The Century Guild at William Morris Gallery

At the northern end of the Victoria Line is a slice of Victorian heaven and one of the best small museums I know. William Morris spent his formative years in Walthamstow and his surviving childhood home in the area harks back to when Walthamstow was surrounded by parkland and countryside. The Gallery, administered by Waltham Forest Council, contains an excellent collection of objects (unlike the Red House in Bexleyheath, which is beautiful but sparse in terms of objects) in which the man, the work and the historical context are presented in an accessible and illuminating way (the workshop and shop recreations are particularly well done). Even the loos are pretty and I want to buy everything in the gift shop. In an ideal world, my whole life would be William Morris patterned.

I keep returning regularly due to the exhibition programme. Blockbuster exhibitions are fantastic but there’s something equally beautiful about a small exhibition where you can really take your time. May Morris: Arts and Crafts Designer was a particular highlight but they’re always well done and provide a new perspective on Morris, his contemporaries and adjacent artists. The current exhibition, Within the Reach of All: the Century Guild, is another excellent example.

Despite my background in Victorian Studies and History of Design, I’d never heard of the Century Group of Artists, which operated between ca. 1883-1892. Like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the Guild consisted of a central trio: Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo (who later helped to found the William Morris Gallery), Herbert Horne and Selwyn Image, all of whom were multifaceted practitioners of the decorative arts. The influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement and Morris & Co. is apparent in the way in which they worked according to medievalist concepts of community and hand craftsmanship, and in their aesthetics with their emphasis on taking inspiration from the natural world. Their designs, however, are more free-flowing and less symmetrical and closely clustered. Many of their designs are inspired by imagery from marine biology and based on a ‘S’ shape, giving them a wave-like effect which went on to influence the Art Nouveau movement.

Unlike the Pre-Raphaelites, the Guild members were big fans of Renaissance and Baroque art and architecture. I didn’t know that Christopher Wren’s stock had fallen so low in the late nineteenth century that some of his smaller City churches were threatened with demolition. Mackmurdo’s book arguing for their value features a cover illustration in which the phoenix is a skinny sidelined presence rather than a symbol of triumph (success in saving these churches was far from a foregone conclusion), is considered by some to be the first example of Art Nouveau.

Two quibbles, if I may: the white writing on the (very attractive) apple green walls isn’t easy to read. Secondly, although the title of the exhibition is ‘Within The Reach of All’, the exhibition doesn’t talk about the Guild’s prices. Like Morris & Co., they surely would have been out of reach for anyone who wasn’t wealthy. The shop recreation in the permanent exhibition shows just how eye-watering it would have been to decorate your home in Morris & Co., despite Morris’s ideals about how good design should be accessible to all (a tricky thing to reconcile with his socialism).

A lovely way to spend a Saturday morning, followed by enjoying the food market outside and the gardens in bloom. The next exhibition, Young Poland: The Polish Arts and Crafts Movement 1890-1918 sounds just as fascinating and I’ll certainly be back.

Within the Reach of All: The Century Guild can be seen at the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow until 31 August. Have you been to any of William Morris’s houses? I’d love to visit Kelmscott Manor!