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The Perfectionist

William Morris: A Life for Our Time

by Fiona MacCarthy
Knopf, 780 pp., $45.00

The Collected Letters of William Morris

edited by Norman Kelvin

Vol. I, 1848–1880

626 pp., $90.00

Vol. II, Part A, 1881–1884

424 pp., $60.00

Vol. II, Part B, 1885–1888

566 pp., $75.00

Vols. III and IV forthcoming

Princeton University Press

William Morris may seem too large and various a character for a single book. It is possible to write about the craftsman (or, rather, the stained-glass, textile, and furniture designer, weaver, calligrapher, illuminator, gilder, and typographer) without saying anything about the poet, novelist, and translator. Then there is Morris the political activist, social reformer, conservationist, and businessman. In this century, dozens of books have dealt with specific aspects of his career, but until now the most comprehensive full biography was still J.W. Mackail’s two-volume life, which appeared in 1899.

Mackail was writing three years after Morris’s death, and under the watchful eyes of his widow, Jane, and daughter May. Though he did justice to the artist and man of letters, he was outright disingenuous about Morris’s politics and private life. Following the line established by his Times obituary, he presented Morris as a romantic idealist temporarily seduced into the folly of Socialism.

In fact, Morris joined the Marxist-influenced Democratic (later Social-Democratic) Federation in 1883, leaving it less than two years later because he had no belief in parliamentary democracy. Although he referred to himself as a Communist, many of the ideas expressed in his later political writings are indistinguishable from those of his Anarchist comrades in the revolutionary Socialist League, which he helped to form in 1884 and left in 1890, when its leaders began to incite British workers to violent insurrection. In playing all this down, Mackail failed to convey the extent to which Morris’s extreme political position isolated him from middle-class Victorian life. Morris himself was more honest, “I stink in people’s nostrils,” he said.

What is more, Mackail could hardly write frankly about his subject’s private life, since he was married to the daughter of the woman with whom Morris had been in love, Mackail’s mother-in-law, Georgiana, Burne-Jones. The impossibility of alluding to Jane Morris’s affairs with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Wilfred Scawen Blunt also forced Mackail to leave out of his story the loneliness and humiliation which were as much a part of Morris’s experience as his manic creative energy. As he sifted through the Morris papers, Mackail uttered words that will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to write about a great man whose relations are still living: “How extraordinarily interesting one could make the story, if one were going to die the day before it was published.”

Fiona MacCarthy has told that extraordinarily interesting story remarkably well. She is the first biographer to have had access to all four volumes of Norman Kelvin’s edition of the Collected Letters of William Morris, and has made good use of Charles Harvey and Jon Press’s recent study of Morris as a businessman, the most important and original book on him to have appeared in thirty years.1 If her own research has not revealed much more about the outlines of Morris’s life than we learned in Kelvin’s preface to the first volume of the Letters (1984), she shows how Morris combined the separate strands in that life into ideas and artistic work that have their own unity.

William Morris was born in 1834, the precocious eldest son of a London discount broker who had invested successfully in a Devon mining operation. Like any other upper-middle-class Victorian boy, at twelve he was sent to a public school (Marlborough), but unlike others, he survived the experience with his artistic and intellectual interests intact. In January 1853, possessed of a large private income, he went to Exeter College, Oxford, intending to take holy orders in the Church of England.

There he met another candidate for the priesthood, Ted Jones (later Ned Burne-Jones, later still Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Bart.), the son of a Midlands frame maker, who was to become his lifelong friend and collaborator. Jones came from a very different social background. Growing up in the center of industrial Birmingham, he walked every day through the slums Morris would experience at first hand only many years later.

With its romantic emphasis on the aesthetic satisfactions of High Anglican ritual, the Oxford Movement still permeated the University’s cloisters and chapels. The two boys were drawn deeply into the movement’s mystique. In Burne-Jones’s words they became “omniscient in all questions of Ecclesiastical rights, state encroachments, church architecture and priestly vestments.” With the example of John Henry Newman’s community at nearby Littlemore before them, together they laid plans to found “a little brotherhood in the heart of London of cleric and lay members.”2 Steeped in Tennyson and Malory, theirs was to be a “Crusade and Holy warfare against the age.”

In the 1850s the word “brotherhood” had as many artistic associations as it did monastic ones. Only a few years earlier, Ruskin had written in defense of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists, itself partly inspired by the Brotherhood of Nazarenes, the band of German artists founded in Rome in 1809. While the London brotherhood did not come into being, the idea that art is inseparable from communal fellowship would lead Morris, Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, and Philip Webb to work in partnership throughout the 1860s. And we hear its distant echo in the “organized brotherhood” of Socialists Morris advocated in a speech at Oxford in 1883. Ironically, the precondition for Morris’s later political conversion was his loss of religion. This occurred around the time he was discovering the great Gothic cathedrals on a tour of France in 1855. He realized, he wrote, that these sublime buildings were “the labour and thought of the people, the result of a chain of tradition unbroken from the earliest stages of art.”

After Oxford, Morris found his true vocation as a decorative artist only after first apprenticing himself to the architect G.E. Street and then learning to paint under the tutelage of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In 1859 he drew on his private income to commission a young architect from Street’s office, Philip Webb, to design Red House, his romantically turreted red brick country retreat in Kent. To furnish it, Morris and his friends joined together to design and decorate furniture, stained glass, tiles, and embroidered fabrics. This experience was to prove of immense importance for the formation of the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. in 1861.

Because Rossetti was later to remark that Morris and his partners were merely “playing at business” and had “no idea whatever of commercial success,” it is often thought that the firm was an amateurish affair. In fact, Morris’s aim from the beginning was to make money. The partners showed their work successfully at the South Kensington Exhibition of 1862, and as early as 1866 had secured prestigious commissions to redecorate the Armoury and Tapestry Room at St. James’s Palace, as well as the public dining room at the new South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria & Albert Museum.

As sellers of stained glass and ecclesiastical goods, MMF & Co. took advantage of a wave of religious enthusiasm which swept England between 1840 and 1876. During that period more new churches were built than at any time since the close of the thirteenth century.3 And Morris is probably the most brilliant pattern maker who ever lived. From 1862 (when Morris produced his first wallpaper designs, “Daisy” and “Trellis”) to the present day, the papers and fabrics he designed have never been out of fashion.

The aesthetic revolution that happened in painting in France during the second half of the nineteenth century took place in England in design. Though Augustus Welby Pugin initiated the revival of crafts, William Morris became its most famous exponent. This would not have happened had he not inherited from his father a strong head for business. In 1875, realizing that the firm must expand or wither, he bought out his partners Rossetti, Marshall, and Brown, then established his own firm, Morris & Co. Two years later he leased premises at 449 Oxford Street in London. Strategically located on the edge of fashionable Mayfair, the shop was still trading in luxury goods at the outbreak of World War II. The foundation on which its success was built was Morris’s personal obsession with quality.

Though closely associated with the revival of British crafts, Morris was happy to sell machine-made goods, as long as they met his exacting standards. He frequently used commercial manufacturers when they were capable of translating his designs satisfactorily. Only when this was not possible did Morris manufacture his own products. For example, Morris never made his own stained glass because commercial stained-glass makers still knew how to create a range of blues, scarlets, and greens of unearthly intensity. But when it came to printed and woven fabrics, the colors produced by chemical dyes then commercially available proved unacceptable to him.

For this reason, in 1875 he approached Thomas Wardle, a silk and calico printer and dyer with a factory in the small industrial town of Leek in Staffordshire. Wardle was willing to experiment with organic dyes and traditional methods of hand dying. A series of sixty obsessive letters to Wardle, described by MacCarthy as “amongst the most remarkable business letters ever written,” show Morris determined not to settle for anything less than perfection.

I am sure you understand that we want to get something quite different from the ordinary goods in the market: this is the very heart of our undertaking…I can never be content with getting anything short of the best, and that I should always go on trying to improve our goods in all ways, and should consider anything that was only tolerable as a ladder to mount up to the next stage….

One must see Morris’s fabrics at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the William Morris House in Walthamstow, or Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire to feel the peculiar sensuality of his genius. Take the fabric “Granada,” twenty yards of which were produced in 1884. Its bold and rhythmic acanthus design is woven in silk velvet, brocaded in gilt thread, and partly block-printed in a deep, saturated peacock blue. As Catherine Holiday, Morris’s favorite embroiderer, told Mackail:

There was a peculiar beauty in his dyeing that no one else in modern times has ever attained to. He actually did create new colours then in his amethysts and golds and greens, they were different to anything I have ever seen; he used to get a marvellous play of colour into them. The amethyst had flushings of red; and his gold (one special sort), when spread out in the large rich hanks, looked like a sunset sky. When he got an unusually fine piece of colour he would sent it off to me or keep it for me; when he ceased to dye with his own hands I soon felt the difference.

But such perfection costs money, and Granada sold for ÂŁ10 per yard, that is to say, the monthly salary of a well-paid craftsman of the period, and the equivalent in today’s terms of something like $1,500 per yard. As a direct result of Morris’s own high standards, only the well-to-do could afford the products of Morris & Co. As his commitment to the Socialist cause deepened, Morris began to resent his role of “ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich.”

  1. 1

    Charles Harvey and Jon Press,William Morris,Design and Enterprise in victorian Britain(Manchester University Press, 1991).

  2. 2

    Both quotations from a letter to Maria Choyce,October 15,1855, Fitzwilliam Museum,Burne-Jones Papers.

  3. 3

    Harvey and Press, William Morris, p.57.

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