'William Morris: A Sense of Place'
Poe, Simon, British Art Journal
'William Morris: A Sense of Place'
Blackwell, The Arts & Crafts House, Bowness-on-Windermere
Cumbria, LA23 3JT, 26 June-17 October 2010
You might expect that the ideal exhibition space would be neutral and unobtrusive. You might expect that a gallery need only be well-lit and accommodating and ought simply to let the exhibits do the talking, but it doesn't seem to work that way. It may be easy to fill those bland, unassertive spaces, but it is just as easy to forget the shows one sees in them. No, the exhibitions that stick in the mind are those where setting and content somehow brought the best out of one another and a mysterious synergy occurred between them. Great exhibitions in great galleries (and I don't necessarily mean huge shows in huge spaces) are much, much more than the sum of their parts.
The design of the big historic houses involved a science, developed over centuries for the display of works of art, that had as much to do with the demonstration of power and prestige as it had to do with gracious living. The purpose-built galleries housing parts of the national collection in Trafalgar Square and on Millbank partake of this tradition and thus speak volumes about the wealth and splendour of Victorian Britain. But of course, some works of art are more at home in this sort of environment than others.
The Arts and Crafts architecture that emerged in the latter part of the 19th century (heralded by the building of Red House, designed for William Morris by Philip Webb in 1858) turned its back on imperial pomp. It looked to the cottage, rather than to the palace, for its inspiration, and welcomed a different sort of art to its walls. Watts Gallery, for instance, built in the Arts and Crafts style at Compton, Surrey, in 1903, is home to work that speaks of 'high thinking and plain living' rather than to the worldly, sumptuous art that finds its fitting residence in the gilded saloons and galleries of stately homes. Even a grand house like Blackwell (built at Bowness-on-Windermere for a plutocratic client by MH Baillie Scott during 1898-99) would never have been a hospitable place to hang history paintings or swagger portraits.
Which is all a long-winded way of saying that any gallery that puts on a show called A Sense of Place' had better be sure that it really is the appropriate venue for the exhibition, lest theme and setting cancel one another out. Fortunately, Blackwell ('The Arts and Crafts House', as it markets itself) is one of the best places imaginable to see an exhibition devoted to William Morris, the father of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The house itself, of course (so beautiful), and its glorious situation deeply impress every visitor with an unmistakable sense of place. Morris was clearly at home there partly, perhaps, because the rooms used for the exhibition were domestic in both scale and purpose--they were originally bedrooms--even if they did bulge slightly at the seams with all the artefacts and memorabilia the curators felt compelled to include. In fact, the exhibition itself was quite small, the perfect size for an introduction to Morris and his work. The V&A blockbuster of 1996, 'preaching to the converted', suited the likes of me very well, but represented a stiffish sermon for the pre-proselyte audience. I know more than one person who was weary of wall-paper king before she finally staggered through the exit.
Morris himself certainly possessed all the equipment--powers of observation and memory, and sensitivity to atmosphere--for a strong sense of place. Aged only eight, it is said, he visited St Mary-the-Virgin at Minster-in-Thanet with his father. 'It is characteristic of his extraordinary eye and even more extraordinary memory', JW Mackail, his first biographer, tells us, 'that just fifty years later, never having seen the church in the interval, he described it in some detail from that recollection. No landscape, no building, that he had once seen did he ever forget, or ever confuse with another. …