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 £10 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.”

To trace Morris’s slow transformation from romantic to revolutionary, the place to start, as Fiona MacCarthy shows, is with his acknowledged debt to John Ruskin, whose work he had known since he was at Oxford. One of the first books Morris was to produce for the Kelmscott Press in the 1890s was a reprint of Ruskin’s chapter “On the Nature of Gothic Architecture,” from The Stones of Venice. Morris called this sermon on the relationship between art and society “one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century.”

The crucial thing Ruskin taught Morris was that art is inseparable from the social conditions under which it is made. Morris was echoing Ruskin when he said “the thing which I understand by real art is the expression by man of his pleasure in labour. I do not believe he can be happy in his labour without expressing that happiness.” And when Morris hand-dyed his own wool, or taught himself to weave alongside his workmen at his factory at Merton Abbey, it is Ruskin’s advice in “On the Nature of Gothic” he is following.

The painter should grind his own colours; the architect work in the mason’s yard with his men; the master-manufacturer be himself a more skillful operative than any man in his mills….4

Morris first read these words soon after they were published, in 1853. To him, they “seemed to point out a new road on which the world should travel.” That road would lead Morris into politics, but not until the 1880s. The reason it took so long for Ruskin’s message to sink in has to do with the quality of Morris’s imagination.

He reacted not to abstract ideas but to things he could see and feel for himself. It was not until he saw a factory in operation in Leek in the mid-1870s that he became conscious of the ordinary conditions under which working men and women lived. And only in 1879, when he moved to a house in the rough borough of Hammersmith, did he hear the shrieks of the drunks and witness the degradation of the down-and-outs. In these very years, the American painter James McNeill Whistler was exhibiting his Nocturnes, views of the Thames at night—distant, mysterious, and shrouded in fog. Morris, whose house in Hammersmith looked out over the river, had a closer view of its secrets, seeing for himself how its black depths tempted the poor and disillusioned to suicide. Such sights affected his attitude toward art and its purpose. “We cannot look upon the world merely as if it were an Impressionist picture, or be pleasantly satisfied with some ruinous piece of picturesque which is but the envelope for dullness and famine.”5

Still, MacCarthy makes it clear that the issues which would lead him into revolutionary politics were only indirectly related to social reform. In 1877 Morris helped found the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB, or “Anti-Scrape” as he called it) to campaign for the preservation of England’s medieval churches. Though many stood in urgent need of repair after centuries of neglect, too often “restoration.” meant ruin. Well-meaning but misguided architects such as Sir George Gilbert Scott felt no compunction about drastically over-restoring ancient churches and cathedrals according to Victorian notions of “correct” medieval building practices. Not realizing that these churches were often palimpsests of repairs and gradual changes carried out over the centuries, arrogant architects gutted whole buildings and remodeled them in a sham medieval style. Scott, for example, tore down the east end of Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford and rebuilt it in the “original” Norman style. Enraged that England’s architectural heritage meant so little to those who should have been most active in preserving it, Morris began to question the very notion of the private ownership of Britain’s historic buildings.

These things, if we once lose them, we can never get back again; and yet they are treated just as if they were so much merchandise or cattle, to be bought and sold for the purpose of accumulating money…. I say, once for all, it is an absolute disgrace that such buildings as these should be considered to be private property at all.

The early years of his Anti-Scrape agitation coincided with his membership in the Eastern Question Association. At a moment when Russia was seeking to extend its influence over the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, the Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli entered into an alliance with Turkey. The move brought England to the brink of what Morris considered a “shameful and unjust” war against Russia in support of a country whose recent massacre of 15,000 helpless Bulgarians had horrified the British public. In a letter of protest to the editor of the Daily News, Morris explained his motives in joining the Eastern Question Association, a Liberal pressure group set up to campaign against the Turkish alliance.

I who am writing this am one of a large class of men—quiet men, who usually go about their own business, heeding public matters less than they ought… who are now stung into bitterness by thinking how helpless they are in a public matter that touches them so closely.

Not unlike liberal Americans who were drawn into radical politics at the time of the Vietnam War, Morris was filled with frustration as he watched his country prepare for a foreign war while ignoring social problems at home. In May 1877 he published a manifesto addressed “to the working men of England” in which he attacked financiers, the military, the press, and the Tory party for promoting a conflict “against a people who are not our enemies.” This document marks a change in Morris’s thinking, a decisive turn toward a more radical position.

I doubt if you know the bitterness of hatred against freedom and progress that lies at the hearts of a certain part of the richer classes in this country: their newspapers veil it in a kind of decent language; but do but hear them talking among themselves, as I have often, and I know not whether scorn or anger would prevail in you at their folly and insolence….

In those years, MacCarthy comments, it is as though Morris were shedding his old identity as a privileged member of the middle class, and forming a new one in solidarity with working-class radicals and trade unionists.

By April of 1878 the war fever had abated. Morris’s first brush with politics left him disgusted by the cowardice and shiftiness of Liberal politicians. Though he continued to support Gladstone in the election campaign that led to a Liberal victory in 1880, he became disillusioned with the “wretched little personalities” who, in or out of office, had no intention of actually making real changes in British society. Recognizing at last that the parliamentary system represented the interests of the middle and not the working classes, he began to look outside it for a political agenda to which he could commit himself.

After an unsuccessful attempt to found a political party combining radical working-class groups and trade unions, in 1883 Morris joined the handful of early Socialists who made up the Democratic Federation. This had been founded two years earlier by H.M. Hyndman, a brilliant, self-aggrandizing journalist and politician, who became a Socialist (or what we would today call Marxist or Communist) after meeting Karl Marx and reading Das Kapital When Morris joined Hyndman, his was the only active Socialist organization in the country.

At this period Morris believed vaguely in the establishment of a society without divisions of class or wealth but was, as he later said, “blankly ignorant” of either the theory or the political strategy of contemporary socialists. The voracious reading program he then embarked upon included the works of Marx, which he read in French. From now on there was nothing half-hearted or woolly-minded about his commitment to the Marxist-Socialist cause. For a decade he lectured up and down the country, “spreading discontent among all classes” by endorsing the Democratic Federation’s manifesto of improved housing for workers, free compulsory education, an eight-hour day, state ownership of banks and railways, the nationalization of the land, and the organization of agriculture and industry on cooperative principles.

His days and nights were spent attending tedious committee meetings in dreary, smoke-filled meeting halls, editing and distributing Socialist propaganda, preaching on street corners, or walking arm in arm with workers, radicals and anarchists at marches and rallies up and down the country. Everywhere he went, his message was the same: the political system must be destroyed. If he did not advocate violence to achieve this end, neither did he quite rule it out. Less than two years after joining it, however, he left the Democratic Federation. The reason, he said, was that Hyndman believed in parliamentary action to achieve Socialist objectives while he, Morris, would be satisfied with nothing less than the total uprooting of a thoroughly corrupt system. This meant revolution. In 1884 he helped to launch the Socialist League, a body dedicated to achieving the “principles of Revolutionary International Socialism.” Morris left the League six years later when it was taken over by extreme anarchist factions.


Morris’s politics, like almost everything he did, have a quality of joylessness about them. It is hard not to see his immersion in frenzied activity as a symptom not so much of energy as of depression. He once said that in politics people could “forget their own transient personal and family troubles in aspirations for their fellows.” Particularly in his later years, his personal and family life were beset by troubles.

At Oxford, in 1857, Dante Gabriel Rossetti “discovered” Morris’s future wife, Jane Burden, the daughter of an Oxford stable hand, whom he immediately asked to pose for his painting of Queen Guenevere. Dark and sallow, Jane was the opposite of the red-haired “stunners” favored by the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In an age of crinolines and stays, Jane helped transform women’s fashion by affecting straight tunic-like dresses made of simple materials, worn without corsets, with strings of beads at her throat. When the young Henry James met this “apparition of fearful and wonderful intensity” in 1868, she had been married to Morris for nine years and had borne him two daughters.

Imagine a tall lean woman…with a mass of crisp black hair heaped into great wavy projections on each of her temples, a thin pale face, a pair of strange, sad, deep, dark Swinburnian eyes, with great thick black oblique brows, joined in the middle and tucking themselves away under her hair…

Just before James met her, Jane had embarked on a highly public affair with Rossetti, who was not only her husband’s old friend and mentor, but also his business partner. The lovers made little attempt to hide their relationship from Morris or anyone else. In view of the strict moral code prevailing in Victorian England, Morris’s apparent acceptance of the arrangement can only have consigned him, along with his wife and her lover, to the margins of respectable society. The reaction further encouraged Morris to question the conventions that held that society together.

Though he found comfort in an enduring friendship with Burne-Jones’s wife, Georgiana, there is no evidence that Morris himself was ever unfaithful to Jane. Her open relationship with Rossetti lasted until 1875. It caused Morris deep pain, as much, it seems, because of her lover’s physical presence in his house as because of Jane’s sexual betrayal. The soft-spoken, amusing, insinuating Rossetti would stay with Jane at beautiful Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, where, dressed in his soft velvet jacket, swathed in scarfs, and smelling of chloral and whisky, he would sleep by day and work by night. To a confidante Morris wrote in November 1872,

…Rossetti has set himself down at Kelmscott as if he never meant to go away; and not only does that keep me away from that harbour of refuge, (because it is really a farce our meeting when we can help it) but also he has all sorts of ways so unsympathetic with the sweet simple old place, that I feel his presence there as a kind of slur on it.

It is against this sad background that MacCarthy places Morris’s two journeys to Iceland in 1871 and 1873, seeing them as explorations of his own psychic desolation as well as actual treks through one of the most barren landscapes on earth. But she is also good in helping the reader to see the situation from a woman’s point of view. Jane once told a friend she had never loved her husband. Only eighteen when she met Morris, she saw his offer of marriage as an opportunity to rise from the working class. But her husband left her physically cold, and nothing had prepared her for his temper tantrums. These were so violent that his fellow socialist George Bernard Shaw believed he suffered from a form of epilepsy. While male friends could shrug the rages off, Jane withdrew into herself, then turned to other men. In 1883, a little over a year after Rossetti’s death, she began an eleven-year affair with the poet, philanderer, and diarist Wilfred Scawen Blunt.

Adding to the strains between husband and wife (but also, perhaps helping to keep them together) was the illness of their eldest daughter Jenny. In the summer of 1876, at age sixteen, she was diagnosed as epileptic. Jenny’s grand mal seizures were so violent that she had to be tied to her bed to prevent her from throwing herself from a window. The already tense household lived in a permanent state of apprehension. Jane Morris was frightened that her daughter would kill her. Each attack, she admitted, felt “as if a dagger were thrust into me.”

On a wall at Kelmscott House is displayed a hanging called “Cabbage and Vine” designed and woven by Morris himself between May and September 1879. The label tells us proudly that Morris took 516 hours to complete the task. Jenny would have been at Kelmscott that summer. One imagines the repetitive sound of the shuttle passing back and forth over the loom day and night for hours and days and months, the mechanical action consoling and distracting the deeply unhappy man.

Work saved Morris. In a letter to Georgiana Burne-Jones written in the year before his death, he suggests that a nervous breakdown might have been a more appropriate response than stoic endurance to his wife’s infidelity and his daughter’s illness.

I was thinking just now, how I have wasted the many times when I have been “hurt” and (especially of late years) have made no sign, but swallowed down my sorrow and anger, and nothing done! Whereas if I had but gone to bed and stayed there for a month or two and declined taking part in life, as indeed on such occasions I have felt very much disinclined to do, I can’t help thinking that it might have been effective.

One immediately thinks of the figures Burne-Jones designed for the stained glass made by Morris & Co—inert, frozen, with an undertow of melancholy and resignation.

This letter is published in the fourth and last volume of Kelvin’s magnificent edition of the correspondence, which covers the years 1893 to 1896. During this period Morris was still writing to fellow Socialists and working on behalf of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. But now his letters contain a mass of information about the Kelmscott Press, and about his activity as a collector of medieval manuscripts and illuminations. In them, Morris is as brusque, as busy, and as unforthcoming as ever. He was writing not to give his correspondents pleasure, but to get things done. Even to his beloved Jenny he affects a tone of cheerful bonhomie, which is always touching, but not particularly revealing.

If we were to judge Morris only on the surviving letters, we would have to conclude that he had little capacity for intimacy. His best are always to Georgiana Burne-Jones, but this is in part because of their common interests in politics. It was she, not her husband, who shared Morris’s Socialist beliefs. But even here, Morris can seem like a cold fish. In a letter of December 14, 1894, he tells Georgiana that he has just buried his own mother, then turns abruptly to a discussion of upcoming local elections. This may, however, give a somewhat false impression of Morris’s true personality. In the final volume, the absence of letters to his younger daughter May, who was a close political ally, suggests that after his death she destroyed any that referred to her brief marriage to Henry Halliday Sparling. Above all, very few letters exist between Morris and Burne-Jones, who saw each other every week. A snatch from one, quoted by MacCarthy, gives an idea of the intensity of that friendship: “Though I have many hopes and pleasures…and…though my life is dear to me…I would give them away, hopes and pleasures, one by one or all together, and my life at last, for you, for my friendship.”

Since the letters reveal relatively little about Morris’s deep feelings, MacCarthy searches the poems for what they tell us about his state of mind, remarking, for example, that his long narrative poem The Earthly Paradise “reflects the blanknesses that Morris found around him.” Yes, but that doesn’t make it any more readable. Though Morris was a best-selling Victorian author and was seriously considered a successor to Tennyson as Poet Laureate, most of his poetry is bland, singsong, sleep-inducing. A perfectionist in everything else he did, he seemed to have no particular standards when it came to the written word, tossing off page after page almost without correction. He once argued that “if a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he’s weaving tapestry he had better shut up.” And as for his subjects, Rossetti has my entire sympathy when he complained of “Sigurd” that it is hard to take an interest in a hero whose brother is a dragon.

Well-written and consistently interesting, MacCarthy’s biography is now the most balanced life we have. It is her remarkable achievement to have done justice to every one of Morris’s activities and to have traced convincingly the complex personal relationships among Morris, Janey, Rossetti, and the Burne-Joneses. In the end she makes it clear that whatever our final judgment of Morris as a writer or social reformer, he was above all else the most charismatic British designer who ever lived. The publication of her biography should inspire American readers to visit London next spring, when the Victoria & Albert Museum mounts its long-awaited centenary exhibition of his work.


Half-Full Use May 23, 1996

  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.

  4. 4

    John Ruskin, The Works of John Ruskin, edited by E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1903–1912), Volume X, p. 201.

  5. 5

    Paul Meier, “An Unpublished Lecture of William Morris,” International Review of Social History, 16 (1971), p.11.