William Morris – Story, Memory, Myth at Two Temple Place: Exhibition Review

An enthralling exhibition examining the narrative threads across William Morris’ work – it’s a great story told in artistic and literary terms, all set in the splendour of the neo-Gothic mansion Two Temple Place.

Written by Caitlin Sinclair

William Morris Story Memory Myth Will Pryce
Photography by Will Pryce.

This William Morris art exhibition in a neo-Gothic mansion on the bank of the Thames is exactly the kind of visual feast you might expect. The venue – Two Temple Place – is a new gallery on London’s art map, with the aim of showcasing publicly-owned art from regional collections across the UK. In this case, the contents of the inaugural William Morris: Story, Memory, Myth exhibition hail from the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, under redevelopment until July 2012. If you are familiar with Morris’ work, this new setting and exhibition according to narrative influences will shed new light, and if you have never seen his artwork or books, you are in for a unique selection of some rarely-seen and astonishing pieces.

William Morris Story Memory Myth Romance of the Rose
Detail of The Romance of the Rose embroidered frieze by Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. Linen embroidered with silks, wools and gold thread. Embroidered by Margaret Bell and her daughter Florence 1874-82. Copyright William Morris Gallery, London.

A cursory stroll through the exhibition makes it easy to understand the sympathy the opulent setting holds with Morris’ work. The mansion’s original owner William Waldorf Astor wanted a house ‘which would personify literature’ and with the help of Gothic Revival architect John Loughborough Pearson he realised this dream in 1895. Similarly, the exhibition focuses on the narrative threads through Morris and his associates’ careers, and rooms are divided along literary thematic lines. At times it becomes challenging to take in the extraordinary artworks and their intricate backdrop at the same time, but this a minor complaint: once your eyes have adjusted, you become accustomed to this sense of overawe.

William Morris Story Memory Myth Love Leading the Pilgrim
Love Leading the Pilgrim through the Briars from The Romance of the Rose embroidered frieze by Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris 1874-82. Linen embroidered with silks, wools and gold thread. Embroidered by Margaret Bell and her daughter Florence. Copyright William Morris Gallery, London.

The Lower Gallery is about the inspiration Morris and his friend and fellow artist Edward Burne-Jones drew from 14th century poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s works. There are several trial pages, preparatory drawings, studies and stained glass panels, but most visitors are rightly drawn to the exquisite embroidered friezes based around Chaucer’s translation of The Romance of the Rose, an influential text from the Middle Ages. The five rarely-seen panels making up Morris and Burne-Jones’ artistic reinterpretation of the poem consist of linen embroidered with silks, wools and gold thread – they took an amazing eight years to complete and are just back from being conserved at The Royal School of Needlework. I adored the dancing female allegorical figures depicting the Virtues, Beauty’s gold wings and the Love Leading the Pilgrim Through the Briars panel with its dizzying briar rose patterns. And don’t miss The Pilgrim at the Heart of the Rose, a moving tapestry of pale greens, taupes and golds depicting the moment in the story where the pilgrim finds the ‘rose’ – a female figure – and reaches out to her.

William Morris Story Memory Myth Will Pryce
Photography by Will Pryce

As you round the corner, you encounter an incredible central staircase of carved mahogany, flanked by characters from The Three Musketeers, and a frieze above depicting scenes from Shakespeare. Look down, and you are surrounded by a marvellous floor of marble jasper, porphyry and onyx – it’s the stuff of dreams.

William Morris Story Memory Myth Design for Medway
Design for Medway furnishing fabric, 1885. Pencil and watercolour on paper. Copyright William Morris Gallery, London.

William Morris Story Memory Myth Design for Acanthus
Design for Acanthus furnishing fabric, 1876. Pencil and watercolour on paper. Copyright William Morris Gallery, London.

Upstairs, an array of Morris-designed furnishing fabrics are on display, with an explanation of the role patterns played in his career. Works like Medway and Evenlode illustrate the influence of Morris’ relationship with the Thames on his work, and this is further underscored by the presence of the river just a few metres away. We learn that Morris was particularly concerned to design patterns which could help hold memories and be passed down through generations. The scrolling acanthus design was one he used frequently, linking him back to the Ancient Greek tradition, another enduring motif was The Holy Tree, representing life and creation.

My highlight pieces were the Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast with swan border tiles from 1862. These function as ceramic storyboards, delicately painted in vibrant colours, and are exactly the type of tile any fairy-tale lover would want installed in their house. Equally wonderful were the bright Brer Rabbit furnishing fabrics based on the Afro-American folktale and featuring repetitive rabbit patterns hidden amongst flowers, plants and vines.

William Morris Story Memory Myth Beauty and the Beast tiles
Beauty and the Beast tile panel with swan border tiles, 1862. Hand-painted on tin-glazed earthenware Dutch blanks. Painted by Lucy Faulkner for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. Copyright William Morris Gallery, London.

Eventually you will encounter the main event, the Great Hall, where it’s amusing to try and spot the twelve characters from Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, including Robin Hood and Maid Marion, in carved and gilded mahogany. The centrepiece is the embroidered wall hanging Pomona, depicting the Roman goddess of fruit trees, referred to here as the ‘Apple Queen’. The acanthus leaves, grapes and blossom are breathtaking, and you can just about see the swishing of her dress as she catches the gathered apples in its folds. Next to her is the Woodpecker tapestry about Picus, who was transformed into a woodpecker by Circe because he didn’t reciprocate her love.

William Morris Story Memory Myth Will Pryce
Photography by Will Pryce

William Morris Story Memory Myth Woodpecker tapestry
Woodpecker tapestry, 1885. Made by Morris & Co. Copyright William Morris Gallery, London.

In the last section are Icelandic saga-inspired pieces and published editions of Morris’ The Earthly Paradise, for which he created wood blocks to illustrate the unrealised book, The Story of Cupid and Psyche.

William Morris Story Memory Myth Cupid Going Away
Cupid Going Away, 1866. Illustration for ‘The Story of Cupid and Psyche’ in The Earthly Paradise by William Morris. Wood engraving. Copyright William Morris Gallery, London.

You can also examine works created in response to the Arthurian legends, such as the gorgeous The Story of Tristram and Isoude stained glass panel about the love story between the Cornish knight and Irish princess – the vibrant green, red and yellow light is mesmerising.

William Morris Story Memory Myth Arthur and Lancelot glass panel
Design for King Arthur and Sir Lancelot stained glass panel, 1862. Black and sepia washes and pencil on paper. Copyright William Morris Gallery, London.

William Morris Story Memory Myth St George
Saint George and the Dragon, 1868. Gouache on paper. Copyright William Morris Gallery, London.

If there is an overall message to take away from this exhibition, it might be about the wonderfully adaptive and collaborative process which storytelling takes across mediums and centuries. Visitors will have much to add in terms of their own knowledge and fondness for the stories told, do get along to tell your part –on until 29 January 2012.

Opening hours
10am – 4:30pm Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
12 – 5pm Sunday
Closed on Tuesdays.

Free admission. See my listing for full details.

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