Two Temple Place, a lavish, mahogany estate situated a stone’s throw from the Thames, is completely packed with patrons. You see, the gallery is hosting its very first exhibit, the works of William Morris – a nineteenth century socialist, artist and textile designer. The media is all a-rave: ‘Breathtaking!’ exclaimed The Telegraph. ‘Ornate!’, chimed The Observer. I’m standing next to two excitable gentlemen in tweed, looking at a lacklustre faux-medieval tapestry and I’m so bored I want to dissolve through the floor just to avoid the long traipse back to the entrance.
The exhibit comprises mostly of crafts (ceramics, stained glass, wallpaper and so on) upheld in the pre-Raphaelite aesthetic and upholding motifs of medieval legends and virtues. The tapestry, spanning the wall of the entire room, depicts faded embodiments of sins and virtues. It’s all incredibly depressing, emanating the musty smell of old clothes and reminiscent of sorting through a the belongings of someone dead. Everything is tinted grey.
William Morris worked in close collaboration with Edward Burne-Jones, a British designer whom he met at university. The two produced artworks on the themes of love, honour, legends and religion. Flowers, gold and strong-jawed women abound. Some in-progress works are interesting from a mathematical point of view, the way wallpaper design is carefully calculated to work in perfect harmony with itself.
The musty romanticism is oftentimes sweet: the forbidden love of Tristan and Isolde, of Lancelot and Lady Guinevere. Still, the imagery is repetitive and the medieval values filtered through a nineteenth century lens is simply not engaging to the modern viewer.
Maybe the exhibit is unappealing because the medieval is simply not in vogue at the moment. Sword fights on horseback and fair maidens have mostly been relegated to the domain of World of Warcraft geeks and LARPing. In the hierarchy of socially acceptable interests it sits just below sci-fi and just above taxidermy. Combine that with a cursory interest in tile manufacture and embroidery and you end up with something terminally un-hip.
Perhaps something derivative, with black skull overlays and ironic glitter spray, hung quietly in a particularly hipster-infested area of Dalston might prove to be more interesting. Then again, Two Temple Place is experiencing an unprecedented rise in visitor numbers these days, so what do I know.
William Morris: Story, Memory, Myth is on until January 29 at:
Two Temple Place
2, Temple Place
Tel: 020 7836 3715