William Morris, Acanthus design

William Morris: Utopia, Industry and Art

William Morris, These Fantasic Worlds, News from Nowhere

The works of William Morris pulsate with energy, passion and inventiveness. His appeal, still strong today through the medium of his designs for wallpapers and fabrics, derives from the breadth of his achievements, a concern for his fellow man and the powerfully sympathetic response to nature which fed the swirling patterns of his decorative designs.

Poet, painter, designer, typographer, polemicist, manufacturer and Socialist, Morris leapt from one enthusiasm to another, living his life with a restless energy that led him constantly to seek and solve new challenges. At his core was the commitment to a basic philosophy that good design came from a good society. He was a warm, generous man prone to enraged frustrations, a sensitive man who could be brutal in his constant grip on quality. His mastery over one craft after another ensured his absolute dominance in the field of the decorative arts where he is still regarded as the greatest British pattern designer.

His contemporaries viewed him with a mixture of reverence and affection. The designer and teacher William Letharby, a prodigious talent himself, declared that Morris was the ‘…greatest pattern designer we have had or ever can have, for a man of scale will not again be working in the minor arts’. W.B. Yeats, in Autobiographies 1955, said that

‘…if some angel offered me the choice, I would rather live his life, poetry and all rather than my own or any other man’s.’

Bernard Shaw wrote that Morris was

‘…great not only among little men but among great ones’.

These observations, from men of very different disciplines reveal the strengths of Morris. To all appearances the scale of his interests and achievements can be daunting if taken methodically, one at a time. To do so would undermine the essential diversity and range of a man whose doctor reported that the cause of death was ‘simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men.’ Morris toiled with a rumbustuous joy that drove his broad creative energies hard.

To many he seemed like a Renaissance Man, which was ironic because he detested the period and all it stood for, and yet he was straightforward in his motivations, above all a designer, signing himself as such when he joined the Democratic Federation in 1883. This essentially simple vocation informed his thinking and absorbed his attention : for Morris there was a strong moral association between the artist and his work. He believed that true artists were people who could express themselves completely through the material they worked with, benefiting from the full value of their labours. He did not, however, fully express himself in any one activity, settling instead for a complex vortex of crafts, arts, literature and politics as though no single medium could contain the passionate committed turmoil of his imagination.

Morris and The Victorians

William Morris, Honeysuckle design

It is ironic that the name William Morris is linked with the notion of Victorian design. This would have enraged Morris. His philosophies on the rightness of art, the value of human endeavour and the corrupting nature of manufacturing from profit runs in direct opposition to Victorian society. The artifice, indulgence and shoddy workmanship represented by industrial advances were anathema to him. He preferred sentiment to sentimentality, natural simplicity to artificial profusion. Such tensions gave rise to much of his greatest work, ranging from the beauty of the Kelmscott edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the burgeoning tendrils of the wallpaper design Honeysuckle and his strident lectures on art and democracy in the 1880s.

Morris fulminated against the dehumanising industrialisation that fuelled the economy of the British Empire. He did not object to the machines themselves but their use by some to produce profits through the exploitation others. This was part of an holistic world view which saw art as a litmus test for the health of the nation. ‘Unless people care about carrying on their business without making the world hideous, how can they care about art?’ he declared. The production of shoddy goods for the express purpose of making only profit led to a decline in the moral standing of those who were forced to produce them. Only by making, for instance, furniture, honestly with a true joy in the craftsmanship and a share in the benefits in making it, could people become true to themselves.

Medieval Authenticity

William Morris, Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, These Fantastic Worlds

Morris, like many of the thinkers and artists of the day, looked back to the pre-industrial middle ages where a sense of natural order prevailed, where there was respect for the countryside and an understanding of the value in a craftsman’s work. Like the poetry of Tennyson, the music of Wagner and the paintings of Millais, Morris sought to express his vision of the world through an ideal medieval landscape, turning, initially, from the squalor of the nineteenth century to an escape into romance, mythology and chivalry.

Later, equipped with the experiences of his exceptional life he sought to change the world he lived in rather than seek a temporary escape from it. He harnessed the lessons of the past into a unified vision of society where art was intrinsic to everyday life. This was a search for a better life through constructive criticism, positive action and by example. Morris saw no difference between the maker and the thinker, the artist and the politician because he was all of these things himself and he understood that relative values were false, that the skills of one contributor to society such as a thinker like Thomas Carlyle or John Ruskin were no greater than those human skills of making a chair or a painting. He rarely compromised on his strong sense of vision, which included the requirement to think and feel through the raw materials:

‘Never forget the material you are working with, and always try to use it for what it can do best.’

This came partly from a desire to reflect the flowing lines and rough fluidity of the natural world. He drew a precise and lyrical pleasure from the whole process of designing his patterns, ranging from the research of natural and historical references to the physical mixing of the colour for the cloth.

Morris & Co

William Morris was a rare and genuine force of cultural change, a central figure in the development of modern culture. He was an entrepreneur of unusual creativity, surrounding himself with a cauldron of talented people both as friends and memebers of his company Morris & C; Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, Philip Webb and Arthur Mackmurdo were all drawn to and sympathetic with his rebellion against Victorian values. The clarity and honesty of his approach enabled these men and many others to define their own revolt against the Age and turn it to a more worthy future. Morris’ own fiction, including the influential News from Nowhere (1890), and his achingly difficult epic poetry brought his ideals, and Utopian instincts for hard work, honesty and creativity to an audience which was probably more interested in the beautiful designs of his wallpaper!


Other posts of interest in These Fantastic Worlds include: