Saturday, September 10, 2016

William Morris and Co.

Ever since reading Penelope Fitzgerald's biography of Edward Burne-Jones last year, I've been vaguely circling the Arts and Crafts movement and their predecessors cum fellow travelers the Pre-Raphaelites. A. S. Byatt's lovely little new book-length essay on William Morris and the (essentially unrelated) artist and designer Mariano Fortuny pushed me a little further on the path, and now I find myself flipping back and forth between Fiona MacCarthy's bio biography of Morris and a volume of Morris's letters.

Both are rewarding in exactly the way that reading about that period and group tends to be: even when presented with warts, they're hard not to admire--serious but not self-serious, dedicated to beauty yet aware of its practical limits in the world, looking backwards for what could be reclaimed even as they (or at least Morris) tried to build a better future. And then there are the books: they loved, loved, loved books. Morris would buy them for his friends, a typical extravagance generated by his discomfort with his inherited wealth. Here, from MacCarthy's biography, is an account of how the set, in their Oxford years, received the publication of Ruskin's Edinburgh lectures in 1854:
"I was working in my room," wrote Burne-Jones, "when Morris ran in one morning bringing the newly published book with him: so everything was put aside until he read it all through to me. And there we first saw about the Pre-Raphaelites, and there I first saw the name of Rossetti. So for many a day after that we talked of little else but paintings which we had never seen."
At a time when it wasn't possible to simply look up an image of a painting after hearing about it, books were the next best thing--the fire Ruskin's descriptions kindled is palpable in Burne-Jones's account. No wonder the book was revered. As Fitzgerald wrote in her Burne-Jones book, "Without the concept of the book as hero, Victorian idealism can hardly be understood." In Morris's Novel on Blue Paper, a character "long[s] so much for more and more and more books." Little wonder that Morris turned to book making and literary translation.

Morris's designs, and particularly his wallpapers and stained glasses, continue to enchant more than a century later, drawing us in with their clear lines and repeating patterns, then surprising us with singular details. His letters, personable and lively, are also full of such detail. Complaining about the town of Lewes, he says that as you approach,
you can see Lewes lying like a box of toys under a great amphitheatre of chalk hills: the ride is very pleasant: Lewes when you get there lies on a ridge in its valley, the street winding down to the river (Ouse) which runs into the sea at Newhaven: on the whole it is set down better than any town i have seen in England: unluckily it is not a very interesting town in itself: there is a horrible workhouse or prison on the outskirts, and close by a hideous row of builders' houses: there are three old Churches in it, dismally restored, but none of them over-remarkable: there is the remains of a castle, 14th century: but it is not grand at all. Never the less it isn't a bad country town, only not up to its position.
Though I'd quibble with him about Lewes, at least as it exists today, there is a clarity of expression here that calls to mind a line I came across in Joseph Conrad's writing recently: "To take a liberty with technical language is a crime against the clearness, precision, and beauty of perfected speech." Morris isn't using technical language here, of course, but he is deploying a technical eye, one that sees detail that he then carefully conveys in words.

Here he is applying the same analytic clarity to the difficult-to-explain work of creating, in a letter to Georgina Burne-Jones:
I have perhaps rather more than enough of work to do, and for that reason or what not, am dwelling somewhat low down in the valley of humiliation--quite good enough for me doubtless. Yet it sometimes seems to me as if my lot was a strange one: you see, I work pretty hard, and on the whole very cheerfully, not altogether I hope for mere pudding, still less for praise; and while I work I have the cause always in mind, and yet I know that the cause for which I specially work is doomed to fail, at least in seeming; I mean that art must go under, where or how ever it may come up again. I don't know if I explain what I'm driving at, but it does sometimes seem to me a strange thing indeed that a man should be driven to work with energy and even with pleasure and enthusiasm at work which he knows will serve no end but amusing himself; am I doing nothing but make-believe, then, something like Louis XVI's lock-making? There, I don't pretend to say that the conundrum is a very interesting one, as it certainly has not any practical importance as far as I am concerned, since I will without doubt go on with my work, useful or useless, till I demit.
In one long paragraph, we have a version of the struggle that would define Morris's life: what does a man whose greatest skill is creating objects of breathtaking beauty--but often of little utility--do if he also believes powerfully that social and economic difference should be leveled? How to be for beauty in a world of utility? A century later, surrounded by far, far more objects of limited utility--and, for all the dross, a hitherto unimaginable access to beauty--we've not come close to answering that question.


  1. I'm sorry to be commenting rather late on this post, but it really is a good one, and thought-provoking. I'm tempted to say that part of the problem in the early 21st-century is that many people aren't inclined to want to see and enjoy beauty in the first place. (As someone who repurposed his dining room to serve as an art room, I can't say I count myself among such people.)

    There's an interesting connection between the medievalism of William Morris and the character of the many idealistic, short-lived Arts and Crafts communities in the United States. I have a pile of notes on the subject, and it's a story I hope to tell somewhere, someday...

  2. I've actually been wondering about the connections between Morris and US-based A&C groups. MacCarthy briefly touches on it, but there's not much. I also found myself wondering about any quiet influences from other, more explicitly utopian schemes--my family connection with New Harmony, Indiana, always has me wondering about the intellectual kin of the Owenites, for example.