One of the Textiliste’s summer projects for her degree involves William Morris the 19th Century artist. We visited the Red House where Morris and his family lived for five years or so before he moved into central London for his business.
If I did a word association with ‘William Morris’ it would be ‘wallpaper’ which is a prosaic underplaying of the man’s skills as both an artist, poet and businessman. Did you know, fr’instnace that Morris was offered the role as Poet Laureate? Me neither (though a pound to a penny the Archaeologist does).
This house was build for him in his 20s which rather tells you something of the family wealth at the time. Morris planned it to showcase his work and that of his fellow artists, Burne-Jones and Rossetti. The house stayed in private ownership until the noughties when the National Trust took it over and since then they have, slowly and painstakingly begun to reveal the original paintings under layers of anaglypta and paint. It is a gem.
Standing in front of a Burne-Jones masterpiece I was, oddly perhaps , taken back to 1985. Having climbed, somewhat shakily onto the property ladder in 1982 with a first floor flat, the Textiliste and I began to crave a garden, a little plot of dirt of our own. But affording a house was a stretch. Still nothing ventured and all that, so after a year of looking we found this wreck in Herne Hill. The current owner had put in central heating (tick) and a new roof (tick) and then gone bankrupt (double tick for us, not much cop for him). There were no floor coverings, no kitchen beyond a beaten up sink and a bathroom that owed more to the lack of taste of the 1970s than The William Morris aesthetic.
It needed a total makeover and we were up for it. Sadly we had zero home decorating skills and my father thought we were barking. Dickhead Tours hadn’t been incorporated back then but the Old Bugger already had pretty set ideas about my practical competence.
‘Do you have any idea, the first notion what you have let yourself in for?’
Mum was a different cartoon of paint. It wasn’t that she had any particular confidence in me – she reserved that for the Textiliste – but she saw an opportunity. To join in. If there was one thing she loved it was a makeover. At 80, when she decided to move out of the family home of forty years she had a choice: a bungalow that was freshly refurbished needing nothing done or a heap of trouble needing a total gutting, months of dust and living check by wrinkle with a string of Albanian builders. She chose the Anglo-Balkan option with relish.
Mum was a great teacher. Actually she may be dead these past 5 years but she’s still teaching me. That’s a different post. Back then it was lessons in decorating. Stripping back, filling in the cracks, lining and then papering. Every evening, after a sweaty day toiling behind the legal plough, I dragged myself home on my bike and, still sweaty, set to with the continuation of whatever room we were working on while something heated in the explosive oven. The 1980s wasn’t necessarily the best decade musicologically but decorating to the Eurythmics and Bronski Beat and the Thompson Twins is highly recommended.
Practice makes perfect. Well maybe. With me, it breeds an irrational confidence. I was pretty competent on the painting and decorating front, if I say so myself. I added in electrics and some basic plumbing without ever causing fire or flood. And then I tried carpentry.
I should have known. When the Textiliste moved into a flat in Clapham, her bedroom was minuscule. There was a tiny alcove where the loft was accessed. Below the hatch there was perhaps a 3 foot square of space and I decided to make her a small bookcase. Surreptitiously I took measurements and sourced wood. Over a few weekends I cut and shaped and varnished my masterpiece. One Saturday I took it on the 45 Bus from Lots Road to North Clapham and presented my gift. I accepted the praise that flowed from her and her flat mates . We formed a small and squashed procession to install this little piece of love. It was 2 centimetres too big.
But that was 5 years before. Now I had proper tools and an appreciation of the skills of measurement. I even had a workbench and a circular saw attachment to my drill. My optimism knew no bounds. And, glory be, we had just laid carpet tiles in the hall with the result that the hall toilet door (which opened outwards) stuck.
It was a murky day and the Textiliste was out somewhere. I thought I’d surprise her. I took the door off its hinges, clamped it to the bench and carefully measured the small amount of wood I needed to remove to make it swing freely.
Whistling along to Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Tears for Fears I sliced with breezy confidence and set about rehanging it. I was mid screw when the Textiliste returned. She made tea and sat on the bottom of the stairs while I finished off, telling me about her afternoon.
I stood back and swung the door. It still stuck. I was a little disappointed but it wouldn’t take long to fix. ‘I didn’t cut enough,’ said I rather unnecessarily.
She stood up. ‘I think you did,’ she said pointing to the light from the toilet that was now stippling the hall ceiling through the newly created gap at the top of the door. ‘Shall we leave it for now?’
Staring at Burne Jones’ mini masterpiece I had to wonder if he stuck to painting because of his incompetence with other materials. Probably not. There are artists as well as hewers of wood and drawers of water and we all have our roles to play. Mine was to pay for workmen.