When we think of William Morris today, probably the first thing that comes to mind is the wallpaper to which he lends his name. And why not? “Strawberry Thief,” “African Marigold,” “Willow,” “Windrush”—the designs of Morris & Co., most of which are still commercially available, are among the glories of interior decoration, ranking with Iznik tiles of the sixteenth century for their combination of sumptuousness and restraint. But Morris had a mind-boggling range of interests and talents, and a level of energy to match.
Morris was a prominent figure on the artistic and literary scene in London when Yeats was getting his start, and the poet might have had Morris in mind when he wrote, “Some burn damp faggots, others may consume/ The entire combustible world in one small room . . . ” Another great Victorian, Thomas Carlyle, might have been thinking of Morris when he wrote “Blessed is the man who has found his work.” As Fiona MacCarthy writes in her magnificent 1995 biography: “When Morris was dying, at age sixty-two, one of his physicians diagnosed his disease as ‘simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men.’”
Morris was a maker. In him, all the knowledge of the connoisseur combined with a craftsman’s practical urge to learn how things are fashioned. Whenever any art or craft attracted his enormous curiosity, he found out how it was made—from weaving to experimenting with dyes for his tapestries to learning how medieval stained glass was made to reviving the art of hand printing, as he did with the Kelmscott Press in his later years. When he wrote poetry, he composed as many as a thousand lines a day.
He even wrote Christmas carols, though perhaps not up to the standard set by Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sister Christina, author of “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Here is a stanza from one of his carols, which was published in an 1860 collection called Ancient Christmas Carols and arranged for four voices by Edmund Sedding (who was also an architect in the Gothic Revival firm of G. E. Street, the same outfit where both Morris and Norman Shaw got their start):
Ships sail through the heaven
With red banners dress’d,
Carrying the planets seven
To see the white breast.
“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
While Morris served as an adviser to London’s South Kensington Museum, which became the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of his more notable recommendations led to the acquisition of the Ardabil carpet, probably the world’s most famous Persian rug, and certainly one of the largest. The Ardabil is now magnificently displayed in the museum’s Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art. Morris mounted a public campaign to acquire it in 1893, for what was at that time the princely sum of £2000. I can’t go into the Victoria and Albert Museum without thinking of William Morris. In important ways, the Victoria and Albert, which justly styles itself “the world’s greatest museum of art and design,” could not have come into being had Morris never existed. More than any other man I can think of, he elevated craftsmanship to the level of art. You can see some of his designs for wallpaper, tiles, fabrics, carpets, embroideries, and stained glass in the museum, and, of course, the famous Morris chair.
In the 1880s, William Butler Yeats’s impecunious artist of a father, John B. Yeats, moved his family from a dreary flat in Earls Court to a modest Queen Anne–style house on a pleasantly winding street in the Bedford Park estate that Norman Shaw built in west London, with its pub, The Tabard, and its Gothic Revival church, St. Michael and All Angels, all decorated in the Arts & Crafts manner. The estate was built with artists in mind, and many of the houses came complete with large, light-filled studios. Here, Yeats wrote in his Autobiographies,
We were to see De Morgan tiles, peacock-blue doors, and the pomegranate pattern and the tulip pattern of Morris, and to discover that we had always hated doors painted with imitation grain, the roses of mid-Victoria, and tiles covered with geometrical patterns that seemed to have been shaken out of a muddy kaleidoscope. We went to live in a house like those we had seen in pictures and even meet people dressed like people in story-books.
The Yeats family was not alone in falling under the spell of Morris’s designs. His aesthetic is summed up in his familiar apothegm: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” William Morris patterns were as integral to late Victorian taste as were churches like St. Michael and All Angels, Pre-Raphaelite paintings, the poems of Tennyson, John Ruskin’s and Matthew Arnold’s ideas about art and society, and the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. When the Daily Telegraph ran its obituary of Morris, it noted that “when married tutors dawned upon the academic world, all their wives religiously clothed their walls . . . with Morrisian designs of clustering pomegranates.”
Oscar Wilde furnished the smoking-room of his house in Tite Street, London with an embossed paper from Morris’s firm. Beatrice Webb, the Fabian Socialist, pleading “limited cash and still more limited taste,” chose Morris furnishings for her house. Aldous Huxley grew up in a house with “chintzy rooms, modern with William Morris.” Morris wallpapers were also the choice of later luminaries such as Kenneth Clark. John Betjeman, who began his career as a writer in the 1930s for the Architectural Review, a champion of a Modernist aesthetic, papered his office with Morris wallpaper.
Betjeman’s choice of Morris wallpaper for his office made sense as a protest against the Modernist aesthetic sweeping the world in the years following the First World War. It didn’t take long for British designers, writers, architects, and musicians to discover that the impulse in favor of radical deracination coming from the Continent and from America did not suit their sense that art is most pleasing and effective when rooted in the tradition out of which it grows. Norman Shaw’s buildings, modeled on the vernacular architecture of farmhouses and barns, caught on with his clients perhaps because he took a familiar look and improved on it in subtle ways—as opposed, for example, to the architecture of Le Corbusier. Similarly, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s fantasias found their audience because his method was to elaborate on familiar folk melodies. The Gothic Revival was so easily accepted because it appealed to a sense of medieval nostalgia where the British national identity felt most rooted.
The rediscovery and affirmation of Englishness that Norman Shaw, Vaughan Williams, and writers ranging from Virginia Woolf, Siegfried Sassoon, Vita Sackville-West, and E. M. Forster to the T. S. Eliot of Four Quartets were to promulgate later on was powerfully prefigured by Morris, whose role as a champion of native English genius was in turn prefigured by the Romantics—painters like Samuel Palmer and William Blake, who saw the “dark Satanic Mills” of the Industrial Revolution threatening “England’s green and pleasant land.”
Morris was a utopian socialist who preached against standardization and the soul-deadening effects of industrialization. He showed by his own example how beautiful things that enriched people’s lives could be made by hand if one were willing to apprentice oneself to the rediscovery of ancient crafts and their techniques. His vision of a medievalism that could serve contemporary lives is stated emphatically in his long poem “The Earthly Paradise”:
Forget six counties overhung with smoke,
Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke,
Forget the spreading of the hideous town;
Think rather of the pack-horse on the down,
And dream of London, small, and white, and clean.
As in the lives of many, the serpent crept into Morris’s earthly paradise. In the picture gallery of the Victoria and Albert museum hangs one of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings of Morris’s wife Janey, who had been the daughter of a stablehand in Oxford. She was a Pre-Raphaelite “stunner” and is depicted here surrounded by the gloom of Hades, holding an emblematic pomegranate. Rossetti, who became Janey’s lover, pictured her as Persephone, Queen of Hades, sultry and brooding, because of her unhappy marriage to Morris. Rossetti saw himself as her redeemer, and the bringer of light into her dark world. Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones were Morris’s friends and business partners. Morris and Burne-Jones had been fellow students at Exeter College, Oxford, in the 1850s. John Ruskin, a patron of the arts who, with the resources of a sizeable private fortune at his disposal, reigned supreme as a cultural arbiter in Britain, began to tout the Pre-Raphaelites in his book of Edinburgh lectures. As Burne-Jones wrote recalled:
I was working in my room 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.
Morris had an unruly mop of hair which reminded Burne-Jones of Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. So Topsy became Morris’s nickname. He was by all accounts a loud, exuberant man. His Oxford scout is said to have admonished him at one point, “A little more piano, sir, if I might suggest it.” He had a vile temper and would sometimes beat his head against a wall hard enough to make a dent in it (the wall, not his head). Displeased with the Christmas pudding that was served at his lodgings in Red Lion Square in London, he hurled the offending dish down the stairs.
Rossetti obtained permission to have her body exhumed so that he could retrieve the poems.
Despite his occasional hotheadedness, Morris’s life was, on the whole, ordered, purposeful, and wholesome. In contrast, Rossetti’s story is one extended, chaotic, and dissolute episode. He married Elizabeth Siddal (who frequently appeared in his paintings, most famously his Beata Beatrix) and their conjoined lives descended into chronic illness, depression, madness, and addiction to alcohol and laudanum. When Elizabeth died, perhaps a suicide, Rossetti melodramatically placed a journal containing his only copies of poems he had written to her in her coffin, thrusting the journal, by one account, into her luxuriant red hair. Seven years later, in a macabre footnote, he obtained permission to have her body exhumed so that he could retrieve the poems. Regrettably, worms had damaged the manuscript, so that some of the poems had become illegible.
Perhaps that story tells us all we need to know about Rossetti. Just as Morris was a plainspoken Englishman who was awkward around women, Rossetti was the complete Latin lover, of Italian parentage, and a practiced seducer. Though a portly man like Morris, he had dark good looks, though of a distinctly sinister cast. The plum velvet frock coat he favored set off his dark eyes. Like many ladies’ men, he was, unlike Morris, a good listener. While Morris was obsessed by his multitudinous enthusiasms and tended to hold forth on them at length, Rossetti listened with sympathy, particularly to women to whom he was attracted—and he was attracted to many.
As Burne-Jones wrote, “Ah, Gabriel was the one to tell things to. No, Gabriel, on second thoughts, was not the one to tell things to—and second thoughts are best.” While the widely known, almost notorious, porousness of Morris’s marriage was considered exemplary in some circles as late Victorian Britain felt its way toward a more open sexuality, Janey’s longtime affairs with Rossetti and also with Wilfred Blunt, a poet and one of the most celebrated Don Juans of his day, was intensely painful for Morris.
The phases of Morris’s work can be tied to the various places where he lived and worked: first Kelmscott Manor in rural Oxfordshire, then Red House in Kent, followed by his London ateliers in Red Lion Square and Queen Square. Kelmscott Manor, a largely Elizabethan manor house that Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti rented for five years in the early 1870s, became Morris’s model for a habitation where ordered beauty was rooted in tradition. The very opposite of all that is logical in Bauhaus architecture, Kelmscott is a jumble of odd angles, arches, battered walls, yew hedges, and old roses in its garden.
The Thames is a small river here, and Morris loved to get out on it in a punt. Fishing was one of his favorite pastimes. Windrush, one of his most familiar and successful patterns, takes its name from the Windrush River in Oxfordshire. His socialism and the future he imagined in News from Nowhere, one of the first utopian novels, were rooted in medieval ideas of equality among men. Later in his life, writing for the long-defunct socialist newspaper Commonweal, he evokes a vision of traditional life and work in the English countryside:
Midsummer in the country: here you may walk between the fields and hedges that are as it were one huge nosegay for you, redolent of bean-flowers and clover and sweet hay and elder-blossom. The cottage-gardens are bright with flowers, the cottages themselves mostly models of architecture in their way. Above them towers here and there the architecture proper of days bygone, when every craftsman was an artist and brought definite intelligence to bear upon his work.
I don’t recall Marx ever writing about flowers.
I don’t recall Marx ever writing about flowers.
The Oxfordshire idyll, however much it refreshed the springs of Morris’s inspiration, was too far from London for business. And Morris, whose father was a successful financier in the City, was equal parts artist and businessman. He hit on a compromise between these two sides of himself by having Philip Webb build him a house, which he called Red House, in Bexleyheath, Kent, ten miles out of London, when he and Janey married. Burne-Jones painted murals, Janey and her husband worked together on tapestries to hang on the walls. Morris turned his hand to embroidery as quickly as to decorating furniture, making tiles, and designing stained glass. At Red House all the parts contribute to the whole, from the orchard and garden surrounding the place to the windows, walls, and carpets.
Perhaps Red House and the life that Morris led there are the closest he came to his ideal of a wholeness that incorporated life, work, beauty, utility. This hard-working but genial man liked to combine business with pleasure, and the series of lectures he gave in the 1880s is aptly called “How We Live and How We Might Live.” Philip Webb wrote that business decisions were made and carried out in an atmosphere “like a picnic.” This was of a piece with Morris’s views of work as play. In News from Nowhere, a crew of men out working on the roads look like “a boating party at Oxford,” refreshing themselves at lunch with a picnic basket stocked with cold pie and bottles of wine. Morris was a great wine drinker, and MacCarthy paints a pleasant picture of him at Red House:
Morris coming up from the cellar before dinner, beaming with joy, with his hands full of bottles of wine and more bottles tucked under his arms. At Red House, aged twenty-six, Morris was in his element, the reincarnation of the medieval host. The house swarmed with his friends, who were collected from the station in a horse-drawn wagon with curtains made of leather.
Red House was succeeded by studios in London that he, Burne-Jones, Rossetti, and their partners in what would be known simply as The Firm, established for the manufacture and sale of tapestries, metal work, stained glass, wood carving, and furniture painted with medieval designs. A visitor described Morris wearing a blue smock, attending to clients in person, even writing out the bills himself. Rossetti, whose merciless and relentless caricatures of Morris border on the sadistic, did one called “The Bard and Petty Tradesman” where two bearded, roly-poly William Morrises stand back to back, one playing the harp of the poet, one hunched behind the shop counter determinedly ready to close a sale. Rossetti mocked him for sullying the purity of his artistic mission, but Morris’s happy ability to include many capabilities within his capacious personality represents the essence of his being. When William De Morgan first visited the ateliers at Red Lion Square, he found Morris “dressed in vestments and posed as if playing on a regal, a small portable organ, ‘to illustrate points in connection with stained glass.’ Somehow he stayed dignified.”
Later still, Morris moved to a house he dubbed Kelmscott House, on the banks of the Thames in Hammersmith. Bernard Shaw celebrated the house in these terms:
[T]here was an extraordinary discrimination at work in this magical house. Nothing in it was there because it was interesting or quaint or rare or hereditary, like grandmother’s or uncle’s portrait. Everything that was necessary was clean and handsome: everything else was beautiful and beautifully presented. There was an oriental carpet so lovely that it would have been a sin to walk on it; consequently it was not on the floor but on the wall and half way across the ceiling.
Kelmscott House is now privately owned, but the basement and coach house are home to the William Morris Society, and the place is well worth a visit. One of the presses that were used to print Morris’s handset books is here, along with racks of lead typefaces. Nearby on the banks of the Thames stands the Dove, one of the pleasantest and most old-fashioned pubs left in London. At the museum itself a plaque has been erected, quoting from News from Nowhere: “Guests and neighbors, on the site of this Guest-hall once stood the lecture-room of the Hammersmith Socialists. Drink a glass to the memory!”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 6, on page 30
Copyright © 2021 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com