Newly refurbished and looking spectacular, the William Morris Gallery is once again open to visitors. An accomplished poet, painter, and designer – and those are but a few his talents – Morris is, after the Kray twins, Walthamstow's most famous former resident, and it is in one of his childhood homes that this museum dedicated to his life and work, is to be found. It is an endlessly fascinating journey. Morris, in his sixty-two years, was a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded the English Arts and Crafts Movement, campaigned passionately for socialism and social reform, and designed everything from wallpapers to tapestries to stained glass panels to murals to illuminated-style books to furniture – a staggering number of accomplishments for just one man. After he died, his doctor affirmed the cause of death as simply "being William Morris".
Given the immensity of his production, the curators of the William Morris Gallery do an admirable job of presenting the diverse though interconnected aspects of Morris's creative output. The gallery leads us through the early years of his life, including his marriage to the Pre-Raphaelite "stunner", Jane Burden, and the realisation of his vocation as an artist, on to his first collaborations with Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti that came to shape his unique aesthetic, taking its cues from nature and medieval art. And that is only the first room. Subsequent displays chronicle the rise of his design company, Morris & Co. (known as "the Firm" to members of his circle – not to be confused with the Firm of the other notorious Walthamstovians), the building and decoration of his medievally-inspired home, his political activism, and his Kelmscott Press, in which Morris applied his vast knowledge of hand-made artisanal design to book-binding, producing his magnificent edition of Chaucer, a copy of which may be perused on site. Elsewhere, space is dedicated to other Morris & Co. designers, many of them quite prolific in their own rights, and also to Sir Frank Brangwyn, whose bequest formed the initial core of the collection.
Something in excess of £3 million was spent on the renovation to the stately Georgian villa that houses the gallery, money well spent to judge from the stunning presentation of the exhibits. Every room contains some sort of multimedia presentation, be it a touchscreen timeline, readings from Morris's poetry, or a simple documentary, and most have space for hand-on activities such as creating one's own wallpaper design or practising brass rubbing. Though the activities are aimed at children, many of the grown-ups present were just as enthralled as the kiddies. The information supplied on every artefact is exhaustive in its detail, and the layout provides a cohesive narrative peppered with amusing anecdotes and quotations from and about Morris himself.
It is difficult to imagine a better presentation of Morris's singular vision than the William Morris Gallery provides. Morris's hope was that art and beauty should permeate all aspects of life for all people. "I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few," he wrote. One leaves the Gallery with a deep sense of the sincerity of those words and of how Morris lived them. I imagine that more than a few visitors will depart as converts to those ideals. As I sat on the tube coming back from Walthamstow, I couldn't help trying to envisage how the dreary trains, tunnels, and platforms might have looked in Morris's hands. What would it be like, I wondered, if our everyday experiences were works of art, if we prized beauty above mere utility and efficiency? Life would be transformed utterly, perhaps into something approaching the kind of libertarian utopia Morris dreamed of. We could do worse things with this world, I think, than make it into what Morris saw it could be.