Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Passion of the Morris

So I've been reading a lot of back issues of Old House magazines lately (Old House Interiors, Old House Journal) and it's wonderful how often one stumbles across photos of Morris wallpapers, references to early Arts & Crafts, etc.  But this particular article both intrigued me and gave me pause.  I'm not sure how to take it.  First of all, there's the fact that the author came across a Morris-obsessed collector named "Topsy."  Either the author is making an in-joke only a handful of people would get, or this guy nicknamed himself after his love of Morris and the author had no idea.  Either way I kept scratching my head every time the author referenced the name, seemingly clueless that it was William Morris' own nickname.

Second, I was annoyed by the mocking tone I felt the article had toward all things Morris and early Aesthetic furniture. 

Finally,  I question whether the incident really happened or not.  Because if there really is Strawberry Thief patterned bath tissue out there, or a tea set inspired by Burne-Jones art, I think one of us in the circle of the Pre-Raphaelite obsessed would have stumbled upon these treasures.  (WANT!!)

I do have to admit though, I've never really been a fan of Sussex chairs either.

The Passion of the Morris


C h a p t e r X o f T h e B u t c h y C h r o n i c l e s

30 m a y | j u n e 2 0 1 1 COURTESY COLLECTIONS, V&A MUSEUM, ONLINE
IT ALL STARTED with a Sussex chair. I’ve never cared for them; they’re rickety, crude, and seem out of place in the lush interiors of the late 19th century. I know William Morris had them cranked out as some sort of quaint and rustic accent, a campy little accoutrement that proclaimed, “Oh, aren’t I a droll little chair?” But, frankly, I find them twee. I pass on them at auction, and have, on occasion, fantasized about using one as kindling, or hoisting it upon the funeral pyre of an enemy.

But the day came when a friend who is a museum curator in upstate New York needed a Sussex chair for an exhibit entitled “William Morris: Why Should We Bother?” She asked if I knew of one that might be borrowed for the duration of the show. I owed her a favor; during a rough patch, she had purchased a Herter Brothers table from me. The piece had certainly augmented the museum’s  collection, but I knew that it wasn’t an absolutely necessary acquisition; in cutting a check she’d thrown me a lifeline. Thus I was honor-bound to get her a Sussex chair, and my intuition told me just where I could find it, in the hands of an English Arts & Crafts collector named Topsy.

I had met him while exhibiting at an antiques show at the Castle. In my booth was a massive, ebonized Aesthetic Movement sideboard, one of those distinctive beasts that looked as if William Burges had had an off day and forgot to in-paint the background of the door panels.  Topsy was fascinated by the piece, especially since most of my wares are typically American and this one reeked of Britain. It would make an exquisite and dramatic focal point in any Pre-Raphaelite dining room.

Or so I told him.

(Topsy didn’t purchase the piece, but it continued to haunt him. This often happens with well-heeled but unimaginative collectors who develop tunnel vision; anything that doesn’t already appear in their mind’s eye is of little use. Later, when the sideboard sold to a Venerable and Awesome Museum in London, Topsy lauded its brilliance and told all who would listen that he merely hadn’t room for it, flawless hindsight being another trait of the Gutless Collector.)

The fact that I possessed the sideboard and knew full well what it was meant that I was Someone He Should Know, and so Topsy struck up an acquaintance. He had given me an open invitation to visit his home, allegedly “to see his stuff,” and although I was unsure of his intentions, the opportunity to case and possibly plunder an unseen collection intrigued me.  

When I rang up Topsy, he was delighted to hear from me. Ordinarily, I would have dragged Butchy along, but I felt that this call should be handled one-on one; I would enlighten His Voyseyness with the details afterward.
Topsy lived in Back Bay between Exeter and Dartmouth, on the southern side of Commonwealth Avenue, and my visits of late to this stretch of the Emerald Necklace had made me increasingly melancholic. Victorian Boston exhumes the bones of my youth, a time when each footstep was a revelation, and every turn filled with the promise of discovery. In late May, the city is achingly gorgeous; every blossom appears as if placed by Olmsted, every portico seems blessed by the hand of Richardson.

The sight of a Swan Boat in mid-paddle transports one into a Childe Hassam painting. When Boston dwells in its past, its charms have no rival outside of Europe; conversely, when it attempts to be modern-day Manhattan, it may as well be Gary, Indiana. It was here that I, as a newly matriculated undergrad, engaged in the Pursuit of Beauty and so forsook all other deities.

I walked up Topsy’s spalling sandstone steps, past a massive, leggy rhododendron. (Its petals mocked me with their magenta incandescence: “Are we not wondrous?  Do we not belong in the dell at Kew? We bloomed before your birth, and will bloom long after your ashes are surreptitiously scattered from the Washington Tower in Mount Auburn cemetery.”) My heart sighed as visions of past loves, human and architectural, drifted through my mind. This reverie was fleeting, for I was yanked back to the matter at hand, which would entail wresting the accursed tinker-toy of a chair from the hands of Topsy.

I have walked into many homes, from modest to magnificent, and at this point I am indifferent to wealth. I have seen tens of millions spent foolishly and found priceless objects in trailers. Rare are true surprises, but here, on Commonwealth Avenue, I realized that I had stumbled into obsession. Upon my return to Bilgewater, I recounted the details to Butchy: “First off, Topsy’s door has a plaque that reads ‘Stop Here, Or Gently Pass’…”
“Don’t Fear The Reaper,” Butchy snickered.

“Indeed. As I pressed the bell for Topsy’s flat, I could hear the howling of a wounded animal, which
ceased with the fading echoes of the door-chimes. But it was actually Topsy bellowing Icelandic verse, which he had been practicing for my benefit. He bid me in and immediately had me perch on a hard, high-backed settle, where I sat patiently listening to him run through his set-list. He wanted my honest criticism; I wanted to say that it sounded like a domestic dispute involving Bjork.”

“How bad could it have been? It was just a few poems.”

“Imagine being trapped at a June Bar-Mitzvah in Reykjavik during some sort of unending Sabbath, waiting, waiting, waiting for the sun to set …”

“A small penance for your dark soul, but how was his place? Any goodies? Did you try to pounce him?”

“A couple of nice case pieces, acres of crockery and an infestation of Sussex chairs; they were lurking everywhere, like cockroaches. He’s got each variation, hoping perhaps to fill an amphitheatre. The apartment itself could’ve been Morris’s crypt; for a moment, I thought it was the Sanderson showroom, but no, this was Topsy’s home. The wainscoting had been painted Peacock Blue and the walls were papered with ‘Lily’ and the drapes were ‘Compton’. On the floor was a ‘Pimpernel’ ingrain carpet; little pillows were covered in ‘Cherwell’ and ‘Chrysanthemum’, and tea-towels made up of ‘Willow Bough’. “He has arbitrarily piled layer upon layer of pattern, grabbing anything Morris without consideration of color or scale . . . and then he wanted to discuss all of them! He knew the date, the designer, and the number of colorways for each pattern—every fact, every anecdote, and yet there was no artistry in his display! It was a collection, like baseball cards or vintage lawnmowers.” 

Butchy peered over the top of his pince-nez and smirked. “Too much pattern? Too much color?! I can’t imagine you uttering those words, any more than I expect to hear you say, ‘oh that desk is worth far more, let me give you another two hundred dollars’.”

“Duly noted. I was terrified at this point that he was going to discuss the minutiae of Morris’s life, so I feigned having to go to the loo. Would you believe the high-tank toilet was stenciled to look like one of the panels of the Green Dining Room? And I have no idea where he got it, but there was actually ‘Strawberry Thief’ bath tissue.

“When I returned, Topsy had produced a ceramic tea service fashioned after a series of Burne–Jones nymphs. I hastily asked about borrowing the Sussex chair as we sipped the Lapsang. He was flattered and offered up several.”
“You poor dear,” Butchy mock-gasped; “—did you actually bring home a Sussex chair?”

“Yep. I wrapped it in a rug and got it to the museum. I will confess that the night before, I did drag it into the house for safekeeping. And I tried it in various spots. But its mere presence offended each of my furnishings, so I had to put it in the cellar.”

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Waterhouse DeviantArt Article

Deviantartist Elandria (known for her phenomenal fantasy stock photos) wrote an outstanding short article summarizing the life and work of John William Waterhouse.  In addition, at the end of her article, she shares links to a variety of works by other artists on Deviantart inspired by Waterhouse.  It's well worth a look, but here are a few of my favorite images:

This one especially fascinates me.  Three self-portraits in a modern style, but with the poses from the three artworks Waterhouse painted of the Lady of Shalott.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Katarzyna Konieczka

I love it when I find a photographer whose work I admire, only to peruse their work further and realize that I had already seen their work anonymously and loved it.  Such was the case with Katarzyna Konieczka

This piece especially reminds me of Millais' Ophelia.  The feel of it is very similar and yet retains the modern photographer's own unique style. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Rossetti Caramel

I don't know about you, but I'm craving Caramel now.

Have you seen any other examples of using Pre-Raphaelite art to sell a modern product?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Stand Idol or Be Moved to Create

Burne-Jones and Morris...my favorite photo

I've wanted to start this post for a while but never knew quite how to begin it.  See...I want to explain to you a particular and personal reason why I am passionate about Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris.  Of course it is obvious that I might find them fascinating for the incredible art that they created both together and separately.  And of course it is also obvious that I could love them for their romantic natures and love of imagination and wonder.  But I want to talk about another, less obvious and very dear reason why they are so important to me.

They were fans.

When Morris and Burne-Jones met, they were both rapidly smitten with the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  This fact is often mentioned in biographies of William Morris (Topsy) and Edward Burne-Jones (Ned), but let's take a moment to really let this sink in.  With the distance of time, it's easy to simply call Ned and Topsy the 'second generation' of the Brotherhood.  But in their youth, they idolized the original members of the Brotherhood and practically worshiped them as mentors of beauty and imagination and art.  Edward Burne-Jones is described as having gone to lectures and waited for hours in crowded halls just to catch a glimpse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  And when he was later invited to tour Rossetti's studio, he awkwardly outwore his welcome, staying and watching Rossetti paint for a long time and only later finding out that Gabriel absolutely hated it when people did that.  But despite an awkward beginning, Ned and Topsy soon began hanging out with Gabriel more often.  They were invited to assist in the painting of the Oxford Union library murals.  And Gabriel convinced them both to not only admire the Brotherhood, but to create their own art, abandoning their previous ecclesiastical career goals.

Portrait of Rossetti in youth by Hunt
 So why does this story make me love them so very much?  Because I too have a circle of artists and creative minds that I adore.  In this modern day there is also a group of magic makers that both intimidate and inspire me.  In my mind, these artists and authors and crafters and merrymakers are direct creative descendents from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  They call their work Mythic or Interstitial arts, and it carries on the tradition of Burne-Jones and Arthur Rackham, of Walter Crane and Alphonse Mucha, of William Morris and J.R.R. Tolkien.

And their names are Terri Windling.  Rima Staines.  Brian and Wendy and Toby Froud.  Charles de Lint.  Theodora Goss.  Alan Lee and Virginia Lee.  These names are only a few of many more who awe and inspire me daily with the immense artistic and imaginative font from which they draw and share with the world.

Art by Brian Froud

Art by Virginia Lee, draft version of the cover of a new edition of Theodora Goss' short story collection.

Art by Terri Windling

Art by Alan Lee
Art by Rima Staines
And like Burne-Jones, I find myself eager to stand around for hours to listen to them talk in crowded lecture halls (or convention panels, as the modern case may be).  I also, like he did, have a tendency to put them on pedestals of hero worship.  These are the names of the people who molded and shaped my inner landscape in the salad days of my pre-teen and teen years.  Their art infused my dreamscape, and their stories influenced the birth of my beliefs in magic and wonder.

Ned and Topsy got their chance to meet their hero, Rossetti.  And as is sometimes the case, they discovered their god had feet of clay.  This lesson was especially harsh for William Morris, who fell utterly in love with Jane Burden (Morris), and later would have Rossetti and his wife engage in a torrid affair.  Ned and Topsy had to discover the reality that the chivalrous and knightly romantic hero they imagined Rossetti to be was only partially a reality.  The man could create miraculous works of art, seeming to be directly inspired by the muse of aesthetic beauty.  But ultimately he was a man, with flaws and personality quirks (and a love for blue and white china and claret).  My own artistic heroes have become more real as of late to me as well.  Through the miracle of the internet, their lives are revealed to me through blogs, Tweets, and Facebook conversations.  And I'm happy to say that I've become friends with a few of them, and amicable acquaintances with others.  Slowly, I am discovering and realizing that these people, although the work they create may be deeply infused with the power of magic, are people too, with good days and bad days, dirty dishes and laundry to do.

An unflattering Burne-Jones cartoon of Rossetti carrying pillows for Jane Morris

 And not only does this realization make me feel like it's possible to relate to them, but it also makes me see that my dream to become one of the new generation of Interstitial artists is not an unreachable goal.  William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, as I mentioned, were swayed by Rossetti from their career goals in the clergy to become artists instead.  Edward Burne-Jones chose to pursue art, while William Morris was to pursue architecture.  Topsy, however, soon discovered that he had not the patience for blueprints and building plans.  Slowly over time, he discovered where his massive and formidable talents and achievements would lie, in the decorative arts, in writing, and in a myriad of other areas.  Burne-Jones never swayed from his new goal of becoming a fine artist, but over time his style became less and less a mirror of Rossetti's as he found his own voice and a way to display his own inner landscape.

An early Burne-Jones painting, The Blessed Damozel, at left, is very easy to mistake for a Rossetti painting.  The Beguiling of Merlin, completed seventeen years later, is unmistakeably Burne-Jones' own style.

And so all of us who have loved, admired, and been influenced by the creative minds in the Mythic Arts need to find our own voices, our own talents, and our own way to express the world we have inside our imaginations.  The choice is ultimately ours...do we allow our hero worship to intimidate us from creating, or do we allow them to motivate us to do our personal best?  Do we stand 'idol' or let these people move us to create?