Thursday, 16 September 2010

Nature vs Culture

The excellent ‘Calligraphic Masterpieces’ exhibition at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow contained some intriguing surprises as well as many of the familiar treasures of Morris’s calligraphic phase in the 1870s. A Winsor&Newton ‘Illuminating Kit’ - an elaborate folding wooden box with compartments full of colours, brushes and gold leaf - reminded us what a popular middle-class pastime calligraphy was in the mid-Victorian period; it certainly wasn’t a stray discovery of Morris’s own. And a delightful embroidered book bag made by Jenny and May for their father was nice testimony to the closeness of the Morris family circle in the 1890s.

As for the Morris decorated books in the exhibition, one could not help but be astonished at the intricate craftsmanship they displayed; but it was the tension between the elegantly formed letters and the rich floral decoration, between Culture and Nature as it were, which intrigued me most. May Morris describes her father’s Rubaiyat as ‘a flower garden turned into a book ... wonderfully harmonious’, but I’m not so sure about that harmony; often the vigorous vegetation breaks into the frame of the writing and even at times threatens to engulf it. Splendid floriated initials in the Odes of Horace and the Story of Howard the Halt are so intertwined with stems and vine decoration that they are nearly overwhelmed; and one remembers those unsettling late Kelmscott Press initials in which the flamboyant capital letters are actually stabbed through by alarmingly active tendrils of vegetation.

Nature thus subjugates Culture in the end, and perhaps the play of floral decoration against writing in these painted books gives us in miniature a version of that post-apocalyptic image that Morris so relished in Richard Jeffries’s After London (1885): the great city, i.e. Culture, reduced back to a miasmic swamp by the resurgent forces of Nature itself.


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