William Morris The Artist

By W. Henry Winslow

William Morris whose name stands for admirable things in the world of literature, of art, and of socialism, was a British poet, painter, craftsman and social reformer. Morris was one of the principal founders of the British Arts and Crafts Movement and is best known for his wallpaper, textile and furniture designs. He was born in 1834 and died in 1896. At first sight it might seem that he lived three separate lives. Today people are puzzled to know what are the relationships between the man who wrote the Earthly Paradise, and the man who set the fashion of low-toned wall papers and hangings and beautiful carpets, or he who devoted Sunday hours to radical speeches to London working-men, or to writing for his paper, The Commonweal. To show how these were one and the same men, and that whatever else he was, he was first and last and always the artist, is the object of this article.


At the date of Morris’ death, October 3, 1896, he was in his sixty-third year, having been born at Walthamstow, Essex, March 24, 1834, his father being a successful man of business, who died, leaving a moderate fortune, when his son was about fourteen. The boy went from Marlborough school to Exeter College, Oxford, where he first met Edward Burne-Jones, the artist, his life-long friend; and where both at one time thought of taking orders. A little later Morris made the acquaintance of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose influence was not lessened when through him Morris met his future wife, Jane Burden, a working-class woman whose pale skin, languid figure, and abundant coppery hair were considered by Morris and his friends the epitome of beauty. To Rossetti was dedicated in 1858 The Defence of Guinevere and other poems. Morris, an amateur of medievalism, in his attempt to rehabilitate the guilty Guinevere, was certainly over-weighted, and the result is mainly artificial and ineffective posing. Morris attempts to create a realistic drama dealing with the illicit romantic passion between Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot, figures from an Arthurian romance.


The Defence of GuinevereThe Earthly Paradise, published in 1868-1870, is generally considered to be Morris’ literary monument, though he himself declared his high water mark reached in The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Nibelungs published a little later. Like some other monuments, the quality of The Earthly Paradise is perhaps hardly commensurate with its bulk. Yet it abounds in beautiful, if sometimes too archaic lines. The simple motive upon which the twenty-four long poems depend, like beads upon a slender thread is almost the oldest in literature, that of a company of persons accidentally brought together, who narrate stories in turn. In this case, some are of classic and others of Norse origin, the narrators coming in search of the "Earthly Paradise" to an unnamed western land, where on the occasion of high festivals they tell these tales to their entertainers. The analogy with Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is obvious; and as Chaucer deliberately patterned after Boccaccio, so did Morris in a degree imitate Chaucer. All three poets, by a coincidence, sprang from mercantile families, inheriting not a little of the commercial spirit, while decrying mere commercialism; and the same may be said of Mr. Ruskin, Morris’ contemporary master and exemplar. 


Kelmscott Manor


For an average lifetime the happiest hours of Morris, who declared his life to have been a happy one, were spent in these workshops and in the famous Kelmscott Press, adjoining his Hammersmith house.


William Morris Kelmscott PressThat which makes Morris’ experiment of reviving handwork so extraordinary is that this idealist, after sinking his money in what seemed a hopeless crusade against cheap machine-made fabrics, without any skilled assistants, and with little demand for such products, was able to make his industries profitable like the most practical persons. Morris had no serious competition on his own ground, it being impossible to “grind out” such wares as his or to produce them on a scale to overstock the market, and by reason of his wise generosity, he had only dependable and friendly workpeople about him. It has been objected that Morris, whose favorite maxim was “Art made by the people for the people, as a joy to the maker and the user,” sold his wares to the well-to-do at good prices. Caring for the maker even more than for the user with good wages and cheerful surroundings compelled good prices for the finished product.


Morris came to see that if in a civilization like ours there were to be any opening for good art, it must come through the example of the wealthier class, and what would begin as an unintelligent fashion might end in an educated demand for better things; until in the descending social scale it should reach the poorer class. So it happened that the man who wrote: “Never have I been in a rich man’s house which would not have been bettered for a bonfire of nine-tenths of all it held,” found his customers among this very class. 


William Morris decorative arts


The medium chosen was the creation of truthful designs for stained glass, wallpapers, carpets, furniture, and decorative art generally. From the small beginnings in these various departments grew large and important  establishments and factories that in their specialties stood unrivaled. The first grand success which Morris achieved was in the stained glass displayed at the English Exposition, 1862. From that hour success was certain, and orders in that one branch were constantly at least a year in advance.  "Morris & Co." established a consulting office in London, where a member of the firm or a competent clerk was always in waiting to give advice, show specimens, etc. If desired, the plan of a house being given, they were ready to draft to the smallest detail designs for furniture, carpets, inlaid floors, wall-papers, carvings, and interior decorations of every kind.


The opinion seems to be that Morris was not an artist in the full sense of the word, but a sort of “Jack-of-all-trades;” and he says of himself: “I cannot claim to represent any one craft, the division of labor which has furthered competitive commerce till none can resist its influence having pressed hard on the field of culture, thwarting me to the degree of forcing me to learn many crafts, preventing me according to the proverb from mastering any.” But this is the familiar modesty of powerful men, simply indicating the height of their aspiration, as compared with its fulfillment.


William Morris carpet designs


William Morris carpet designs



If to spend ones life in elaborating a few pictures, or making statues for the wealthy, each costing a fortune, is to be an artist, Morris was not one; but if to be sensitive to all beauty everywhere, and to defend it passionately against vandalism, to be alive to the peculiar powers of the arts, to  sympathetically design and successfully work in most of them, and to be a worldwide influence in these things, if this is to be an artist, then was Morris beyond question facile princeps. The common idea that the market value and material of a work of art determine the rank of the artist, may possibly have to do with the notion that such a one as Morris is “merely a decorator.” On the contrary, all which the artist does is and must be art, no matter what the material or the current value, and its true spirit is often found in some trinket of the great schools; while the so-called architecture costing millions, is too often nothing but a hideous eye-sore of false construction.


If Morris had not done so much and so varied work with his own hands -- thus differing materially from Mr. Ruskin, for instance – one would hesitate to quote so much from his writings; but however questionable theory may be divorced from practice, theory which is justified by practice cannot fail to be valuable.


The following condensed extract is from an address called “Beauty of Life,” asking the reader to observe the humanitarian spirit, the interest in the individual workman, which led logically to thesocialistic phase of Morris’ career:


Refined and educated men who have traveled in Italy and Egypt sit down in their own homes amid brutally vulgar and hideous things. The lack of art, or rather the murder of art, that curses our streets
from the sordidness of the surroundings of the lower classes, has its counterpart in the dullness and vulgarity of the middle classes, and the double-distilled dullness and scarcely less vulgarity of the upper class. What is the remedy? Education, not for the few, but for the many. Better civilization for all, freed from slavery, ancient or modern, from the existence of a social residuum: Unmitigated, heartbreaking, slavish drudgery was never intended to exist as a permanent condition. . . . While extending the decencies of life, let us guard the traditions and work of the past, and cherish every germ of art. Let us also heed the green grass and the fresh leaves, the running waters and the omnipresent gift of light and air. . . . Many Manchester folk profess to care for art and are picture-buyers, and yet in Manchester the smoke-act is a dead letter, showing how little love or respect for beauty her art-patrons really possess. . . . Another thing, -- don’t leave your sandwich-papers lying about your hills and in your public gardens; and how about the ugly posters, and do you try to preserve the trees? Anyone who wantonly cuts down a tree, need make no pretense of caring for art. . . .



Another phase of Morris’ activity was connected with the Kelmscott Press, which has made his name welcome to all bibliophiles, as his art products have endeared it to art-lovers everywhere. His active interest in book-making as a branch of the fine arts dates from 1888, his idea being to hark back to the days of the great book-makers and, following in their steps, to produce books whose paper, type, ink and decoration should all be of the best, and worthy of the best literature. This led him to use entirely new and heavy type of his own design, free from the emasculated delicacy of modern fonts, and without their teasing hair lines, the result being strong jet black lettering, necessarily larger and more legible. The wretched paper of the day was rejected for tough hand-made paper which was found to require the substitution of the old hand-press for the steam-press, implying small and therefore costlier editions. Naturally only the best ink could be used. The outcome of all this has been forty-four works, some of them in several volumes, printed by the Kelmscott Press since 1891, when its first issue appeared,  -- Morris’ own “Story of the Glittering Plain.”  




The last, and by far the most important volume, the works of Geoffrey Chaucer in folio with elaborate foliated borders designed by Morris and eighty woodcuts drawn by Sir Edward Burne-Jones being on its way to subscribers in many lands as Morris neared his end at Hammersmith.

Beginning with a man and a boy to assist him, and later occupying the house next his own, he came to require still more rooms for his men and presses, and again, as in the case of his decorative manufactures, he found his work so much in demand that he had only to announce a forthcoming book with the number of copies and the price he thought best to put upon it, to have his subscription lists speedily filled. Thus the whole edition of Chaucer was subscribed for six mouths before it was ready for delivery.

It is needed only to look at the face of Morris, his stern brow and brooding, deeply penetrating eye, to recognize the man of insight, the seer. His seafarers bluffness, leonine locks, blue shirt, cape-coat and slouch hat made him a noticeable figure everywhere and, without the least show of affectation, emphasized naturally his strange individuality. Morris’ funeral took place on an October day, the funeral train leaving the plain old-fashioned house on Hammersmith Mall, London, for the yet older Kelmscott manor-house near Lechdale, Oxfordshire. Within a few yards of it his remains were interred, in the village churchyard, close to the roadside hedge, a clerical college-friend reading the service at the grave. Besides his immediate family, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Walter Crane, John Burns, Mr. Richmond and Mr. Frampton of the Royal Academy and representatives of the South Kensington Museum and the Arts and Crafts Society were present, with a large company of friends. A noticeable feature of the arrangements was the carriage of the coffin from the train at Lechdale, through three miles of hedge-lined country lanes upon an open farmer’s wain, beneath a canopy of green vines and branches. It was of unpolished oak with handles of the wrought iron dear to artists, the name and the birth and death dates being incised in the wood. Pieces of oriental embroidery served as a pall. The day was thoroughly autumnal; the heavens wept gently; and drifts of golden foliage lay lightly on the clay of their departed lover.