William morris

A walled garden in Suffolk yields up its secrets

In the hot summer of 2020, during the Covid pandemic, Olivia Laing and her husband Ian moved from Cambridge to a beautiful Georgian house in a Suffolk village and began work on restoring the neglected, extensive walled garden behind it. She was vaguely aware that the garden had been owned and loved by the well-known garden designer and plantsman Mark Rumary, who had died in 2010. He had been the landscape director for the East Anglian nursery of Notcutts, and I remember him as a genial man overseeing extensive, award-winning tree and shrub exhibits at the Chelsea Flower Show in the 1980s. I once owned a copy of the Notcutts

The folly of garden cities

In his 1981 autobiography A Better Class of Person, the playwright John Osborne described an encounter he’d recently had with an actor who’d bought a house in Finlay Street, Fulham for £15,000. Osborne, having lived on the same street in the 1930s when properties there changed hands for £300, was astonished by the sum. Yet, as Simon Matthews notes in House in the Country, £15,000 was then only 3.5-3.75 times the average national earnings, while to buy a house on Finlay Street today you’d need £2,136,667 – which works out at 69 times the current average annual salary. In the light of the government’s recent proposal of a ‘benefits to

May’s day

You may think you don’t know May Morris, daughter of William, but you’ll probably have come across her wallpaper. Her honeysuckle design was and remains a Morris & Co. bestseller, and it not only features in homes to this day, it’s been nicked by designer Jonathan Anderson for a Morris-inspired range for the very expensive fashion house Loewe. It’s all a bit dispiriting for a woman whose aesthetic sensibility, like her father’s, was bound up in her socialism. But it was embroidery that was May Morris’s art and craft and now a new exhibition at the Morris Gallery in Walthamstow lets us see it in its own right. The gist

Split decision | 5 October 2017

Think back to that morning in September 1967 when the Light Programme was split in two, Tony Blackburn launching Radio 1 with a jaunty new jingle announcing it was all ‘Just for Fun’ while staid old Radio 2 went on with the Breakfast Show and told its listeners to ‘Wake Up Easy’. What is so surprising is just how radical the changes at the BBC were. On that unsuspecting morning, as the Pope urged for peace in Vietnam and a cannabis farm was discovered in Bristol, the Beeb’s radio output was completely overhauled. It was not just that a new station was launched, addressing the problems posed to the BBC’s

A trick of the light

There is a moment at the start of most authors’ careers when it is hard to get anything published, and there is a moment towards the latter stage of some authors’ careers when it is hard to stop everything being published. A.S. Byatt is in the latter stage of her career, and however great the claims for her back (and future) catalogue may be, it hard to see why Peacock and Vine came to be here. Byatt begins with an insight at the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice. Unfamiliar with the work of Mariano Fortuny, she describes something in the quality of the April light which brings to mind a very


When Tom Birkin, hero of J.L. Carr’s novel A Month in the Country, wakes from sleeping in the sun, it is to a vision: the vicar’s wife Alice Keach in a wide-brimmed straw hat, a rose tucked into the ribbon. ‘Her neck was uncovered to the bosom and, immediately, I was reminded of Botticelli — not his Venus — the Primavera. It was partly her wonderfully oval face and partly the easy way she stood. I’d seen enough paintings to know beauty when I saw it and, in this out of the way place, here it was before me.’ So universally recognised are Sandro Botticelli’s two most famous paintings, we

Pillar of the Victorian age

Briefing his illustrator for the jacket of A Handful of Dust (1934), Evelyn Waugh asked for a country house in ‘the worst possible 1860’. The result was a neoGothic extravaganza with a pinnacled entrance tower and spiky dormer windows — just the sort of thing that might have come from the drawing board of George Gilbert Scott, the most eminent architect of that time. Scott’s Kelham Hall in Nottinghamshire, its bright red brick distantly visible from the western side of the carriage as the train heads north from Newark, gives the picture perfectly. And if you strain to spot Kelham amidst its trees, no one could miss Scott’s Midland Hotel

A terrible beauty

Good pottery appears to be cool and silent — something vulnerable that, with luck, can outlast many human generations. A white porcelain dish seems calm and decorous; one knows that skill went into its evenness, into the exact whiteness, into its lightness. But when I began to think about pots I had no idea of the extreme violence, happenstance and risk that are an intrinsic part of the maker’s art. The chemistry is complex; the potter needs to study it intimately — the composition of different clays, of glazes, of rare and valuable pigments (cobalt for instance), and of the firewood that makes the fire. Pottery-making can be poisonous from

The only art is Essex

When I went to visit Edward Bawden he vigorously denied that there were any modern painters in Essex. That may not have been true then — this was in the 1980s — or even now. What is indisputable, however, is that there have been plenty of artists in the county. They are the subject of two small but delightfully jam-packed exhibitions at the Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden. Bawden (1903–1989) is at the heart of both of them, even if the second point he made to me — equally emphatically — was that he called himself a designer rather than an artist (‘out of self-defence, mainly’). That distinction, and the

Blitzed on Benzedrine

Lore has it that those viewing naughty books in the British Museum could once do so only with the Archbishop of Canterbury in attendance. Such pastoral care may be advisable for any institution ending up with the private archive of letters, diaries and artwork from which Joscelyn Godwin compiles this eccentric and nicely produced account of his parents’ lives from 1940 to 1948. Edward Fell Scott-Snell and Stephani Mary Allfree met in 1935 and set about cultivating Thessyros, a fantasy land Edward had already sown with overripe imagery and peopled with priapic cupids, ageing debauchees and, Godwin explains, ‘assorted gardeners, priests, and organists who gleefully seduce their willing, under-aged charges’.

Jeremy Deller is lost in Walthamstow

At the Venice Biennale last year, Jeremy Deller presented English Magic in the British Pavilion. It was an aggressive look at contemporary Britain and featured protest art based on socialist politics. It’s fitting, then, that the show has transferred to the William Morris gallery in Walthamstow; no doubt the libertarian socialist would be proud to see Deller’s work displayed in his old house. Despite thoughtful intentions, though, the transfer doesn’t quite work, and Deller’s art seems uncomfortable in its new setting. The mural depicting Morris in the Venetian lagoon, clutching Roman Abramovich’s enormous yacht (above), makes little impact. It’s meant to be an acerbic statement about the One Per Cent,

Don’t believe the spin, this arts cut is a disaster

Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) spending review rounds always work like this: officials choose three figures of increasing severity and ask those they fund to model what would happen should their funding be cut by the corresponding amounts. The organisations duly devote considerable resources to trying to work out what they could cut or stop doing entirely, worrying staff and donors and driving speculation in the press. Then the culture secretary of the day proudly announces that he or she has fought culture’s corner and we all now only have to cut by the lower figure. Cue grateful thanks in public, and private pain as the agreed changes

Historical directories: Street View for time-travellers – Spectator Blogs

Fancy a walk into London’s past? How about a stroll down Fleet Street in 1895? Or Oxford Street in 1899? It can be done. I can’t promise pictures, but I can offer more detail on the residents of each building than Google would risk publishing today. The secret: from the mid-1830s, a man named Frederic Kelly employed agents to call at every address in London and to record the people or businesses within. Kelly was a postal official, and his agents, at least to begin with, were postmen. There was some scandal about that. Because this wasn’t an official census, conducted every ten years and then locked away for a