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William Morris’s harvest

The revolutionary ideas of William Morris and their massive, lasting influence are explored at the National Portrait Gallery

Nearly 120 years after his death, the ideas of the great designer and radical thinker William Morris are of particular relevance today at a time when global sophistication brings new anxieties. So says Fiona MacCarthy, curator of Anarchy and Beauty, a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.

‘We find ourselves returning to many of Morris’s preoccupations with craft skills and the environment, with local sourcing, with vernacular traditions, with art as a vital force within society, binding together people of varying backgrounds and nationalities,’ she says.

The exhibition sets out to explore not only William Morris’s vision but also his legacy from 1860-1960, taking in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, John Ruskin, Arts & Crafts practitioners inspired by Morris, Eric Gill, the Garden City Movement and the Festival of Britain, right through to Terence Conran, who shared Morris’s desire to make good design available to all.

  • William Morris by GF Watts
    William Morris by GF Watts · Credit: Copyright NPG
  • La Belle Iseult
    La Belle Iseult · Credit: Copyright Tate
  • Eleanor Marx
    Eleanor Marx · Credit: Copyright NPG
  • 'Prioress's Tale' wardrobe by Edward Burne Jones
    'Prioress's Tale' wardrobe by Edward Burne Jones · Credit: Copyright Ashmolean Museum
  • Edward Carpenter by Roger Fry
    Edward Carpenter by Roger Fry · Credit: Copyright NPG
  • Adam and Eve garden roller
    Adam and Eve garden roller · Credit: Copyright Leeds Museums and Galleries
  • Calyx Furnishing Fabric
    Calyx Furnishing Fabric · Credit: Copyright V&A
  • Peacock brooch by CR Ashbee
    Peacock brooch by CR Ashbee · Credit: Copyright V&A
  • William Morris Catalogue Cover
    William Morris Catalogue Cover
  • Festival of Britain Poster by Abram Games
    Festival of Britain Poster by Abram Games · Credit: Copyright V&A
  • Terence Conran by Ray Willliams
    Terence Conran by Ray Willliams

It’s an ambitious exhibition, spanning 100 years of British life, politics and design and paying particular attention to the element of anarchy that was important for Morris and his followers in their quest to bring art to all people, not just the elite. Morris’s own designs are familiar, but this exhibition is as much about the artists and craftspeople he influenced. Exhibits include work by potters Bernard Leach and William De Morgan, architect Philip Webb, and work by a number of important female designers – Morris and his circle accepted women artists and makers as equals – including hand-blocked textile printers Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher, weaver Ethel Mairet, and Lucienne Day.

MacCarthy believes that Morris is not fully appreciated for the revolutionary he was. This exhibition will give more people a chance to decide for themselves.

Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860-1960, 16 October 2014-11 January 2015, National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London