The quest for Britain’s first Arts and Crafts movement museum
The Times, 26/5/2012
William Morris’s ideal, according to Professor Gillian Naylor, the Morris scholar and former head of design history at the Royal College of Art, was to create a world of free creativity, gathering around him a group of pre-eminent artists and designers who used traditional craft methods and materials, with motifs drawn from myth and nature. Their names redound today, 150 years later: Charles Voysey, Owen Jones, Augustus Pugin, Walter Crane, C R Ashbee and William De Morgan.
It was a rarefied world, “and in their efforts to achieve it, British designers so revitalised the arts of architecture and design that their efforts were admired and emulated throughout Europe and America,” Professor Naylor has written [The Arts and Crafts Movement: A Study of Its Sources, Ideals, and Influence on Design Theory].
They still influence design here, in the United States and Europe, yet nowhere is there a permanent museum devoted to Arts & Crafts, and recent efforts to create one have so far failed.
Leading a campaign is the director of the De Morgan Foundation, Kate Catleugh, who wants to found a centre that would combine the movement’s first museum with teaching methods and techniques Morris and his adherents championed.
“It would be a first and it should be in this country,” said Mrs Catleugh, who for 40 years has been the custodian of the largest collection of De Morgan ceramics and the paintings of his wife Evelyn. Last November she reopened the collection in a former Wandsworth reference library.
“To make the whole thing relevant and to ensure the Arts & Crafts movement goes into the future we should provide workshops for practising mastercraftsmen who take apprentices,” she said. “Because it’s a very sad fact of life that most art schools, having turned themselves into universities, no longer teach handcraft skills.”
The museum would draw loans from existing collections that are unable to show much of them, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Crafts Council, the GLC study collection, the South London Gallery and the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow which, in spite of its reopening in July after a £5.5m refurbishment will only be able to display a limited portion of its holding. There would be contributions from collections around the country and abroad.
At its heart will be the De Morgan Collection whose reopening signalled a new lease of life, but it is a short lease. A new home for it has to be found by the end of 2014.
The ceramicist William De Morgan and his symbolist painter wife Evelyn were major Arts & Crafts figures and the centre has the world’s largest collection of the work of both.
De Morgan studied at the Royal Academy Schools but quickly discovered this talent in the decorative arts, and was still a student when he met William Morris in 1863. He became the main ceramicist of Morris’s movement, taking his motifs from the flora and fauna and with references to ancient patterns. He designed and made all his own kilns and equipment, and his inspiration ran to inventing gearing systems for bicycles, telegraph codes and his own system of accounts. Evelyn Pickering was one of the first women students at the Slade School of Art, and quickly became a celebrity artist. It was late in life for both of them that she and De Morgan married. “There go two of the rarest spirits of the age,” remarked Sir Edward Poynter, president of the Royal Academy.
When they died, William in 1916 and Evelyn three years later, her younger sister Wilhelmina Stirling devoted the rest of her life to gathering together as many paintings, tiles and pots as she could and kept them in her home, Old Battersea House in what is now the London Borough of Wandsworth. On her death in 1965, aged 99, ownership reverted to a new charity, the De Morgan Foundation with the local authority heavily represented on the board of the trustees, and the collection went into store.
It was eventually given Wandsworth’s former reference library, and it opened in 2002 with a 21 year lease, co-habiting with the lending library. But a missed clause in the lease meant that in 2009 the centre had to close when the library was moved prior to the local authority selling the building for development. Sale plans were abandoned in 2008, and instead Wandsworth Museum was moved in and the De Morgan Foundation was given a sub-lease – but for only three years.
Mrs Catleugh had hoped to establish the new centre at the former Beaufoy Institute in Stockwell, built in 1907 as a training centre for apprentice craftsmen, which would double as an artisan school. She had the blessing of the Prince of Wales, but the deal with Lambeth Council collapsed two years ago when the council had to withdraw for budget reasons, and the building is now on the market.
Discussions then progressed with Berkeley Homes to turn the former St Olave’s Grammar School by Tower Bridge into the new centre but at Christmas she learned that an option had been given to an Indian hotel group.
However, Mrs Catleugh may after all have guided the project towards a permanent new home, with the blessing of another London borough, Newham, the “Olympic borough”, which is in search of a permanent cultural legacy to the Games. She has also assembled a new board of trustees that includes enthusiasts from the City, from the museum sector and, in a private capacity, the Arts Council’s director of finance.
The site might be in Newham’s regenerated Royal Docks. “We would love to have the Arts & Crafts Centre here and we’re trying to identify a building,” said Clive Dutton, the borough’s director of regeneration and planning. “The economics now means that we couldn’t help financially, but in every other way we would encourage the centre coming here because this is an extremely important element of our cultural story, culture is in our DNA here and it would be an international attraction for us,” he said. “It would fit.”