A visit to the city of Carlisle has many pleasures: strolling along the banks of the river Eden, admiring the stained glass and the blue ‘starred’ ceiling in the cathedral, spending much more than you’d ever intended in the stunningly good secondhand bookshop in Castle Street, and enjoying the fine architecture of the historic quarter between cathedral and castle. These were all bonuses, however, since my main motive in finally visiting Carlisle today was to pop in to the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery to see the 1875 right-profile pencil drawing of Morris by George Howard, made on one Morris’s sojourns at Castle Howard, near Brampton. Its claim to fame is that it is the only image we have of him which shows him with his spectacles on.
The Howard drawing is surrounded by the Tullie’s Pre-Raphaelite collection, which is a matter of interesting oddments (such as an unfinished version of Rossetti’s Found from 1854 or Arthur Hughes’s tiny ink-on-paper La Belle Dame Sans Merci of 1862) rather than major holdings. But Morris in 1875 was no longer in any straightforward sense a Pre-Raphaelite. He had made the two Iceland trips, reorganised the Firm, was working on Sigurd the Volsung, and would soon become treasurer of the Eastern Question Association and founder of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. So as I peered close up at the Howard drawing was it fanciful to detect a new, middle-aged determination and steeliness behind those spectacles? Was I responding to what was genuinely in the aesthetic object before me, or projecting what, historically, I know is to come and what, politically, I want to come?