur to me to enquire.  So, happy in my ignorance, and feeling quite cocksure of the benefits I was about to confer on the owner’s estate, I said gaily, “Oh never mind, we’ll have it out.” Just then, as ill-luck would have it, old Giuseppe was passing up that avenue, and, though very friendly to us in a general way, he went straight to the secretary and “informed”.  Within a quarter of an hour I received a missive stating that much had been borne in silence, but that the cup of my iniquities had now overflowed, and that if my extirpatory practices were not at once and forever abandoned, it would be his duty to bring them to the notice of the “Commendatore” – with a very large capital C.  After reading this composition, I thought it prudent to go in person an endeavour to put matters to rights.
It was a Muscatel vine that I had uprooted, and the gist of the offence was, that these grapes being the one fruit to which the Commendatore was specially devoted, these young vines had been planted with a view to a small extra provision of this fruit. I offered – so British – to pay for the value of the vine but was waved aside with scorn.  The adversary was a Prussian, and the whole principle of authority was at stake.  Luckily for me, the poor man had been confined to the house by illness during the first weeks of our tenancy, as had he been about, I should probably have been called to order much sooner.  However, we patched up an armed neutrality.  The other vines never did any good, and some years after I got leave to uproot them all.  “Do it quietly, Signora, and say nothing about it,” were my instructions.  Most things come to them who know how to wait, and not to cut down Salamanna grapes in Tuscany, where such a crime is looked upon much as shooting foxes or poisoning hounds would be in “the shires”.
The part of the ground lying between the grass walk and the boundary-wall on the west side was simply like a ploughed field, and the only things growing in it were two old fig trees, which gave us abundance of excellent green figs and considerable shade, which I valued more.  We made a good, wide border on the right of the grass walk, and two similar long borders on the farther side, divided by a gravel walk, which began at the cancellino steps.  A short border ran across, along which we put a wire fence, and planted against it such Bengal roses as Laurette Messimy, EugĂ©nie Resal, Irene Watts and others of that section, as well as some of the strong growing autumn flowering roses Marie Henriette, Madame Metral, etc. An old olive-tree stump had been left near the beginning of this this short border; its trunk was clothed with Jasminium nudiflorum, and the roses found their way into its upper branches.  This little yellow jasmine is much later flowering there than in England, and seldom shows blossom before February.  I think this must come from the want of moisture in the air, for I remember it in the south of Cornwall, flowering in October.  The ground lying between these long borders I laid down in grass, not with any delusive hope of ever having decent English turf, but simply because grass makes a better background for shrubs and colour effects than anything else.  We cut out various beds upon it, between and beyond the two fig-trees.  Later on, a row of small beds were added on the west side, in a fashion that I have no doubt merits the condemnation of being “spotty”.  I daresay they are, but I was so hard up for room to plant things I wanted to have, that it was Hobson’s choice.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

First Plantings 6

From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
The back of the house looked to the north. And a thick plantation of fir-trees, though somewhat darkening the kitchen and pantry quarters, had the advantage of protecting us from cold winds, and of making that part pleasantly cool and shady in summer. The tops of these firs reached far above our roof and had a most picturesque effect as one looked back to the house from the garden. The big villa lay above and beyond this plantation, which effectually shut out our humble dwelling from the view of the owner; and below it was a delightful stretch of grass planted with cypresses and other trees, and small thicket of lilac bushes close to our glass door.  There was also a beautiful “Naples Laurel” at this corner.  I don’t remember to have seen this variety of laurel at home; the flowers grow in large white clusters, and have a  peculiar scent much disliked by Italians.  It makes its new leaves in April, when the old ones turn a brilliant scarlet as they fall.  One of the most beautiful funeral wreaths we ever made had these red leaves placed in and out among the white flowers composing it.
This grass field gave us just the right aspect for all our spring-flowering pot-plants, azaleas, imantophyllums, etc., during the hot summer months, and though it did not form part of our small domain, no difficulty was ever made about our plants standing there from July to October, when they were again transferred to their winter quarters round the house.
Returning to the rose-beds and, looking from them down upon the main body of the garden ground, – the long part of the cross –a more unpromising piece of land could not be imagined; but it possessed one great treasure, a grass walk, which ran parallel with the shrubbery, down to the very end of the garden, where a clump of cypress trees closed it in.   I have always thought it was this grass walk that gave our garden the peculiarly English look it had, even in those early days, and which, pace Mrs.Earle, is much more to my taste than the hard gravel paths of an Italian garden. One friend, the owner of a very superior domain, used to come and look at it, and aver with a sigh that that grass walk was worth the whole of his place put together, - glass houses and gardeners included.
On the left of this walk was the newly-cleared ground, cribbed from the shrubbery.  The gardeners never forgave us for that clearing out – “it was a bel bosco, Signora,” they said, “till you spoilt it.”   That their bel bosco was not what we wanted, was a thing of which they took no account, and they had been so left to their own devices, and so accustomed to have their own way in everything, that they deeply resented the change entailed by their masters having chosen to let the villino with its adjacent ground.  Of course, had it been possible for us to be entirely independent of them, I would have been only too thankful, but by the “law of the land”, both written and unwritten, I had not the right to prune a shrub, or cut  a twig of all those old trees; and it was therefore very important to us to keep on some sort of terms with them.  As it was I got into dire disgrace in those first months, from sheer ignorance of the customs of the country, and often was wholly unconscious of having done anything amiss.  However, one day I put the finishing touch to all my enormities, and nearly got turned out.


Monday, 11 March 2013

Joanna Boyce Wells 2

Further to my earlier post about this artist's absence from the Tate's Pre-Raphaelites show [ surely not in response to it? ] , the good news is that her two works in the Tate Collection are on display until May this year.  Not widely publicised, and amid some 300 other 19th century pictures of variable quality and interest - but  Gretchen, for example, is nicely hung next to  Whistler's Little White Girl.    

A bit hard to see in the wall shot, so here is Gretchen  - the betrayed heroine of Goethe's Faust  - unframed and on her unfinished own, showing the composition in its simplest and purest form, without the  accessories and details one supposes  were to be added to bring the picture to the expected level of finish.

Sidney, a small, enchanting portrait of the artist's infant son, hangs a little further along the wall..


Monday, 4 March 2013

Character or Language or Rage?

A stimulating gathering at Newnham College Cambridge where the Literary Archive holds manuscripts from many alumnae, three of whom came to talk about their fictions.  All three – Margaret Drabble, Patricia Duncker and Jenn Ashworth – agreed on the novel as exploration.  Drabble called novels maps and guides to how one [or more precisely]  women can explore their futures; she cited Mary MacCarthy’s The Group, Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar and Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook as pathfinders, noting how their characters negotiated the then prescribed role as homemaker, as in Plath’s cautionary account of Mrs Willard knotting herself into a floor mat from strips of her husband’s old suits.  She described pushing her own characters out into the world, to create a future 'in which we will not be afraid', and of following them beyond the story.
Patricia Duncker was re-reading Maria Edgeworth, Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen, but described her own fiction as a mix of Gothick and picaresque, about people on the edge; each novel also invokes an opera that acts as its key.  Neither plot nor character are as important  as language,  which takes writer and reader into uncanny realms where secrets explode like landmines.     Duncker grew up with the Bible, which was as useful as it was deeply unsettling, as with Jehovah’s strange act of self-revelation whereby Moses might not see the Lord’s  face as he passed in a cloud of glory, but just his back parts.
Jenn Ashworth, author of Cold Light and The Friday Gospels, spoke of reading Muriel Spark and Kenzuo Ishiguro, and of the Mormon upbringing in Lancashire that inspired her  attention to what can’t be spoken in, say, a given family, as well as providing comic imagery around  chastity as piloting an aeroplane or eating cupcakes. While disavowing realism, she says her task is to create voices. The Book of Mormon – obviously a new must-read, thanks too to the movie – is at her back together with the sect’s practice of spiritual journals, where forbidden tales are told.
Asked about the anger that seems to fuel her writing, Ashworth exclaimed, not anger, but rage, ragged and violent. Duncker finds pleasurable energy in writers who rant  or obsess; an overt agenda, even if or especially when misogynistic makes for an exciting read.  Drabble commended Bridget Jones as a serious modern courtship classic, and Helen Small’s survey of the philosophical aspects of old age, the Long Life, which is inspiring her own current writing.
Coincidentally, the Orlando site of women’s writing in Britain from the beginning to the present is available online for free – for the month of March. 
 It should open here