Director of the William Morris Gallery Hadrian Garrard talks about the gallery's current exhibition, Radical Landscapes, and its aim to extend the exhibition past the gallery walls
Reader's Digest: Can you tell us a bit about your role at the William Morris Gallery?
Hadrian Garrard: I’m responsible for steering the organisation forwards. One of the things that I’m most interested in is the role of gallery as a place for local people, that it becomes a useful, receptive and responsive space. A lot of the work we’re doing now is building our public programme, making new relationships with people who live locally that might not normally come to the gallery. We’re doing a lot of work to enrich the programme and respond to the interests and the backgrounds of people around it.
RD: How do you work with the local community?
HG: We really wanted to locate Radical Landscapes in the context of Waltham Forest and people’s relationships with the outdoors, so we collaborated with a number of local charities and organisations that are doing great things in terms of introducing people to outside spaces. For example we worked with allotment associations and food banks, as well as groups who are supporting refugees. It turns out there’s an awful lot of great things happening in this part of London.
"We want the exhibition to act as an invitation for people to access green space"
Something as huge as climate change can feel quite abstract if you live in a very urban city with limited access to the outdoors, so we want the exhibition to act as an invitation for people to access green space, to access the land in an urban area.
RD: Why is a gallery dedicated to William Morris a good space for exhibitions that explore the environment and our relationships to nature?
HG: One of the most important galleries in the exhibition is dedicated to William Morris’s childhood. It’s a meditation on his childhood home, on the area that he grew up in and how it changed really radically in his lifetime. When Morris grew up in Walthamstow, it was largely agricultural and rural. He described his childhood as being spent in and around Epping Forest. Growing up there started a whole lifetime of appreciate of nature and of the importance of preserving the landscape. That was really at the core of Morris’s lifetime of work.
You can see it in his designs, but he also wrote a novel called News from Nowhere which is fantasy fiction about a London where the factories have gone, the smoke has gone, the River Thames runs clear, the people are able to live on and from the land. In a more overt political sense, he wrote many letters to the Evening Standard in the 1800s railing at the levels of pollution that he was witnessing in London, and at the reduction of green space. He felt very strongly that we were ruining our lands and was very vocal on the subject. He was an early environmental campaigner in the middle of the Industrial Revolution.
RD: What do you think Britain’s cultural and political engagement with the landscape is like at the moment?
HG: Inequality still plays itself out very much in the British countryside. There have been some big victories around campaigning for greater access to the land, which you can see in our exhibition, things like the birth of the National Trust. But it’s always been a struggle. The exhibition includes work by Susan Sanders, who documented Traveller communities in the 1990s, and the way that the government doubled down through the Criminal Justice Act, stopping people from being able to freely be in the countryside.
"Inequality still plays itself out very much in the British countryside"
I think the countryside and the way people feel able and willing to be in those public spaces says a lot about our own sense of deeper freedoms. And now, at a time when the right to free protest is a particularly hot topic, I think that we have these same questions about freedom and people feeling that they are free to be in these spaces.
RD: What does Radical Landscapes have to say about the concept of Englishness and English landscapes?
HG: The exhibition begins with some quite typically English landscape artists like Gainsborough and Turner. But it moves quite quickly on to a range of artists making work in and around the British landscape, from many different perspectives. We have a commission from Abel Holsborough, who grew up locally and who documented the Caribbean diaspora community and their use of allotments. This is particularly important because it talks about how people’s memory and experience having a relationship with a land in another country is kind of played out, and has been retained through growing produce and swapping seeds, keeping that heritage through working the land locally.
We do also try to take a non-romanticised look at the British countryside. We have photography by Chris Killip of Traveller communities in the northeast of England, gleaning coal from a nearby power station, living from the land in that way. It’s a very tough sort of hostile environment where people are making a living. That’s a really powerful set of photographs of the reality of the landscape in this country.
RD: Do you think art should be political?
HG: I think you could argue that art is political. The act of putting something out into the public realm carries inherent politics with it, whether that’s your intention or not. Art is an important tool for sharing ideas, opinions and debate.
"Morris had a very deep, almost spiritual relationship with nature"
But I think there's also something about art being more than that, too. I think that’s true of Morris as it is of many other artists in this exhibition. Morris had a very deep, almost spiritual relationship with nature, and I think that’s very present in his work as well as perhaps his political opinions on it. I think that’s what makes art powerful, this bringing together of an idea or a position with qualities that also transcend politics in a way.
RD: How does the gallery aim to extend the exhibition beyond the gallery walls?
HG: This exhibition really acts as an invitation. We’ve provided a map as part of the show that shows a series of things happening around the gallery, for example we have a night walk in February in Epping Forest. We want to invite people to get outside and explore, we want them to feel that these spaces are theirs.
Cover image: Derek Jarman, still from The Garden, 1990, 35mm film Courtesy & © Basilisk Communications
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