Sunday 22 March 2015

The Philip Webb Centenary

How does - or should - one honour the dead? The centenary of the death of architect Philip Webb is giving rise to a cluster of activities that all look appropriate enough at first glance. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings is organising a tour of Red House in May and other related events; Tessa Wild will be speaking to the William Morris Gallery, again in May, about Webb’s work and ‘his deep friendship with Morris’; the V&A will have a Philip Webb display in November, which will encompass his furniture designs as well as his buildings. There are many other similar things going on elsewhere and they all look – and no doubt will be – genial, informative and entertaining (I might even go to one or two myself); but oh dear, how relentlessly historical and therefore ultimately low-key they all are into the bargain!

The pull of a personal name always draws us back to anecdote and history in this manner. To truly honour the dead – our dead, i.e. socialists and communists like Webb and Morris – we are well advised to move from names to themes, from the past to the present, from nostalgia to struggle. So to celebrate the Webb centenary let the William Morris Society organise for later this year (it is still not quite too late to do so) a series of high-profile speakers on the general topic of ‘Architecture and Society Today’, which might recapture for the present some of the centrality and excitement that architecture had in cultural and political debate in the postmodern 1980s (of which Fredric Jameson’s analysis of the Bonaventura Hotel in Los Angeles might stand as an exemplary instance). Sign up Owen Hatherley, Will Self, Jonathan Glancey and others, call these talks the ‘Philip Webb Centenary Lectures’, publish them subsequently as a book, and let us look boldly forward rather than back.

Friday 6 March 2015

The Great Morrisian Bake Off

I can enjoy Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood in the BBC TV show The Great British Bake Off in small doses, but want to point out that, in terms of the celebration of baking, William Morris in his later works got there first – though it is bread rather than fancy cakes that is the object of culinary skill in his writings.

In The Water of the Wondrous Isles no sooner has Birdalone buried the body of her terrifying Witch-mistress than ‘she went about the house, and saw to the baking of bread’, as if this were the most natural thing in the world to do at such a fraught moment. And perhaps it is; for when Arthur the Black Squire turns up at the cottage after their five years of anguished separation from each other, Birdalone celebrates with ‘fine bread made for that very occasion’. In The Well at the World’s End after Ralph and Ursula have made their way through the alarming mountain passes they come into a beautiful valley and rejoice because the Sage of Swevenham has told them ‘that there they should winter, because of the bread which they could make them of the chestnuts’. In News from Nowhere we see the delicious products of baking – thin pipe-stems of wheaten crust, big, dark-coloured, sweet-tasting farmhouse loaves – but not, a little disappointingly, the act of baking itself.

Baking bread is thus a decidedly positive value in Morris, just as it has become once more in our own culture, as when Satish Kumar of the magazine Resurgence & Ecologist extols the slow, meditative virtues of home-baking – an altogether more attractive paradigm, to my mind, than the often hectic, unnecessarily competitive format of the Berry/Hollywood TV programme.