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||William Morris (1834-1896)|
English craftsman, poet, and early
whose designs generated the Arts and Crafts Movement in the later half
of the1900th century. William Morris encouraged to return to handmade objects
and rejected standard tastes. He was associated with the Pre-Raphaelite
Brotherhood and a close friend of the painter-poet Dante
Gabriel Rossetti and his sister Christina Rossetti,
also a poet. Morris's achievement as a designer has somewhat
overshadowed his other achievements as a writer and socialist
"If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe tom be beautiful." (from 'The Beauty of Life', 1880)
William Morris was born in Walthamstow, Greater London, the son of
William Morris, a successful city broker, and Emma Shelton Morris. His
father died young, but his shares in a Devon copper mine keep the
family financially secure. Not having to worry about money was
significant factor that contributed to Morris's casual attitude toward
class distinctions and his own background: "I am a boor and the son of
a boor," he wrote once to a friend.
Morris's early childhood near Epping Forest, where he grew up,
was idyllic. He attended Marlborough College in 1848-51, recalling
later that "I think I may fairly say I learned next to nothing there,
for indeed next to nothing was taught". In 1853 he entered Exeter
College, Oxford, where he met Edward Burne-Jones and Charles Faulkner.For a while Morris toyed with the
idea of taking Holy Orders, but the emotional lure of High Alglicanism
soon faded and he became questionable in doctrinal points. Moreover,
the work of John Ruskin converted him to architecture. After taking his
B.A. in 1856, Morris began to study architecture but he then decided
that his real calling was painting, before poetry took him over.
Morris's early poems were published in The Oxford and
– he also financed the publication. In 1858 Morris worked with
Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and others on the frescoes in the Oxford Union.
The Defence of Guenevere and other Poems
(1858) contained much of Morris's
best work, including 'The Haystack in the Floods,' 'Concerning Geffray
Teste Noire,' 'Shameful Death' and 'Golden Wings.' They all have
medieval settings – Morris was obsessed with medieval world. In the
prose fantasy 'The Hollow Land' (1856) an unjust knight enters an
eartly paradise. He departs it, becomes aged, and finally regains the
land through devotion to pictorial art. G.K. Chesterton once remarked
that "If his poems were too like wallpapers, it was because he really
could make wallpapers."
In 1859 Morris married Jane Burden and worked as a professional
painter (1857-62). Their home, Red House at Bexley, was designed by
Philip Webb. It was an important landmark in domestic architecture.
Literary fame Morris gained with the romantic narrative The Life and Death of Jason, which came out in 1867, and was based on the story of Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts. It was followed by The Earthy Paradise (1868-70), a kind of re-reading of Canterbury Tales, and Books of Verse (1870). The Earthy Paradise
became a highly popular. Though Morris was passionate about his work,
he did not take himself too seriously. "If a chap can't compose an epic
poem while he is weaving a tapestry, he had better shut up," he once
said. When Lord Alfred Tennyson died in 1892, Morris was offered the
Morris's visits in Iceland in the 1870s inspired The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Nibelungs
(1876), which is regarded his principal poetic achievement. This period
in Morris's life was marked by marriage problems – his wife had two long
affairs, one with Rossetti and the other with poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt; Morris was involved with Georgiana Burne-Jones.
In the 1860s Morris started revolutionize the art of house decoration and furniture in England after founding the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. The firm first specialized in providing stained glass and fittings for churches, but gradually won a cliente for domestic wares. Morris himself was an energetic craftsman, who learned to dye for himself, when he decided that the firm should turn to printing of textiles. His "Daisy" wallpaper, designed in 1862, became famous – his wallpapers have never gone out of fashion. Many of them were first coloured with arsenic-containing pigments. In 1872 Morris ceased to use arsenic in his designs, but some of the rival companies had stopped using this toxic chemical even earlier. "As to the arsenic scare a greater folly it is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever," he wrote in a letter to his dyer, Thomas Wardle of Jeffrey & Co in 1885. Other sought-after products were tapestries, carpets, stained glass and stencilled mural decorations etc. "I do not want art for a few, any more than I want education for a few, or freedom for a few," he once said. In 1877 he founded the Society for the protection of Ancient Buildings in protest against the destruction being caused by the restorers.
Morris defined art as "the expression by man of his pleasure in labor." In the Middle Ages art, according to him, artist were plain workmen. The things which are today's museum pieces, where common things earlier. Art should become this again: "a happiness for the maker and the user." Morris derived his art theories partly from Ruskin, who hated contemporary style and has said that a railway station could never be architecture. Ruskin advocated free schools, free libraries, town planning, smokeless zones, and green belts – ideas that presupposed social reforms.
The Morris family moved into Kelmscott House at Hammersmith in 1878. In 1883 he joined the Social Democratic Federation and subsequently organized the Socialist League, with its own publication, The Commonweal. In 1887 he and George Bernard Shaw led a political demonstration in London. Morris was well known for his temper. When in a rage, he could crush forks with his teeth and smash holes in plaster walls with his head. (from 'Idle Idol: William Morris. John Mitchinson celebrates a revolutionary life', The Idler, Issue 41, Summer 2008).
Morris's love for old handsome books and illuminated manuscripts resulted in the
founding of the Kelmscott Press. It produced from 1891 to 1898 53 titles in 66 volumes, including in 1896 The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer,
the most famous achievement of Morris and the artist Edward
Burne-Jones. "To me it is the most beautiful of all printed book," the
poet W.B. Yeats said (Friends of a Lifetime: Letters to Sydney Carlyle Cockerell, edited by Viola Meynell, 1940, p. 269). Morris also
designed three typestyles for his press, and translated Virgil's
Aeneid (1875), Odyssey (1887), and Beowulf (1895).
Morris's original aim was "to produce books which it would be a
pleasure to look upon as pieces of printing and arrangement of type,"
to be enjoyed by himself and his connoisseur friends, but the Kelmscott
Press turned out to be a financial success. Many books were sold out
before they were even published. (The Kelmscott Press: A History of William Morris's Typographical Adventure by William S. Peterson, 1999, pp. 108-109) Although the Kelmscott books were essentially luxury items and not within reach of the poor, as a side effect the venture had a refreshing influence on the industrially manufactured books of the time.
Both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien have cited Morris's prose romances as inspirational for their own work. The Well at the World's End (1896) was a forerunner of Tolkien's kind of secondary word fantasy literature. The protagonist is Ralph who drinks from the youth-giving and life-prolonging well. The utopian romances A Dream of John Ball (1888) and News from Nowhere (1891) were first published in serial form in The Commonweal, the newspaper of the Socialist League. Both were cast in a dream setting. Erich S. Rabkin dismissed News from Nowhere as "a Communist tract" but C.S. Lewis praised Morris's style and language. "No mountains in literature are as far away as distant mountains in Morris," he wrote about the author's fantasies.
"The Kelmscott Press reduced the matter to an absurdity – as seen from the point of view of brute serviceability alone – by issuing books for modern use, edited with the obsolete spelling, printed in black-letter, and bound in limp vellum fitted with thongs. As a further characteristic feature which fixes the economic place of artistic book-making, there is the fact that these elegant books are, at their best, printed in limited editions. A limited edition is in effect a guarantee – somewhat crude, it is true – that this book is scarce and that it therefore is costly and lends pecuniary distinction to its consumer." (from The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen, 1953, originally published 1899)
The narrator of News from Nowhere, William Guest, wakes up in twenty-first-century London, in a radically changed society. The socialist revolution has abolished capitalism, money does not play any role in the bucolic harmony, there are no factories or industrial waste in the word of artisans, which evokes the spirit of the Middle Ages. Because the whole people is the parliament, the Houses of Parliament have lost their former function, and they been turned into a dung-market. Like Thoreau in Walden, or a Life in the Woods (1854), Morris rejects mass society and argues for the ideal of the simple life.
On his death, Morris was widely mourned as "our best man" by his fellow socialists. His final words were: "I want to get mumbo jumbo out of the world." Morris's view that the true stimulation to useful labor must be found in the work itself is still relevant. His designs brought about a complete revolution in public taste, though he was aware that only the rich could afford the products of his firm.
For further reading: Life of William Morris by John W. Mackail (1889); William Morris, A Critical Study by John Drinkwater (1912); Rehabilitations and Other Essays by C. S. Lewis (1939); William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary by E.P. Thompson (1955); William Morris: His Life, Works, and Friends by Philip Henderson (1967); The Work of William Morris by Paul Thompson (1967); William Morris by Holbrook Jackson (1971); William Morris: The Man and the Myth by Robert P. Arnot (1976); Worlds Beyond the World: The Fantastic Vision of William Morris by Richard Mathews (1978); William Morris: A Reference Guide by Gary L. Aho (1985); William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, ed. by E.P. Thompson (1988); The Romances of William Morris by Amanda Hodgson (1987); William Morris: A Life for Our Time by F. MacCarthy (1994); William Morris: The Critical Heritage, ed. by Peter Faulkner (1995); Art, Enterprise and Ethics: The Life and Work of William Morris by Charles Harvey, Jon Press (1996); William Morris: Redesigning the World by John Burdick (1998); William Morris and the Aesthetic Constitution of Politics by Bradley J. MacDonald (1999); The Kelmscott Press: A History of William Morris's Typographical Adventure by William S. Peterson (1999); William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Home by Pamela Todd (2005); William Morris: the Beauty of Life by Michaela Braesel (2012) - See also: Snorri Sturluson