Crystal Palace flowersYesterday in Gipsy Hill. Scrubby little flowers, next to an ordinary suburban driveway, suddenly seen in all their unexpectedness, and the surprise of how their delicate colours. It’s a thing that didn’t need to happen.

Then a little kid on the number 3 bus, singing a little song, over and over while his mum intermittently tried to tell him to stop. As happens from time to time with this little song, its words suddenly came into focus like the flowers, a little surprise reality. I’ve re-punctuated it slightly:

Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream,
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily. Life is but a dream.

MorrisI had an unexpected last-minute weekend on my own: how to fill it? As always, so much going on (in a strange, nothing way), and to worry about, that it felt odd… But it had been a long week. So the first thing I did was go to Walthamstow to pick up a clapped-out old Imperial Good Companion typewriter that I’d got very cheap on eBay, to give myself something to do – and indeed,  its decades of filth and seized-up parts kept me out of trouble for hours on Saturday evening.

This led me, through serendipity, into the second thing – because its erstwhile owner (‘Why don’t you like computers!?’) lives two streets past the William Morris Gallery, which re-opened a while ago after a massive refurbishment, and I’ve felt a little silly not having checked it out.

I hadn’t given a thought to William Morris in years. His designs are everywhere, of course, holding back the cause, though he did make that one great remark: ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’. Beyond that, there doesn’t seem very much to think about, somehow. A style supposedly simple but really quite busy, supposedly about ‘art for the masses’ but too expensive for any but the rich, and eventually swallowed and horribly bowdlerised by the commercialist mainstream. No humour at all. A sort of leaden Bloomsburyesque earnestness-but-with-maids that I’ve never quite managed to get fired up by.

The thing that doomed the Arts & Crafts project was that (although it paved the way for Art Nouveau, etc etc) it embodied a backward-looking, romanticised, anti-progressive form of progressiveness. This is both its charm and the thing that’s intrinsically boring about it. Of course I realise that you, whoever you are, may not be bored. It’s also a great expression of the English character, and this is why it has endured. That, and the beauty, which is real. It’s always a good idea to go back to first principles.

So two things in the gallery really surprised me.

One was very simply re-discovering the beauty, how happy I felt among all the calm and SO familiar furniture. Lovely oak cupboards. Desks and chairs… I used to love the Arts & Crafts gang when I was young, really loved them. The lightness that picked up at the edge of the cliff when there was nowhere further for Victorian heaviness to go and just floated off it… You could almost imagine that you’d have been able to get anywhere near the stuff when it was new… It was a bit later on that I realised my first love was always and had to be the Georgians, with their wit, dirt, and splash. But on Saturday, the Morris Gallery (which is in a wonderful 18th century house, a real community hub, and FREE), its rational purity, was wonderful.

The second surprise was an exhibition.

The artist David Mabb has spent years interrogating the William Morris legacy, interlacing his works in different ways with those of the Russian Constructivists. Yeah, you read that right. In this show,’Announcer’, 30 large paintings superimpose page designs by the graphic artist El Lissitzky (from a book of poems by Mayakovsky) over pages of Morris’ Kelmscott Press edition of Chaucer. They hang all round the walls of a room, – like wallpaper, in fact – ‘[taking] over the gallery space, interweaving and contrasting the two designs so that Morris and Lissitzky’s graphics are never able to fully merge or separate’.


The whole concept felt so mad that I almost didn’t go in, and then I realised that was why I had to. Of COURSE these two can never merge or separate – they’re just so random in their total differentness  that you just think: WHAT. Lissitzky’s beautiful black and red shapes sit brutally on top of Morris’ hand-printed pages of Middle English. In a glass case in the middle of the room, like Sleeping Beauty, lie two open books: LissitzkyLissitzky’s is a small, hand-sized thing with thumb-tabs, very Modernist; you recognise it as modern even now, 100 years later. On the other side of the case, at least twice its size, is the Kelmscott Chaucer, everything about it harking back to the 15th century. But in the paintings, the scale is all out. Giant Lissitzky shapes are painted over real-life-sized – in fact real, though facsimile – pages of the Chaucer. better chaucerThe Russian seems to triumph through sheer force, while Morris is reduced to mere – well, wallpaper. Background pattern. It is very decorative, I mean it’s pretty, but what’s it for? Is Morris really being trampled, even now, by the constructivists? Can we gain anything by looking at them together like this?

David Mabb, the artist, staged an exhibition in 2008 called The Morris Kitsch Archive and Two SquaresThe Morris Kitsch Archive consists of over 500 photographs of Morris merchandising, gathered from all over the place.  A Canadian Art review lists ‘mass-produced quotidian items such as tea towels, rubber boots, pocket tissues, stationery, underwear and even an “I love Morris” baby bib… among the hundreds of items…’ and remarks that Morris ‘maintained a fierce hatred of capitalism and would be rolling in his grave if he knew what his designs have become today’.

But Morris wanted ‘art for the many’. And the many were just never going to be able to img56775702have the stuff his company, Morris and Co, produced (and still produces: you buy it in Liberty, not Matalan).

… Viewing the installation is less like gallery-going and more like window-shopping. In fact, some viewers were overheard at the opening asking Mabb where they could buy the work, and Mabb, thinking they were interested in purchasing the installation, directed them to his dealer. However, what they really wanted to know was where they could buy a tea cozy in Morris’s Honeysuckle pattern. … In a world dominated by the international flow of information and mass reproduction, one in which images are turned into objects and objects into images and in which commercialism and economic exploitation are dominant, Mabb’s Morris Kitsch Archive offers no easy victory for Morris.

Facing this (we’re still back in 2008) was a series of paintings that clearly prefigure the ‘Announcer’ exhibition currently in the Morris gallery:

14 paintings in which Morris’s wallpaper patterns collide with images appropriated from El Lissitzky’s 1922 children’s book Of Two Squares. This illustrated story by one of the pioneers of Russian Constructivism… marked the beginning of a new kind of graphic art and was one of the most important publications of the avant-garde in terms of typography and graphic design.

This context of book design was the thing that gave me a focus and slowly made the exhibition intelligible to me. Kelmscott, like the Constructivists, had a massive influence on early 20th-century book design – just think Everyman, or the Nonesuch Press.titlepages We grew up with our parents’  and grandparents’ copies of these books (or books like them). But Morris’ hand-cut, hand-printed designs were hardly art for all. They were art for those who could afford it. It took mass-production – the thing Morris despised – to make books cheap enough for most of our grandparents. When Joseph Dent started the Everyman Library with fifty titles in 1906, designed very much after the style of Kelmscott, he brought that aesthetic – the olde English, the trustworthy, the values of the primeval thatched cottage – to the perforce-industrialised English people. And gave them something beautiful, as well as something to read.

It hardly makes any sort of historical or chronological sense to look at Morris and Lissitzky together: by the time the Constructivists came along it was a different world. Morris had died five years before Victoria. Even the Everymans were 15 years old by then. The first World War had been made possible by the tide of machines that Morris wanted to hold back. It was over.

So these two graphic approaches typify the two socialist responses, fifty years apart, to industrialisation. That’s simple enough, though it doesn’t rescue the paintings from the charge of glibness. The blurb makes the exhibition more generally about two different doomed utopian movements – two ways of being a socialist, the forward dream and the backward dream, machine and hand – and it’s quite clear that the machines won. Where Morris had run a cottage industry with a few friends, making an artistic protest via the homes of the wealthy, the Constructivists were at work within a revolutionary context to create from scratch a new visual lexicon for a new world.

But there’s no easy answer, as the review above points out. These were both monomaniac, utopian movements, and although it’s easy to say that Morris’ middle-class socialism was softer and kinder than the hard-hearted Constructivists, neither movement lasted because neither spoke to the whole. However jarringly disparate they seem, we contain them both. They’ve both been commodified. El Lissitzky was indisputably one of the most influential graphic artists of the 20th century – and thus of all time –  but William Morris, as indicated above, has billions of oven gloves, umbrellas and make up mirrors to account for. Most artists were narrowly proscribed during the Soviet  years; Mayakovsky killed himself 12 years into the revolution.

So it all begins to make sense. David Mabb is asking us to look, not just at William Morris or El Lissitzky, but at our own relationship with both of them. And we need to, because time is moving fast. We’re in the Typewriter Revolution – and it’s not just the hipsters. Functional illiteracy is higher now than it was in 1912, when knowledge and beauty were what people aspired to. Our labour rights and our civil rights are being chipped away on a daily basis; we’re in the middle – or the beginning – of a new technological era that we understand as little as they understood the combustion engine a hundred years ago. It’s like staring into the future, seeing only the past, which stared into its future and saw its past, staring into the future…

The Forward Prize shortlists: Excelsior!

June 8, 2015

There is a lot to like about the shortlists for this year’s three Forward Prizes. Announced today, they look like this: Forward Prize for Best Collection Ciaran Carson, From Elsewhere (The Gallery Press) Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, The Boys of Bluehill (The Gallery Press) Paul Muldoon, One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (Faber & Faber) Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An […]

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Life is a vale of tears, and other news

June 3, 2015

It’s been a very serious year so far, here in Baroque Mansions. I’m currently suffering from borderline panic or at least anxiety disorder and trying to get myself together while keeping fingers and toes crossed. One of the funniest things that has happened in our family (like, ever) took the form of a Facebook update […]

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“We are all made of dust. But it is stardust.”

May 18, 2015

 This post about the ‘Mozart of Paintings’  is presented exactly as it arrived in my inbox. Above: his ‘Magic Flute’ period Contemporary Italian artist Ottavio Fabbri is a visionary, painter, sculptor, director and conceptual artist today announces his art work will be available for private viewings in UK, with exhibitions planned after the summer. Known […]

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‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!’

May 1, 2015

 You remember that 1970s movie, ‘Network’ – it was mainly famous for the catchphrase above, which seemed to strike a chord in disgruntled post-Watergate America. Peter Finch gave a great performance as Howard Beale, a newsreader who threatens to kill himself on air because he’s ‘run out of bullshit’. Well, last Saturday a pair of friends staged a […]

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A cold spring, poetry, and time

April 22, 2015

It is, isn’t it. I’m bloomin’ freezing. But yesterday was lovely and sunny, and the books are pouring in for review. The James Merrill biography has arrived – all 3 kilos of it, I reckon – and I’ve been getting in the mood with his Collected Prose and (of course) some poems, so there’s a kind of wonderful ‘Changing Light’ […]

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Merrilly we go along

April 17, 2015

Something about American book production values… Look! Just a real pleasure, and even buying them is more exciting – you feel like spending your money is an occasion. And can I also say, it got here in three days from New York. UPS. Feels like being a somebody. And the really tragic thing is, no time to […]

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