The re-opening of the William Morris Gallery

After a year-long, £5 million renovation, the William Morris Gallery has finally re-opened. The gallery is housed in one of William Morris’ homes known as “Water House”. The house is located in Lloyd Park in Walthamstow in northeast London. The building which houses the gallery dates back to 1744, and was William Morris’ family home during his teenage years.

To celebrate their reopening, the William Morris Gallery will be hosting an exhibit of Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry’s Walthamstow Tapestry. This colourful tapestry (which is huge – 3 x 15 metres), examines “man’s passage from birth to death ‘via the shops.’”

It’s a wild and fascinating work and definitely worth getting a closer look at! And definitely a good choice for the re-opening of the gallery (I’m sure Morris would appreciate both the medium of tapestry and the consumerism-questioning message behind it).

If you are lucky enough to be in London for the 2012 Olympic Games, this would be a great  opportunity to take a side trip to see the museum as well. For more information, visit the William Morris’ Gallery’s new website.


The Poetry of Drawing: Pre-Raphaelite Designs, Studies and Watercolours

Those of you living in the UK (or visiting) are in for a real treat this month. From January 29, 2011 to May 15, 2011, The Birmingham Museum is hosting what promises to be “the largest survey of Pre-Raphaelite drawings and watercoulours ever staged.” The museum has assembled works Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s world-class collections, together with important pieces from public and private lenders, including some works by D.G. Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and Edward Burne-Jones that have never previously been exhibited. The exhibit, entitled The Poetry of Drawing, will place special emphasis on the important role that drawing played in the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

The Poetry of Drawing will include pieces from the most prominent members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, including all the original members of the PRB, Elizabeth Siddal, Edward Burne-Jones, Frederick Sandys and Simeon Solomon. Later artists, such as Aubrey Beardsley, who were influenced by the Brotherhood are also included, as are the Arts and Crafts contributions of William Morris, William de Morgan and Florence Camm.

For those of you who are unable to attend, the exhibition’s curator has created an illustrated volume entitled Pre-Raphaelite Drawing. The book will be published by Thames and Hudson. I would love to see this exhibit in person, but if I don’t get the chance, I will definitely be looking into the catalogue!

For more information and ticket prices, please visit the Birmingham Museum’s exhibition website.

Image above is William Morris’ sketch for his Trellis wallpaper design.

William Morris’ Kelmscott Chaucer on Display in Buffalo, NY

If you are in Buffalo, New York, this month, be sure to check out the Central Library at Lafayette Square, which will be presenting an exhibit of entitled “The Ideal Book–William Morris and the Kelmscott Press.” Included in the exhibit is an original copy of William Morris’ Kelmscott Chaucer, along with books produced by the Roycroft Press.

My University library has a facsimile copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer, but I’ve never seen an original up close. The facsimile itself is nothing to sneeze at – it’s a gorgeous book. It never hurts to add it to your Christmas list, though $650 for the gorgeous Folio Society edition might be a bit steep (though it pales in comparison to the real deal – the genuine article recently sold in New York for $160,000 USD). There are some nice editions available on for considerably less, though. I got my sister this very pretty edition (which only includes the Canterbury Tales, but it’s a lovely hardbound edition) for under $20 a couple of years ago. I’m afraid I would dissolve into tears if my daughter tore up a folio edition, but at less than $20, this copy is probably just the ticket for a family with small children.

The Kelmscott Chaucer gives readers a sensual experience. I still remember the first time I picked it up and thought “this is what a book should be like.” Sir Edward Burne-Jones illustrations are stunning, and the borders have exquisite details that the eye can follow for hours. In general, I’m a bit of a minimalist when it comes to my books. I know that there have been many tomes written on decorating with books, etc., but I personally believe most books really aren’t that attractive. They take up too much space! As a result, I tend to either borrow from the library or read eBooks. There are not that many books I consider worth having physical copies of, but this is one of them. As Morris said, “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” This is certainly an item that any fan of William Morris and Pre-Raphaelites would be thrilled to find under the tree.

For more information on the Kelmscott Chaucer, visit the Buffalo Library’s exhibition website. The Kelmscott Chaucer will be on display until January 30, 2011

Did the Pre-Raphaelites Suffer from “Blurred Vision?”

This morning I came across a less-than-enthused review of “The Pre-Raphaelite Lens” in the Washington Post. In the article, Andy Grundberg criticized what he termed the “blurred vision” of the Pre-Raphaelites. And while Grundberg retained some admiration for the work done by Pre-Raphaelite landscape artists, he condemned the Brotherhood with broad strokes, arguing that “its members claimed to be interested in realism and truth” but were “far more taken with notions of fiction and theatricality.”

Grundberg was a photography critic for the New York Times for many years, so it’s not surprising that he prefers the Pre-Raphaelites landscapes and photography to their paintings. But his criticism of the PRB is pretty standard. Many modern viewers can appreciate the work of artists like John William Inchbold (whose photograph-quality painting of Anstey’s Cove is pictured here), and even Ford Maddox Brown, but remain perplexed by the romanticism of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones.

I was particularly struck by Grundberg’s backhanded compliment that Julia Margaret Cameron and Henry Peach Robinson had “managed against odds to transcend their subjects’ goofy origins in Arthurian legend.” So now it’s “goofy” to be inspired by myths and legend? Greek myth has inspired countless artists and is (quite rightly) not regarded as a “goofy” source of inspiration. Why should ancient British myths be seen differently?

Mythology is such a rich source of inspiration for artists, and it saddens me to see it dismissed off-hand. Many members of the PRB were actually very interested in a “modern” approach to art and design. They recognized that British art had become mired in convention and instead attempted to use the classics as a foundation to build from that would allow them break free from traditions that had become oppressive to artists. Even William Morris, whose passion for the middle ages is well-known, was not attempting to imitate medieval design, but to use it as a source of inspiration to create a better future.

Apparently, people today are confused that a a group that claimed to be visionary would lean so heavily on mythology and the classics for inspiration. Contemporary artists and (and their adoring critics) have the hubris to claim that they have re-invented the wheel, or are totally unencumbered by the influence of others from the past (the Young British Artists come to mind). And while this unfettered arrogance is intriguing, and can sometimes produce fascinating work, it also runs the risk of alienating the public with its hollow promise of unbridled innovation. A connection to the past and an understanding of our collective unconscious is not “goofy” – it’s a fundamental part of the creative process.

Elbert Hubbard’s Little Journeys

If you haven’t already seen it, take a moment to visit Stephanie Pina’s Lizzie Siddal blog to read Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Lovers: Rossetti and Siddal. Stephanie found a 14 volume set of Elbert Hubbard’s Little Journeys at a local bookshop and she’s taken the time to transcribe and scan Hubbard’s rendition of the story of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal. I had a wonderful time reading it – it’s a charming and entertaining version of the story. I found Hubbard’s non-judgmental approach to Rossetti quite refreshing (you could say he tries a little too hard to make excuses for him, but I think Rossetti has enough critics). The story can also be found in Volume 13 of Hubbard’s Little Journeys, which is available on Project Gutenberg (along with a number of his other writings).

Those of you who are familiar with the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States will recognize Elbert Hubbard as one of the founders of the Roycrofters and the Roycroft Press. (His magazine, The Philistine, which was published by the Roycroft Press, is nearly as well known as the The Germ). Hubbard was heavily influenced by William Morris’ philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement, and the Roycroft community in East Aurora, New York, was probably the most ardent attempt to see Morris’ socialist vision put into practice in the real world. His art colony may not have survived, but his writings remain available to readers as a window into his world.