Saturday, October 05, 2013

Notes on William Morris

Woody Allen's comedy fantasy Midnight in Paris has Owen Wilson (in the only film of his I admit to liking) as a frustrated screenwriter yearning for the past in Paris whilst staying in the city with his fiancĂ©. Wilson longs for the Paris of the 1920s with the cool writers and artists of the time – Cocteau, Picasso, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Modigliani et al (Allen's Husbands and Wives has the old-fashioned, romantic Liam Neeson wishing he'd been born in the 1800s). Sure enough, one night, a mysterious old Peugeot transports Wilson to this exact time and he adores it – and ends up falling in love with Picasso's mistress Adriana. Turns out Adriana is also unhappy living in her era, the 1920s, and yearns for the 1890s of the Belle Epoque. They are magically transported to this era via a horse and carriage. They get chatting to Cezanne, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec in the Moulin Rouge… and, yep, these guys are equally unhappy with their era and yearn for the age of the Renaissance as the pinnacle of human achievement. In short, the film is about nostalgia and how it creates an artificial yearning for a past that never really existed in the first place, but has been mythologised to make it look so.

I mentioned appropriation recently, and William Morris. Morris was equally disenfranchised with his own time, the Victorian era. He didn't like what he perceived as the clutter and tackiness of the time, and harked back to the medieval era. He yearned for quality and simplicity in all aspects of life. A true Renaissance man, Morris was a textile designer, writer, poet, publisher, translator, conservationist and socialist often at odds with the society of his time. Associated with the Arts and Crafts movement and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Morris was perhaps most famous in his time for his flourishing wallpaper and textile business, Morris & Co.

I recently paid a visit to the William Morris gallery in Walthamstow, north-east London, where Morris was born. The museum recently won the Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year 2013 and it's easy to see why. The museum tells the story of Morris' varied life and career through original designs, wallpaper, furniture, stained glass, books, ceramics and many other treasures. It's all housed in a magnificent, Grade II* listed Georgian house, set in Lloyd Park. William lived in the house for eight years as a young man (the house he was born in has been demolished). It's a stunning, fascinating museum and well worth a visit.

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