William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary
by E.P. Thompson
Pantheon, 828 pp., $17.95
William Morris and the Art of the Book
edited by Paul Needham, with essays by Paul Needham, by Joseph Dunlap, by John Dreyfus
The Pierpont Morgan Library and Oxford University Press, 140, 114 pages of plates pp., $55.00
The Tamar dividing Devonshire from Cornwall is one of the more delectable of the small rivers of England. There were, above its woods and declivities, mines which yielded lead, silver, copper, and arsenic. The arsenic ovens—for a while the most extensive in the world—did foul damage along the river, about which a Devonshire poet, N. T. Carrington, wrote, in an old-style poem,
And where the blossoming orchards bless’d the view
Tremendous ARSENIC its fatal fumes
Has breath’d and vegetative life has ceas’d
And desolation reigns.
Carrington’s poem was published in 1826. Eight years after, in 1834, William Morris was born in far-off Walthamstow, then a village where prosperous businessmen of London lived and bred their young in suave Georgian houses. Morris and arsenic, Morris and copper, had their connection. Cynics—who have never quite ceased to sneer at the politics of William Morris and at most things he did—may enjoy the fact that it was Tremendous Arsenic, poisoning the hortus conclusus of the fruit-growing Tamar valley, which smoothed the progression of William Morris from Walthamstow to medievalism, poetry, design, and a revolutionary communism. When he was a boy his father, an already well-to-do discount broker, acquired by accident more than a quarter of the £1 shares of the richest of the Tamar mines, the Devon Great Consols, of which arsenic was a product. This holding of 272 shares jumped in value, in a few months, to more than £200,000. The income floating the Morris family—at any rate when Morris’s father remained alive—must have been of the order of £20,000 a year.
Morris himself became one of the directors of the mining company. When at last he resigned his directorship, he came home from the board meeting in the City and placed his top hat on a chair and sat on it, a gesture in Morris’s impulsive physical style.
That was in 1876. By then, at forty-two, Morris had written most of his poems, founded, conducted, and taken over the art firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co., “Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and the Metals,” made himself expert in pattern designing of the freshest originality, and concluded his journeys to Iceland; he was entering the last twenty years of his life, in which he was to be the avowed communist, on paper and on platforms.
Did Morris ever visit the mine? Ever sniff the fumes of his money? There is no mention of such a visit. But it might be said that in all he did Morris was making restitution for the poisonous source of his livelihood; which has left behind, still visible, and not quite the memorial to associate with Kelmscott Manor or the Kelmscott Chaucer, “a vast broken landscape, extending for 2 miles along and above the Tamar,” given to foxes, adders, and buzzards.
The Morris family wealth gave the child Morris, in many things, but not everything, the happiest of humus and …