What a remarkable bookplate! It graces a book I've just bought, and there's quite a story behind it.
The bookplate was designed by Walter Crane - a socialist and talented designer and graphic artist - and engraved by W.H. Hooper. The branch referred to is the Hammersmith branch of the Socialist League - hence the initials HSL in the design. And the flower - whose likeness appears at the heart of the bloom - is May Morris, a prominent member of the branch. May was the daughter of the renowned writer and activist William Morris - the leading figure in the Socialist League and in its Hammersmith branch. And the bookplate was to mark her marriage to a fellow socialist - indeed a leading figure in the League - Henry Halliday Sparling.
It's been argued, with some justice I think, that Crane's celebration of Morris for her ornamental quality reflects the personal and professional challenges she faced.
The bookplate appears in a copy of Wllliam Morris's lectures, Hopes and Fears for Art, published in 1882. And a printed letter tipped in to the book makes clear that this was one of several volumes presented by the branch to May Morris as a wedding present.
The letter reads:
We, the undersigned, fellow members with you of the Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist League, ask you to accept this gift of books, and with it the heartiest assurance of our love.
You have lived among us, and are endeared to us; you have worked for us with your best strength. Happily you do not leave us now. We feel nevertheless, looking forward to the near day of your marriage, that there comes a time in which a full word of goodwill may be spoken, and which indeed in brotherhood that holds you among its sisters, may hardly be repressed.
We wish you and your husband good health and long life and all that men wish each other. We wish for ourselves that you and he may dwell long in the Fraternity of the League.
TO MAY MORRIS
A note underneath in pencil reads: 'This book label + letter were given to me by Mrs Lang a friend + neighbour of Wm Morris'. This may be a reference to the writer Nora Lang, whose husband Andrew was also a writer and an early admirer and critic of William Morris's writing.
The original of the letter - signed by sixty-four members of the Hammersmith branch - is still extant, and has been reproduced in a recent issue of the journal of the William Morris Society in the US
By the time Morris and Sparling got married, the Socialist League was close to a crisis - the anarchist element within its ranks gained the upper hand and many of what became the minority faction, including William Morris and his son-in-law, withdrew from the organisation. May Morris's marriage wasn't a success and the couple divorced after a few years.
The Hammersmith branch - and in its later incarnation the Hammersmith Socialist Society - enjoyed a rare privilege for left-wing organisations of that time ... a group photo. Indeed there were a couple down the years - there are details here in this article by Nigel Stott.
To Kelmscott House by the Thames this weekend - where this quotation from William Morris's socialist parable News from Nowhere adorns the very spot where Morris's Hammersmith Socialist Society gathered 130 years ago.
Kelmscott House is a wonderful Georgian riverside pile on Upper Mall in Hammersmith - it's where Morris (socialist, conservationist, writer, designer) lived from 1879 until his death in 1896.
The coach house (to the left and out of shot in this photo) and basement are the headquarters of the esteemable William Morris Society. Their part of the building is open to the public on Thursday and Saturday afternoons - and today the garden was open as well. There's a small but very nice shop there too.
The coach house was where the Hammersmith Socialist Society held its weekly indoor meetings - there were also outdoor speaking pitches nearby. Morris was a key figure in libertarian socialism, and his Socialist League (the Hammersmith Socialist Society was initially the local branch of the League) - although it never had more than a few hundred members - was a hugely important organisation in the annals of the British left.
One of the gems in my eclectic collection of political pamphlets is this Statement of Principles, an eight-page publication issued by the Hammersmith Socialist Society in 1893. On the back is a map showing the location of Kelmscott House, where Morris's memory - and his influence as a writer, designer and political thinker and activist - is still celebrated. The cover masthead is, I'm fairly sure, by Walter Crane.
Today's Radical Book Fair spills over three floors of the capacious Bishopsgate Institute - a much better venue than last year's over- crowded Conway Hall.
Lots to do, old friends to meet, and for me the chief delight is the second hand items for sale.
So take this handbill - from, I am fairly confident, 1890 - issued by the Socialist League. Shaw and Morris are among the advertised lecturers, the Club Autonomie in Soho is the principal venue, and there are enticing references to the 'Commonweal' choir ('Commonweal', founded by Morris, was the weekly paper of the Socialist League). Marvellous!
Not cheap, but no wonder.
My other 'big' buy was a really nice copy from 1898 of the Social Democratic Federation's paper, 'Justice', subtitled in a fashion that sets it in its time: 'the Organ of the Social Democracy'. It has a wonderful masthead with a large representation of Justice blindfolded - and you can see in small letters, the artist's name 'Leon Caryll, 1893'. I don't know much about Caryll, but he did quite a bit of art and design work for socialist journals in the 1890s.
So, what with the 'it' purchase (see below), a very successful collecting week.
If you are curious about how an out-of-the-way gaffe in Walthamstow was named Museum of the Year, get down there and see for yourself. The William Morris Gallery is balm for the soul. It's housed in a wonderful Georgian building in its own grounds - William Morris, who was born nearby, lived here through some of his teenage years.
The museum takes you through the main areas of endeavour of this remarkable man: tapestry and textile design; painting, not his great forte but he was part of the pre-Raphaelites scene and his wife, Jane, was a muse and model and later ran off with Rossetti; furniture and interior design; writing, much of it epic verse influenced by Icelandic sagas; book design, typesetting and binding; the preservation of the built environment ... and then there's his politics.
The displays give full weight to William Morris's political activism, From 1883 for about a decade, he was Britain's most engaged socialist intellectual - libertarian, somewhat utopian (he was the author of News from Nowhere), and very much an activist.
On show is the satchel that Morris took with him to political meetings and demonstrations - and a wonderful display of his pamphlets, many of them embellished by Walter Crane's designs, along with handbills, posters, a few marvellous photographs and a banner which has a touch of Morris about it.
Not the least of the delights is a cafe, airy and light, which sells excellent cakes - and has an open-air terrace overlooking the grounds. There's a good shop (see below) - and it's all free.
Just ten minutes walk away is Walthamstow's other museum, the Vestry House Museum - the displays are nothing like as memorable, but the building and its surroundings are enchanting. I have never come across such an arcadian idyll within the bounds of the M25. Opposite the Vestry House is a single storey 1830s school room now a spiritualist church, and an early Victorian fire station - nearby there's a wood-beamed fifteenth century house and opposite a red hexagonal Victorian pillar box (both below) - footpaths arched by apple-heavy boughs - alms houses - a row of charming country-style Victorian cottages ... and this is E17!
What a delight! Amid the suburban anonymity of Bexleyheath, an oasis of calm and high culture. When William Morris - poet, craftsman, conservationist, socialist - chose this as the spot where his home would be built, it was unsullied Kent countryside. He moved in to the Red House in 1860, and his five years there - he moved out for a mix of personal and professional reasons - are regarded as his happiest.
The building is magical, the interior spellbinding, the grounds spacious and splendid. There's a very friendly cafe - I recommend the St Clement's cake. And the shop inside the Red House, what a nice touch, has a small second-hand selection of books and pamphlets by and about Morris (and yes, I did indulge - glad they accepted cards).
It's a National Trust property, God bless 'em. I'll certainly be going back. I can't think of any public building in London I've enjoyed visiting as much.
The gardens are excellently maintained - a mix of formal, semi-wild, and a well worked vegetable patch graced with this splendid scarecrow.
And if you have a suspicion that the scarecrow is modelled on Mr Morris himself, well, I think you're right.
The scarecrow even has a name badge: 'Will'. Morris would have enjoyed that.
Some of the garden produce - apples, potatoes, damsons, seedlings - is for sale. That is, if you have any money left after the cafe, the postcards, and the books.
'Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful' - William Morris
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