Wednesday, 5 November 2014
One of the many now-forgotten progressive figures who feature in Fiona MacCarthy's fascinating exploration of William Morris's legacy through politics and the creative professions from 1860-1960 now on at the National Portrait Gallery is Edward Carpenter, prophet of 'the simple life' lived on a comfortable if not lavish unearned income. These are the Indian sandals he taught himself how to make, and wore in the belief that human soles should be close to the earth.
More importantly, he lived in a same-sex relationship decades before it was permissable, and solaced many young gay men whose lives were darkened by public and private homophobia.
It's a shame Carpenter is not better known historically. Even many contemporaries dismissed him as a crank. Thus the artist Will Rothenstein:
'Carpenter had an affectionate nature and a real love for mankind, but his vision was too vague and he was over-attentive to faddists and theorists. He lacked the power of men like Ruskin and Morris; the most concrete thing he achieved was the sandal.'
Roger Fry's early portrait in NPG is rather wonderful, presenting Carpenter as if he had just turned up at the studio and found it too chilly to take off his overcoat. The half-glimpsed rear view in the mirror and the low pink buttoned chair seem to signal some kind of metaphors for Carpenter's personality - not altogether straight and narrow? But he's wearing hard black city shoes: where were the sandals?