At home with William Morris

5th December 2003 at 00:00
Tom Deveson looks at how a local museum visit inspired primary children and gave them a sense of neighbourhood loyalty and pride

He was a poet, a painter, a printer and a prophet of socialist revolution.

He designed tiles and tapestries, windows and wallpaper, furniture and futures for his country. He is a dead white Victorian male and he became the subject of vivid interest for ethnically and culturally diverse classes of seven-year-olds in east London.

The William Morris Gallery is the only public museum devoted to one of the most versatile figures of the 19th century. It has a fine collection illustrating William Morris's life, work and influence. The gallery is in Walthamstow in the artist's former home, which is a substantial Georgian building in extensive grounds. It is only a short walk from Woodside School, where Year 2 pupils spent several weeks finding out about the artist. Becky Morez, the deputy head, says: "Teachers at Woodside are determined that the curriculum should provide a set of opportunities and not a strait-jacket."

They planned a key stage 1 topic on the Victorians in the conviction that forceful personalities such as Florence Nightingale and Dr Thomas Barnardo not only make exciting stories, but illuminate differences between the rich and the poor that can't be consigned to the past. William Morris is a challenging choice at this age.

Classes also visited the Ragged School Museum in London, where pupils took on the names and characters of East-enders from a century ago who were subject to fierce discipline and sometimes bewildering lessons. However, it was the trip to the William Morris Gallery that became the driving force of the project. Becky Morez and teacher Rachel Green prepared a set of questions for Year 2 pupils to ensure that time in the gallery was well spent. Children explored the diversity of the artist's talents and interests. "They noticed his use of repeating patterns featuring flowers and other organic motifs," says Rachel Green. "They decoded a set of tiles that formed a storyboard for the tale of Beauty and the Beast and sketched chairs, tables and a medieval-style helmet and sword."

Some pupils found favourite quotations, such as "Fellowship is life". One child was fascinated by William Morris's lament that his beloved Walthamstow had become "terribly cockneyfied" and transcribed parts of his eloquent diatribe.

Back in school, teachers found that cross-curricular work flowed naturally from the children's discoveries. They had already been exploring the topic of growth within science. William Morris's use of petals and leaves became something that made sense to the children as botany as well as art. Pupils used the computer program Dazzle to make floral designs that could be reproduced in arrays of lines and columns. Others created the same effect with beautiful free-hand drawings. Elif Kurtulus used 21st-century synthetic colours to give permanence to timeless decorative forms. She also made a link to Islamic traditions of design: "My mum has a pattern like that on material at home." Beauty and style could be seen as qualities able to cross cultural frontiers that are sometimes sternly defended.

The true benefit of the project in the teachers' eyes is that they could use their locality as a place to inspire curiosity and excitement, and to root learning in a sense of neighbourhood loyalty and pride. "The children found the idea of William Morris very real," says Becky Morez.

"They would talk about the immense differences between then and now, but then add that 'We live in Walthamstow, too'. They liked the idea that he was someone from down the road."

His actions on behalf of Victorian society's poor also stirred them.

"William Morris believed that people might look very different - poor people and rich people looked a lot different then - but they were the same inside," says pupil Claire Mainwaring.

Reflecting on the artist's great crusade to make England an aesthetically passionate country pupil Kaniley Vencatachellum recalled Morris's injunction to "have nothing in your houses that you don't believe to be beautiful".

In the artist's utopian fantasy News from Nowhere, he denounces the tendency to "shove a little information into a child ... accompanied by twaddle". Instead, he welcomes a time when a child can learn as "his own inclinations impel him to seek".

Teachers at Woodside have their feet firmly on the ground, but they still manage to act in harmony with that noble ideal.

Admission to the William Morris Gallery is free. School visits must be booked at least two weeks in advance. For details about the teacher's resource pack visit www.lbwf.gov.ukwmghome.htm

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