Both the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Crafts Council are currently marking the centenary of the multi-talented William Morris. And both exhibitions have been mounted in their own individual ways.
To make a comparison would be unfair. For a start, the exhibitions’ budgets are completely divergent. The Crafts Council has a budget of 16 000 for William Morris Revisited: Questioning the Legacy. The V&A is cagey about its budget for William Morris, donated by media group Pearson. It confirms that it spends between 50 000 and 1m on the average exhibition, and in-house designer Brian Griggs says this is “one of the biggest we’ve ever done”, giving some idea of its scale.
And the two designers have taken utterly contrasting approaches. Terry Brown, the freelance designer who created the Crafts Council show, has positioned tapestries at the beginning, to show Morris’s “obvious” work first. Tapestries are right at the end at the V&A in order to “knock your socks off”, according to Griggs.
The desire to knock off socks underlies the V&A’s design approach, which has given Griggs some sleepless nights – after all, he’s had 1500m2 to fill and is expecting up to 200 000 visitors.
The museum is obviously pulling out all the stops with a book, a special shop, an international conference and workshops on how to make “a wearable Morris”.
“I think people will take a step back and say ‘Is this Morris?’ It’s my own interpretation, not how he would have done it,” says Griggs. “People will expect nice little room scenes and pretty fabrics, and they won’t get them,” he adds. Wallpaper and textiles in civilised pastels – the anticipated Morris showpieces – do appear, but are practically overshadowed by other works of this prolific genius that the average exhibition-goer will be unaware of, such as gothic architecture, poetry, politics, calligraphy, a risquÃ© drawing of his wife and stained glass triptychs lit by blue neon and accompanied by plainsong. Not to mention a life-size mock-up of a Morris workshop bang in the middle of a gallery, with printing blocks and samples of how to produce a wallpaper.
Morris the man dominates the V&A’s approach. Griggs did the equivalent of method acting, wandering around Epping forest where Morris the child pretended he was King Arthur. This King Arthur childhood fantasy and a trip to Canterbury cathedral where Morris “thought he was in heaven” feature at the beginning of the exhibition.
The Crafts Council exhibition asks what a craftsperson is today. It places the work of Morris and his contemporaries alongside modern creations. Its final room, The Unity of Art, deliberately aims to be provocative, and not a hint of Morris can be seen. Instead it shows a stacked glass chair by Danny Lane, ceramics by Jacqueline Poncelet and a new textile design by Caroline Broadhead, to name a few.
“The Unity of Art doesn’t say anything about Morris on purpose, it aims to show by comparison how art and craft may have had changes of identity,” explains Brown.
“We want people to leave with their own ideas about how times have changed. We’re aiming to raise questions about craft – you can’t sit in Lane’s chair but all Morris’s work had a practical use,” he says. Morris may not have agreed, he has been quoted as saying “if you want to be comfortable, go to bed” when talking about his furniture.
While Brown and curator Dr Jennifer Harris are aiming to be provocative with their show, Griggs’ ambition for the V&A one is simpler.”I want people to come in and say ‘wow’, especially at the last gallery. If it’s going to happen anywhere, it’ll be here,” he says, sweeping his arms around the immense space.
Before Griggs started his research, he thought Morris was “a man with a long beard and pretty wallpaper”, but his own process of discovery has obviously been influential.
Griggs’ role differs from Brown’s in that he had some responsibility for the concept, whereas Brown worked to a brief. “I want people to be struck by the comparisons between the contemporary work and that of Morris’s time,” explains Brown.
His was not an easy brief as the show had to adapt to other venues. It has already appeared at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, and will transfer from London to Birmingham.
Brown has placed Morris textiles next to twentieth century ones to “indicate that attitudes to craftspeople have changed in the last century – designers now are known for their art rather than craft and you can’t cover your entire home in their work like you could with Morris”.
Neither exhibition allows itself to be restricted by expectations of what Morris is about. Pentagram’s Crafts Council brochure has a pretty cover featuring a typical Morris flower pattern – but it is misleading, as inside we see the mixture of old and new. Johnson Banks’ branding for the V&A is a photograph of a leaf which turns into a Morris design.
Griggs predicts that the V&A exhibition may start a Morris revival. And a V&A spokeswoman says the leaf logo will show everyone that they’ve only seen “a distorted side” of Morris. “This is the William Morris show,” she adds, destroying the fallacy that there is no competition between centenary celebrations of this remarkable man.