So I've been reading a lot of back issues of Old House magazines lately (Old House Interiors, Old House Journal) and it's wonderful how often one stumbles across photos of Morris wallpapers, references to early Arts & Crafts, etc. But this particular article both intrigued me and gave me pause. I'm not sure how to take it. First of all, there's the fact that the author came across a Morris-obsessed collector named "Topsy." Either the author is making an in-joke only a handful of people would get, or this guy nicknamed himself after his love of Morris and the author had no idea. Either way I kept scratching my head every time the author referenced the name, seemingly clueless that it was William Morris' own nickname.
Second, I was annoyed by the mocking tone I felt the article had toward all things Morris and early Aesthetic furniture.
Finally, I question whether the incident really happened or not. Because if there really is Strawberry Thief patterned bath tissue out there, or a tea set inspired by Burne-Jones art, I think one of us in the circle of the Pre-Raphaelite obsessed would have stumbled upon these treasures. (WANT!!)
I do have to admit though, I've never really been a fan of Sussex chairs either.
The Passion of the Morris
BY DAN COOPER
C h a p t e r X o f T h e B u t c h y C h r o n i c l e s
30 m a y | j u n e 2 0 1 1 COURTESY COLLECTIONS, V&A MUSEUM, ONLINE
IT ALL STARTED with a Sussex chair. I’ve never cared for them; they’re rickety, crude, and seem out of place in the lush interiors of the late 19th century. I know William Morris had them cranked out as some sort of quaint and rustic accent, a campy little accoutrement that proclaimed, “Oh, aren’t I a droll little chair?” But, frankly, I find them twee. I pass on them at auction, and have, on occasion, fantasized about using one as kindling, or hoisting it upon the funeral pyre of an enemy.
But the day came when a friend who is a museum curator in upstate New York needed a Sussex chair for an exhibit entitled “William Morris: Why Should We Bother?” She asked if I knew of one that might be borrowed for the duration of the show. I owed her a favor; during a rough patch, she had purchased a Herter Brothers table from me. The piece had certainly augmented the museum’s collection, but I knew that it wasn’t an absolutely necessary acquisition; in cutting a check she’d thrown me a lifeline. Thus I was honor-bound to get her a Sussex chair, and my intuition told me just where I could find it, in the hands of an English Arts & Crafts collector named Topsy.
I had met him while exhibiting at an antiques show at the Castle. In my booth was a massive, ebonized Aesthetic Movement sideboard, one of those distinctive beasts that looked as if William Burges had had an off day and forgot to in-paint the background of the door panels. Topsy was fascinated by the piece, especially since most of my wares are typically American and this one reeked of Britain. It would make an exquisite and dramatic focal point in any Pre-Raphaelite dining room.
Or so I told him.
(Topsy didn’t purchase the piece, but it continued to haunt him. This often happens with well-heeled but unimaginative collectors who develop tunnel vision; anything that doesn’t already appear in their mind’s eye is of little use. Later, when the sideboard sold to a Venerable and Awesome Museum in London, Topsy lauded its brilliance and told all who would listen that he merely hadn’t room for it, flawless hindsight being another trait of the Gutless Collector.)
The fact that I possessed the sideboard and knew full well what it was meant that I was Someone He Should Know, and so Topsy struck up an acquaintance. He had given me an open invitation to visit his home, allegedly “to see his stuff,” and although I was unsure of his intentions, the opportunity to case and possibly plunder an unseen collection intrigued me.
When I rang up Topsy, he was delighted to hear from me. Ordinarily, I would have dragged Butchy along, but I felt that this call should be handled one-on one; I would enlighten His Voyseyness with the details afterward.
Topsy lived in Back Bay between Exeter and Dartmouth, on the southern side of Commonwealth Avenue, and my visits of late to this stretch of the Emerald Necklace had made me increasingly melancholic. Victorian Boston exhumes the bones of my youth, a time when each footstep was a revelation, and every turn filled with the promise of discovery. In late May, the city is achingly gorgeous; every blossom appears as if placed by Olmsted, every portico seems blessed by the hand of Richardson.
The sight of a Swan Boat in mid-paddle transports one into a Childe Hassam painting. When Boston dwells in its past, its charms have no rival outside of Europe; conversely, when it attempts to be modern-day Manhattan, it may as well be Gary, Indiana. It was here that I, as a newly matriculated undergrad, engaged in the Pursuit of Beauty and so forsook all other deities.
I walked up Topsy’s spalling sandstone steps, past a massive, leggy rhododendron. (Its petals mocked me with their magenta incandescence: “Are we not wondrous? Do we not belong in the dell at Kew? We bloomed before your birth, and will bloom long after your ashes are surreptitiously scattered from the Washington Tower in Mount Auburn cemetery.”) My heart sighed as visions of past loves, human and architectural, drifted through my mind. This reverie was fleeting, for I was yanked back to the matter at hand, which would entail wresting the accursed tinker-toy of a chair from the hands of Topsy.
I have walked into many homes, from modest to magnificent, and at this point I am indifferent to wealth. I have seen tens of millions spent foolishly and found priceless objects in trailers. Rare are true surprises, but here, on Commonwealth Avenue, I realized that I had stumbled into obsession. Upon my return to Bilgewater, I recounted the details to Butchy: “First off, Topsy’s door has a plaque that reads ‘Stop Here, Or Gently Pass’…”
“Don’t Fear The Reaper,” Butchy snickered.
“Indeed. As I pressed the bell for Topsy’s flat, I could hear the howling of a wounded animal, which
ceased with the fading echoes of the door-chimes. But it was actually Topsy bellowing Icelandic verse, which he had been practicing for my benefit. He bid me in and immediately had me perch on a hard, high-backed settle, where I sat patiently listening to him run through his set-list. He wanted my honest criticism; I wanted to say that it sounded like a domestic dispute involving Bjork.”
“How bad could it have been? It was just a few poems.”
“Imagine being trapped at a June Bar-Mitzvah in Reykjavik during some sort of unending Sabbath, waiting, waiting, waiting for the sun to set …”
“A small penance for your dark soul, but how was his place? Any goodies? Did you try to pounce him?”
“A couple of nice case pieces, acres of crockery and an infestation of Sussex chairs; they were lurking everywhere, like cockroaches. He’s got each variation, hoping perhaps to fill an amphitheatre. The apartment itself could’ve been Morris’s crypt; for a moment, I thought it was the Sanderson showroom, but no, this was Topsy’s home. The wainscoting had been painted Peacock Blue and the walls were papered with ‘Lily’ and the drapes were ‘Compton’. On the floor was a ‘Pimpernel’ ingrain carpet; little pillows were covered in ‘Cherwell’ and ‘Chrysanthemum’, and tea-towels made up of ‘Willow Bough’. “He has arbitrarily piled layer upon layer of pattern, grabbing anything Morris without consideration of color or scale . . . and then he wanted to discuss all of them! He knew the date, the designer, and the number of colorways for each pattern—every fact, every anecdote, and yet there was no artistry in his display! It was a collection, like baseball cards or vintage lawnmowers.”
Butchy peered over the top of his pince-nez and smirked. “Too much pattern? Too much color?! I can’t imagine you uttering those words, any more than I expect to hear you say, ‘oh that desk is worth far more, let me give you another two hundred dollars’.”
“Duly noted. I was terrified at this point that he was going to discuss the minutiae of Morris’s life, so I feigned having to go to the loo. Would you believe the high-tank toilet was stenciled to look like one of the panels of the Green Dining Room? And I have no idea where he got it, but there was actually ‘Strawberry Thief’ bath tissue.
“When I returned, Topsy had produced a ceramic tea service fashioned after a series of Burne–Jones nymphs. I hastily asked about borrowing the Sussex chair as we sipped the Lapsang. He was flattered and offered up several.”
“You poor dear,” Butchy mock-gasped; “—did you actually bring home a Sussex chair?”
“Yep. I wrapped it in a rug and got it to the museum. I will confess that the night before, I did drag it into the house for safekeeping. And I tried it in various spots. But its mere presence offended each of my furnishings, so I had to put it in the cellar.”