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William Morris by G F Watts, 1870. ©National Portrait Gallery, London.

LONDON.- The first exhibition devoted to William Morris and his influence on twentieth-century life, opens at the National Portrait Gallery on Thursday 16 October 2014.

Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860-1960 (until 11 January 2015), curated by Fiona MacCarthy, focuses on Morris’s far-reaching politics, thought and design. With portraits, furniture, books, banners, textiles and jewellery, the exhibition includes many extraordinary loans brought together in London for the first time.

Starting with late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, the exhibition and accompanying book explore the ‘art for the people’ movement initiated by William Morris and the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It displays the work of Arts and Crafts practitioners inspired by Morris and ‘simple life’ philosophers such as Edward Carpenter and Eric Gill, before showing how Morris’s radical ideals developed through to the Garden City movement and from the Festival of Britain onwards to young post-war designers such as Terence Conran who took up Morris’s original campaign for making good design available to everyone.

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Edward Carpenter by Roger Fry, 1894 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Exhibits include William Morris’s own handwritten Socialist Diary from the British Library, his gold-tooled handbound copy of Karl Marx’s Le Capital, lent from the Wormsley Library and Burne-Jones’s spectacular handpainted Prioresses Tale wardrobe coming from the Ashmolean in Oxford. C R Ashbee’s Peacock brooch from the V&A is joined by Eric Gill’s erotic garden roller, Adam and Eve, from Leeds City Art Gallery and Edward Carpenter’s sandals from Sheffield Archive – the sandals that began the sandal-wearing craze amongst the English left-wing intelligentsia.

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Edward Burne-Jones, Prioress’s Tale wardrobe, 1859. The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

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‘Craft of the Guild’ brooch designed by C.R. Ashbee and made by the Guild of Handicraft, England, 1903 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Curator Fiona MacCarthy says: ‘Now in the 21st century our art and design culture is widespread. But its global sophistication brings new anxieties. 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. This exhibition, as I see it, will not only explore what William Morris’s vision was but will suggest ways in which his radical thinking still affects the way we live our lives’.

Starting with the sometimes violent state of flux of late Victorian and Edwardian Britain as a group of brilliantly radical artists, craftsmen, architects, town planners, sexual and social reformers set out to remake their world, the exhibition introduces us to Morris, a craftsman and designer of extraordinary talent who MacCarthy believes still needs to be recognised as the truly revolutionary figure that he was.

The exhibition shows how the ‘art for the people’ movement had its roots in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s challenge to accepted attitudes to art and also in John Ruskin’s politically radical perception that every human being has inherent creative talent and that handwork was not inferior to brainwork.

On display is work by the artists and craftsmen of Morris’s inner circle: his lifelong collaborator Edward Burne-Jones; the potter William De Morgan; the radical architect Philip Webb; the furniture makers Ernest Gimson and the Barnsley brothers. A number of important female artists and craftswomen will feature in the exhibition since this was a circle in which women were accepted as co-practitioners with men. Arts and Crafts idealists who set up their own working communities, often in defiance of sexual norms, are included, such as the openly homosexual Edward Carpenter at Millthorpe; C R Ashbee and his Guild of Handicraft in Chipping Campden and the controversial Catholic artist-craftsman Eric Gill in Ditchling.

Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860-1960 highlights the element of anarchy within the ‘art for the people’ movement which demanded an overturning of accepted values. Showing how Morris was associated with the Russian anarchists Prince Peter Kropotkin and Sergey Stepniak, visitors will see a strong link between ‘art for the people’, women’s education and suffrage – one of Morris’s closest female associates was Eleanor Marx.

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Grace Black, Eleanor Marx, 1881 © National Portrait Gallery, London

The exhibition extends beyond Morris’s own death in 1896 to show how his radical ideals developed through the Edwardian decade, highlighting Patrick Geddes, Raymond Unwin and the Garden City movement and the way in which ‘good design’ became available to a wider market through such pioneering home furnishing shops as Ambrose Heal’s. It explores the ruralist revival of the 1920s and 1930s when leading craft practitioners – the potters Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew, the weaver Ethel Mairet, the hand-blocked textile printers Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher – evolved their own alternative ways of life and work in an increasingly materialistic age.

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Ambrose Heal by Frederick Hollyer, c.1895 – 1903. Heal Family Collection.

Fiona MacCarthy is a cultural historian, broadcaster and critic whose widely acclaimed biographies include studies of Eric Gill, William Morris (which won the Wolfson History Prize and the Writers’ Guild Non-Fiction Award), Stanley Spencer, Lord Byron and, most recently, Edward Burne-Jones. She is a Senior Fellow of the Royal College of Art and was awarded the OBE for services to literature in 2009. She curated The Omega Workshops exhibition for the Crafts Council and the exhibition Eye for Industry for the V&A, and in 2002, an exhibition on Byron, working with Peter Funnell, for the National Portrait Gallery.

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Eric Gill by Howard Coster, 1927 © National Portrait Gallery, London

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Frederick Hollyer, William Morris, 1884 © National Portrait Gallery, London

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William Morris, La Belle Iseult, 1858 © Tate 2014

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Ray Williams, Terence Conran and His Cone Chair, 1950s © Estate of Ray Williams

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