‘Anarchy & Beauty’ at the National Portrait Gallery

It is a strange incidence when seemingly separate parts of your life suddenly come together in one moment to cement a new understanding – that sounds awfully pretentious but that is quite honestly what happened. I visited ‘Anarchy & Beauty’ at the National Portrait Gallery, an extremely interesting exhibition as it provided an insight to William Morris who was quite an incredible person of many talents; artist, craftsman, writer, social reformer, environmentalist and political theorist. The exhibition celebrated Morris, his contemporaries and the ideals they expressed in relation to society at that time in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.

I then happened to be reading Virginia Woolf’s essay, ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (1929) when I spotted Morris’ name, along with several other poets and artists that were featured in the ‘Anarchy and Beauty’ exhibition. This was the day after I had gone to the exhibition, and at that point I was already halfway through the essay. What a strange coincidence! Through the essay, Woolf brings to light her own observation of the restraints of society, stating that women need money to be able to write, or at least to be able to write well. Obviously the perspective of the essay is weighted towards discussing the capability of women to write fiction, however the statement can be applied to all authors which Woolf goes on to consolidate by using a cited reference by writer and literary critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Within the extract from his book ‘On the Art of Writing’ (1916), Quiller-Couch compiles a list of well-recognised 19th century poets including Morris, before going on to say how with only one exception, they were well to-do. He concludes by making the statement: ‘it is – however dishonouring to us as a nation – certain that, by some fault in our commonwealth, the poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for a few hundred years, a dog’s chance’.

It was instructive to see how this mirrors the same notion put forward by Morris and his contemporaries portrayed at the ‘Anarchy and Beauty’ exhibition. Through Morris’s work, his designs, idealistic novels and influences on artistic, social and political theories, it is evident that he too felt strongly that the class system and divide in society were responsible for an elitist attitude towards art and literature. Morris expressed a view of beauty being a basic human right, the power of which can transform our lives. It seems unjust then, that only those of good fortune have the privilege of being recognised for their writing, or have the capacity to express their creativity and surround themselves with the beauty of visual art.

I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition as all the artefacts illustrated these ideals and the outcome in the designs and patterns as well as the novels such as ‘News From Nowhere‘ (1890), a utopian novel that disregards the boundaries of society and class allowing everyone to live freely and creatively. It was wonderful to learn about the idealistic fancies Morris wrote about and movements he influenced, as well as the history behind his beautiful wallpaper and furniture designs. Morris describes how he wants ‘the town to be impregnated with the beauty of the country, and the country with the intelligence and vivid life of the town’, which I, as a comparable admirer and lover of the beauty of nature and life, completely identified with!

One thought I was left with afterwards was what Morris would make of society today, and people’s attitudes towards art and literature. Looking around, it appears that many more people are able to obtain and create art. However with it being so accessible, has its value and appreciation along with its power to elate, transform and inspire decreased?

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