Central to the revivial of British textile arts and methods of production, Morris’ life was a constant tustle between his fervent socialist values and a concern with catering to the ‘swinish luxury of the rich’
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Source: Linn Warme
William R Lethaby described Morris as ‘the greatest pattern designer we have ever had or can ever have’. In retrospect, this effusive praise from his disciple appears a little over-specific for, while Morris wasn’t good at architecture and Lethaby was, it was over architecture that Morris wielded the greatest influence.
‘The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make’
In the production of over 600 designs, Morris proved himself very good at a great many things – in terms of craft technique, these included drawing, oil painting, mural decoration, calligraphy, illumination, stained glass, embroidery, dyeing, tapestry, weaving, typography and bookmaking. But in the publication of reams of poetry, essays, fantasy and translation (including Icelandic sagas), he became acknowledged as Britain’s fifth-best poet. With his endless proclamations, pamphleteering and general rabble-rousing, he became a founding father of British socialism, pioneering the trail away from a domestic artistic milieu of louche privilege to that of challenging revolutionary. He may have only built one house (that designed by Philip Webb) but, over time, he was responsible for outfitting many thousands and saving thousands more – he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
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Source: RIBA Collections
Born in 1834 to a wealthy, middle-class family in Walthamstow, he was educated at Marlborough College then went on to Oxford to read Classics (he would translate The Odyssey late in life). Out of an absorption in poetry he fell in with John Ruskin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and (old friend) Edward Burne-Jones; the last two, Pre-Raphaelites, languishing in hyper-sexualised evocations of dreamy girls drowning and shining knights triumphant in the finest tradition of Camelot. Out of this mushily medieval morass, Morris somehow marshalled ‘the Firm’, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co (later Morris & Co), propositions that might have been more successful had Morris compromised his craft, which nevertheless blossomed in collaboration with the Liberty store. Latterly, his cause became the Socialist League. Each phase drew on his copious energy and combative personality.
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Nicknamed Topsy for his close-curled hair, he was drawn by Burne-Jones as a troll and by Rossetti like his pet wombat (which he named Top). Wombats are deceptive creatures: cuddly but vicious if pushed, slow looking but seemingly faster in a sprint than Usain Bolt. Morris was easily lampooned for his idealism and mannerisms, his political significance substantiated only later by mainstream mid-20th-century leftist intellectuals such as Asa Briggs and Raymond Williams, for whom the final socialist victory appeared within grasp. Today, his popularity is rather more confined to the metrics of the designer department store.
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Source: incamerastock / Alamy
Post Oxford, Morris worked directly in architecture (in George Edmund Street’s office) for only nine months. Temperamentally unsuited and distressed when it came to the frivolities of ‘style’, and in thrall to Rossetti, he then made a worse decision to become a painter. Finding that wasn’t a fit either, Morris finally found his feet on that raft of ‘minor’ or decorative arts where he could, at once, be designer and craftsman across a whole range of consumables for the new bourgeoisie. In this he demonstrated a particular talent. Looking at Morris designs, you find less the stories and fantasies that were the balm of the brotherhood, but more abstracted allusions and ‘honest’ two-dimensional representations and patterns for all-too-real two-dimensional products.
‘Morris was a poet and, by nature, sentimental, but ‘the cause’ – even if it were in vain – was what mattered’
Morris loved rediscovering lost processes and techniques, but he did not blame the machine, per se, for the injustices of capitalism; indeed, his designs, to a great extent, enjoy their (rather basic) capabilities. Instead, the new political rubric of socialism would see us master our machines, not break them up. Whatever hopes, contradictions and difficulties remain with this view, Morris’s indulgence and zeal with regard to ancient books reveals the mechanics of the linkage to progressive Modernism. At the forefront of industrialisation, publishing in the late 19th century was undoubtedly dull and nasty. Looking back, Morris noted not only that ‘the only work of art which surpasses a complete Medieval book is the complete Medieval building’, but that such books are ‘always beautiful by force of the mere typography’. He therefore focused his energies on creating new, far more precise, forms of typography. Hence, Pevsner would recognise that it was Morris’s ‘revival of decorative honesty’ that counted for more (with regard to the Modern Movement) than any ‘connexion with bygone styles’ and, hence, he became historically pivotal.
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Source: Ethan Doyle White
Architecturally, Red House in Bexleyheath, completed in 1860, was designed by the more retiring figure of Philip Webb, who once described himself as ‘not so much an architect as a drains man’. Morris’s reputation in architecture was actually sealed by the German Hermann Muthesius, who was so impressed by the modesty and fitness for purpose of a whole crop of Arts & Crafts houses for the new British middle class that he penned Das Englische Haus, implying that the stuffy Germans might have something to learn. While these houses look, with their inglenooks and rustic porches, stuffy to us today, they represented a dramatic change in Britain’s physical and social landscape. Furthermore, if Germany were to compete with Britain economically, it would also have to accommodate such a burgeoning middle class exhibiting much the same taste. The battles that followed in how Germany might or might not do this culminated in the Bauhaus. And it was via this most unlikely of twists and turns that the florid excesses of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood acted as the seed bed for International Modernism.
La Belle Iseult, 1852
Red House, Bexleyheath (with Philip Webb), 1860
Trellis wallpaper, 1862
The Earthly Paradise, 1870
Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, 1877
Strawberry Thief, textile design, 1883
News from Nowhere, 1890
The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Kelmscott Press, 1896
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Source: Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy
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Source: V&A Images / Alamy
Morris had crossed the Rubicon to devote himself to the Social Democratic Federation in 1883; it was the first organisation in the UK that might be termed determinedly socialist. This tiny group began to draw up manifestos regarding workers’ housing, working hours and so on. Morris was a poet and, by nature, sentimental, but ‘the cause’ – even if it were in vain – was what mattered, and he became treasurer. Rather more than socialism in action, however, Morris & Co represented his daily bread. Struggling to smash the yoke of capitalism while being a master craftsman of yokes was tricky, but he was pragmatic enough to realise that ‘socialism in a corner’ didn’t work. Consequently, Richard Norman Shaw could reasonably brand Morris a ‘money-grabbing hypocrite’, as Morris & Co refused to go bust. At the opening of Morris’s centenary retrospective at the V&A in 1934, Lady Burne-Jones’ nephew, Stanley Baldwin, conveniently made no mention whatsoever of Morris’s politics.
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Source: Peter Marshall / Alamy
Meanwhile, Morris & Co’s eminently pleasing fabrics became a mainstay of middle-class furnishing. Essentially, this meant a cosy layering of pattern upon pattern, from curtains to cushions. By the 1970s, Golden Lily was selling at a rate of 5km of fabric every month. Morris’s personal life was not quite so successful however. Despite two children, his marriage to Janey – a Pre-Raphaelite muse, plucked from poverty at 18 – was a failure. She maintained she never really loved him.
‘It was more in his aggressive posturing that Morris drew architecture away from the parochial’
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Source: Culture Club / Getty Images
As Morris applied himself with such energy hither and thither, feverish in his enthusiasms and generally hard to manage, his beautiful wife Janey took to her bed not only melancholy but also his best friend and mentor, Rossetti. When it came to the realities of the female sex, Rossetti was as adventurous as Burne-Jones was shy and Morris confounded. As Janey sank deeper into her sofa – only to be revived by visits from the charming Rossetti and, latterly, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt – Morris (as always) put pen to paper, first alluding to his personal unhappiness but soon pronouncing publicly the cruelty of any male insistence on ‘marital rights’. Such attacks on the status quo qualify him as an early feminist.
Caught in sensualist dilemmas, he remained loyal to Janey, who outlived him at Kelmscott Manor. Now in a state of morbid decline, this was the Cotswold estate Morris rented with Rossetti from 1871 (with the regular appearance of Blunt) in the name of preservation of the agricultural landscape. The ravages of capitalist development inspired Morris, instinctively and emotionally, to protect what he loved in all forms.
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Source: Holmes Garden Photos / Alamy
Webb described Morris architecturally as a buttress, but he was more of a glue, the man to lead the dancing at the party, the man to shout louder and accept the consequences, but a man, especially, to remain supportive of friends who were in many ways beastly to him, while they still hung around. His aesthetic theories extended to his belief in plain speaking; although his ‘episodes’ might be put down to mild epilepsy. His daughter Jenny inherited this condition to a severe extent; his daughter May inherited his socialism.
Morris’s most famous utopian contribution, News From Nowhere (1890) strikes us as a strange little book today. While it was widely distributed in Russia prior to the revolution, it’s hard to believe any true revolutionary would take it seriously. It appeals in its progressive sexual and environmental politics, sustains educationalists wondering at the point and purpose of schooling, and entertains when describing the Houses of Parliament as the Dung Market.
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Source: The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings
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Source: Stan Pritchard / Alamy
It was more in his aggressive posturing that Morris drew architecture away from the parochial. Suddenly the ‘mother of the arts’ was stirred to the task of what Morris called the ‘moulding and altering to human needs of the very face of the earth itself’; the remit and moral responsibility of the architect vastly expanded. Such appetites suited those who, almost half a century after Morris’s death, were charged with widespread rebuilding after two world wars; as such, his influence became intrinsic to the history of progressive 20th-century architecture.
This reputation provides a salutary lesson for all idealists, however: on death in October 1896, Morris was remembered primarily for his poetry. Fortunately, Philip Webb designed his tomb at St George’s Church in Kelmscott, fashioned as a simple, long, shallow cruck cottage roof in stone and suitably inscribed, that resounds rather better.
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Source: Martin Bond / Alamy
Morris’s sentiments remain highly pertinent as diagnostics replace the satisfaction of human labour (American author Matthew Crawford comes to mind). But, overall, Morris has been designated rather more to fable than enjoyed for fervour, and his holistic ambition picked apart. Despite his dedication to ancient organic processes and his hands-on attitude to the dyeing of fabric, his greens, apparently, contained arsenic and, to make matters worse, he was a shareholder in his father’s heavily polluting mine whence it came. Meanwhile, the word ‘socialist’ – that optimistic and galvanising view of mankind’s potential – has almost disappeared from our vocabulary.
This piece is featured in the AR December/January issue on New into Old and Preservation – click here to purchase your copy today