Beautiful People (of their time)

Today we have Damian, Tracey, Grayson et al. How do they match up to the Beautiful People of the 1880s and 90s?

When you are next in London, head for the National Portrait Gallery and you will not regret buying a ticket for admission to Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy. It’s a brilliant exhibition, lovingly and intelligently assembled by author and art historian Fiona McCarthy.

That the influence of William Morris (and his circle) pervaded so many levels of culture in Britain, continuing to do so even as late as the Festival of Britain and the young Terence Conran in the 1950s,  is a sharp reminder of how radical and important his work was when he lived. Through portraits, furniture, books, banners, textiles and jewellery (some exhibited in London for the first time) the show also reminds how Morris’s ‘Art for the People’ movement met head on with the Establishment of the time, which delighted in ridiculing this ‘alarmingly’ democratic brand of art and design as whimsical and precious; sometimes this was understandable, especially when you consider the socialist reverence which caused Morris to have Karl Marx’s Le Capital  elaborately bound and delicately gold-tooled in 1884, Eric Gill’s (semi-)erotic Adam and Eve garden roller or the sandals that were made and worn by Edward Carpenter.

Carpenter was a handsome, young, middle-class, pre-Fabian radical who seems to have established a sort of Good Life, back-to-manual-labour-basics (and possibly gay) commune at Millthorpe in Derbyshire. His sandal-making business prospered and eventually moved to Letchworth, the first of those garden cities that were also such success stories of the Morris movement. From the catalogue a glimpse is caught of the still striking, now bearded, Carpenter wearing his trademark sandals. But unfortunately he is also wearing stockings.

Oh dear, now you can understand grumpy George Orwell’s irritation with such leftie, middle-class, sandal-wearing intellectuals, when he wrote, in The Road to Wigan Pier (1936),  that Socialism draws towards it, ”with magnetic force, every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist and feminist in England.” Yikes!

From the 1860s until the eve of WWI, the Morris crowd were the Beautiful People of their time. Good-looking, socially and sexually aware, intensely creative, thinking way outside the box, what was there not to like about them? I’m only sorry that this could not have been a free exhibition: the entry price will deter many, and it’s an enormously educational experience.

ANARCHY & BEAUTY: WILLIAM MORRIS AND HIS LEGACY, 1860-1960 16 Oct 2014-11 Jan 2015, at the National Portrait Gallery, London

Tickets including Donation £14.00 Senior citizens (aged 60 and over) £13.00, Concs £12.00 Family: one/two adults or concessions and up to four children (aged 12–18) £20/£29 Standard tickets £12.70 Senior citizens: £11.80 Concs: £10.90 Family: one/two adults or concessions and up to four children (aged 12–18) £18.10/£26.30

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