Given that the UK is no longer eligible to have a city considered for the European City of Culture (even though technically we are still in Europe), previous cities being Glasgow in 1990 and Liverpool in 2007, new initiatives are required. We have the UK City of Culture, but it only happens every 4 years, with Hull having the accolade in 2017 and Coventry now planning ahead for 2021. In London, the Mayor initiated the Borough of Culture, of which Walthamstow is the first recipient in 2019, with Brent in 2020 – it all seems to be happening in north London.
2019 will bring a year-long programme of cultural events to Walthamstow. The weakness is that, in contrast to the other cultural initiatives, it seems to be very borough-centric – good for local people, but so far there seems to be little attempt to bring people from elsewhere into the borough. If you live outside of Walthamstow, especially in South London, you probably haven’t even heard about it.
Perhaps having the William Morris Gallery in the borough was one of the reasons for its success in bidding for the accolade, for here in north London is one of the largest collections of the work of William Morris (1834-1896) and of his Arts & Crafts contemporaries.
Walter House was William Morris’s home from 1848 – 1856, before he moved to London after completing his studies at Oxford University and then to his new home at Red House, designed with Philip Webb, where he lived from 1859 to 1865. Walter House and the grounds around it was later owned by the Lloyd Family who donated it to the Council in 1900, with the parkland being renamed Lloyd Park in the family’s memory.
The house was opened as the William Morris Gallery in 1950 and, more recently, has had a major refurbishment with the addition of a sympathetic new wing by architects Pringle, Richards, Sharratt which houses a new cafe and exhibition gallery, winning Museum of the Year in 2013.
It is still possible to see traces of the original house in the staircase and details of moulded plasterwork, joinery and other finishes, though the focus is on the exhibition displays that tell the story of William Morris, his philosophy, his designs, his commercial operations (which still continue today with Morris & Co) his collaborations with friends and collaborators, along with Arts and Crafts designs by a variety of artists and designers, plus a display of work by Sir Frank Brangwyn, a student of Morris’s and, at the current time, two temporary exhibitions, one of the work of three contemporary designers based in the nearby Blackhorse Workshop – Harriet Warden, Laura Anderson and Lola Lely and one on posters, illustrations and other materials such as matchboxes linked to the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960′s and ’70′s.
Thus the Gallery focuses not only on the work and inspiration of William Morris at the time but on other design initiatives that, in different ways continue his work or explore the link between design, politics and philosophy to the present day.