William Morris
William Morris; drawing by David Levine

In his rough serge suit and open-necked shirt, William Morris was often taken for an artisan. This pleased him, but in truth his appearance was at odds with his position, and his tastes. Morris had inherited a considerable private income from shares in a copper mine, for he came from the capitalist class he loathed; while his view of the world was not that of a working man but was formed by his enthusiasms when an Oxford undergraduate in the mid-1850s. His years in the university gave him his poetic inspiration, his artistic friends, his beautiful, silent wife, and a potent dream of comradeship in a medieval town set amid meadows. Even Morris’s socialism was filled with nostalgia for Oxford: the utopian romance News from Nowhere harks back to his youthful discoveries as though to efface the troubled years of his adult life.

When Morris went to Exeter College in 1853 he had High Church inclinations and seemed destined for the clergy. But friendship with Edward Burne-Jones and others of his gifted generation turned his thoughts toward romance and art. They read Tennyson together, and especially Ruskin, whose prose at this time, in The Stones of Venice and the third and fourth volumes of Modern Painters, was as highly charged as any Victorian verse. Morris found that he too could write poetry: it was printed in a journal he financed, The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. But his ambition now was to become an architect. He apprenticed himself to G.E. Street, whose offices were in Oxford and whose practice served the needs of the Gothic Revival in ecclesiastical building. This phase lasted only a few months, for Morris came under the capricious and exciting influence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who turned him into a painter for a little while.

In 1857, with Rossetti and other Pre-Raphaelites, he painted murals for the new Oxford union building. He there met Jane Burden, whom in two years he would marry. This working-class girl, a groom’s daughter, was to become the subject of much Pre-Raphaelite art, her unique features embalmed in their mysterious celebrations of yearning. Janey’s actual personality was also mysterious, and remains so. When Henry James met her years later he found her “an apparition of fearful and wonderful intensity”: since he had known her only through the pictures of her he was filled with awe that she could move and speak. She had claimed Morris’s adoration from the first. He felt that to be in her thrall was itself an artistic activity. “I cannot paint you but I love you,” he wrote on the back of an abandoned canvas.

Although he failed to become either an architect or a painter, Morris had a limited success with his poetry. In 1858 he issued The Defence of Guenevere. Since Rossetti and other poets of the original Pre-Raphaelite group appeared only in periodicals if they published at all, this volume can be called the first book of Pre-Raphaelite verse. Morris was writing at his best in these early poems, but his plans to make an epic cycle from their Arthurian themes were put aside when Tennyson published his immensely successful Idylls of the King in the following year. Morris should not have been downcast by this magisterial competition. There was the making of an original dramatic lyricist in The Defence of Guenevere, while all his later verse suffers from the diffuse repetition of its effects.

But now Morris found his vocation in the world. It was provided by his marriage. He commissioned Philip Webb, a young architect he had met in Street’s office, to build a house for himself and his bride. “Red House” in Bexleyheath was designed to Morris’s satisfaction. But it could not be furnished without difficulty because the shops did not contain the fittings he wanted. The answer to his problem was to create the decoration and furniture himself, or to do so with friends.

This was the origin of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company (Marshall was a surveyor, Faulkner an Oxford friend; other minor shareholders, excluded from the firm’s title to help its commercial credibility, were the artists Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and Ford Madox Brown), which was Morris’s lifelong occupation. He became an artistic businessman, offering to provide mural decoration, carving, stained glass, metalwork, tapestry, chintzes, and, eventually, fifty-three different (yet similar) kinds of wall-paper. Although Morris called on many artists and craftsmen to contribute designs and expertise he always remained in charge of his business, seeking commissions, fulfilling orders, consulting with his business managers, paying the wages of dozens of employees. Morris’s fame during his own life was largely as a poet, but “the Firm” (as it was generally called) has in recent years been celebrated as a pioneering contribution to modern design, and even as an example for all artistic endeavor. Peter Stansky’s contention that “how we view the world, and how it should look, changed in the 1880s under Morris’ influence” is not the most exaggerated of the new claims for his importance.


Stansky’s view of Morris’s stature is affectingly personal. His book is influenced more by Morris himself—especially, perhaps, by his eloquent, sweeping lectures—than by modern political thought, or the study of art. There is no analysis of utopianism in his book, or any critical consideration of Morris’s artistic work; yet a utopia, as Morris implies, is most properly tested by the art it might produce. Norman Kelvin’s edition of the collected letters also has a heartfelt air, in this case because he has wished to come closer to Morris than his subject allows. For if Morris is an inspiration to many, and tended to be the dominant voice in any group, he is still curiously without a distinctive human flavor.

Kelvin admits his disappointments in searching through archives to complete our knowledge of Morris’s correspondence. Although he has found hundreds of letters that have not been previously published or were given only in part by earlier biographers he has to lament that Morris says so little about his literary contemporaries; that he seems not to have written much to Burne-Jones, his closest friend; and that we do not learn more of his feelings for his wife—to whom we might expect many letters, since they were so often separated. This volume of Kelvin’s edition ends in 1880, before Morris’s conversion to socialism. His political views therefore seem muted, and an unusual emphasis is placed on the seven years of his Liberal period.

Morris first took a public interest in politics in 1876, at the time of the “Eastern Question,” the political issues consequent on the collapse of the old Ottoman empire and the disputes between Russia and Turkey. He became treasurer of the Eastern Question Association, took a leading part in the National Liberal League, and campaigned for the Liberals in the 1880 general election. Morris’s later accounts of the Liberals as, for instance, “a party without principles or definition, but a thoroughly adequate expression of English middle-class hypocrisy, cowardice and shortsightedness,” have tended to obscure his political views at this period. They are nonetheless interesting and perhaps are due for reappraisal. Morris’s next biographers will find much other useful material in the correspondence of the 1870s. Many letters are concerned with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Morris’s vehicle for his campaign against the crude restorations so common in the Gothic Revival. And the long series of questions and instructions concerning the running of the Firm will be carefully examined by the growing number of design historians who believe that the Arts and Crafts movement was the most healthy strain in late-nineteenth-century art—a more robust growth (they believe) than the contemporary aestheticism or any emergent modernism.

Such historians will not however be as numerous as those of us who wish to know about Janey Morris. There is a view that Morris and his noisy comrades turned her into an invalid. Kelvin does not believe that she was rendered delicate by their horseplay. He does not like her. He is quite prepared to accept the theory that, encouraged by her family, she married Morris for purely financial reasons, and he believes that the marriage was bleak from beginning to end, largely because of her “intimacies with other men…which began early and lasted into the 1890s.” Kelvin states that Janey neglected, indeed “could not tolerate” her daughter Jenny, who was an epileptic, and that Morris felt guilt over his wife’s unnatural attitude toward her, perhaps because he feared that Jenny’s fits were inherited from his own ungovernable rages.

These family problems were probably most acute during the late 1870s. Morris had already suffered from Janey’s affair with Rossetti, a liaison that had begun by 1869 and lasted until 1875. During much of this period Rossetti lived with Janey in the house Morris had leased, Kelmscott Manor, which to Morris was “a heaven on earth” on the Thames above Oxford, where the river winds between sedge and pasture and the villages are of gray-rose Cotswold stone. Morris stayed apart from his wife and her lover, looking after the Firm in London and traveling to Iceland, which from his letters sounds remarkably inhospitable, in search of the material that would produce his translations and imitations of Norse literature.

Morris had too much bluff dignity to be humiliated, but it cannot have been easy for him to see his wife as the subject of Rossetti’s unenergetic passion, both in poems and in such paintings as La Pia de Tolomei. This illustrates a story in Dante’s Purgatory of a wife imprisoned in a fortress by her husband. Rossetti’s version, which is one of the more convincing of his paintings, shows Janey under a fig tree, moodily tugging at her wedding ring while ivy seems to be growing over her. The fig tree is the emblem of fruitfulness; ivy, of life in death.


Unsurprisingly, Morris’s letters to his wife at the time of her closeness to Rossetti are dutiful rather than warm. Kelvin now unveils a further infidelity of Janey’s in arguing that Morris’s socialist years were darkened by her affair with Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. This maverick politician and poet has previously been known only as a neutral, though sharp, observer of the Morris family. But Kelvin has had access to his diary, a document not available to previous biographers. At one point it recounts, “We slept together, Mrs M and I, and she told me things about the past which explain much in regard to Rossetti. ‘I never quite gave myself,’ she said, ‘as I do now.”‘ Janey told Blunt that Morris was nothing to her. “I never loved him.”

Kelvin does not say that Morris’s absorption in socialist politics was a reaction from his barren personal life: but surely a wistful view of his marriage had an effect on his utopianism. This is clearly seen in the book that describes his ideal society, a shimmering, dreamlike vision of a rural England of the future. In News from Nowhere there is a passage in which Morris’s guide through the new medieval society is reunited with his wife, who had left him because “she got it into her head that she was in love with someone else.” The episode is more saddening than touching, like many of Morris’s visions of the future. And in reading his flat, apologetic, mundane correspondence one comes to another sadness. The energetic optimism of his persona was deceptive. The impression given by these letters is of a man who had been changed as he approached the end of his twenties—his sensibility made harder and duller by unhappiness.

We can say of Rossetti’s, Ruskin’s, or Swinburne’s letters that they resemble gifts more than messages. This is no doubt a general sign of a good correspondent. But the open private exchanges between such men also promoted the web of contacts, and ideas, in the Victorian intellectual community. As more of these letters are published we discover ever richer patterns of allegiance and inspiration. In this respect Morris, reserved where the others are spontaneous, stands rather apart from his contemporaries. Hence it is now difficult to trace the growth of his hostility to fine art and the liberal intellectual inquiry of the time. This is a strain in his biography too often overlooked. After the 1850s there is scarcely a mention of any painting in his letters, and little talk of any building, though he believed architecture to be the queen of the arts. Even an expedition to Venice seems not to have stirred him. Perhaps Morris preferred the notion of art to works of art. In any case, it seems that even before he became a socialist he had willed the eventual disappearance of the fine arts, along with the people who appreciated them. Later on, in News from Nowhere, we read that the National Gallery is to be kept open only as “a place where pictures are kept as curiosities.” And Oxford is reviled, from the vantage point of a future ideal society, because in the nineteenth century it had been “the breeding place of a peculiar class of parasites, who call themselves cultivated people.”

Morris intended News from Nowhere to be taken seriously, and it would be wrong to treat such remarks only as jibes in a background of otherwise pleasant fantasies. They express his distrust both of personal creative expression and learning. Peter Stansky’s able survey of the Arts and Crafts movement approvingly reports Morris’s frequent denunciations of art that was the property only of “plutocrats” and the cultivated parasites of Oxford. But it does not follow that such art ought not to exist. Stansky’s book is weakened by its uncritical acceptance of Morris’s position. He is also liable to confuse benign social intentions with artistic quality, and does not consider—as though the problem had never occurred to him—that it is quite possible to prefer paintings to wallpapers.

This said, his book is a useful guide to the voluntary organizations of artistic tradesmen of the 1880s and 1890s, the Century Guild, the Art Workers’ Guild, and the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, whose aim, as Walter Crane put it, was “to turn our artists into craftsmen and our craftsmen into artists.” Read in conjunction with William Morris and the Middle Ages, by Joanna Banham and Jennifer Harris, it gives a wide view of the minor arts after the middle of the nineteenth century. But Banham and Harris’s book is an exhibition catalog, with a comprehensive approach to sources and parallels. Since they compare Morris’s work with that of others associated with medieval revival, there is no place for hero worship, and he appears less of an innovator. We are asked to see how he fits with earlier periods of taste. Banham and Harris point out that Pugin had already started a movement toward unified interior design and they point out that Webb’s Red House was not entirely original. And the imitative medievalism of the exhibits in the 1862 International Exhibition (where the Firm first made its successful appearance) should, in the gentle words of these authors, “come as a surprising corrective to the idea of Morris as a pioneer of modern design.”

Studies of Morris are in need of a number of other correctives. One unexamined problem is that of his indebtedness to Ruskin. In 1892 Morris’s Kelmscott Press issued a reprinting of the chapter “The Nature of Gothic” from The Stones of Venice. Morris’s preface declared that “in future days it will be considered as one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of this century.” This was an act of homage; and, since Ruskin had written in this chapter of the felicity that should accompany labor, it indicates a shared belief in the well-being of workmen. But Morris had been obliged to take “The Nature of Gothic” away from the argument of its parent work. For Ruskin’s admonitory epic, written in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions, was in a precise sense reactionary. The Stones of Venice represents a Toryism that had all but disappeared after its defeats at the time of Catholic emancipation in 1829 and the Reform Bill of 1832. Morris’s political views were the obverse of Ruskin’s, not their extension: Ruskin loathed both liberalism and democracy. It is by no means clear that the younger man even read Ruskin after 1862; and perhaps Ruskin, the Slade Professor who introduced the study of art to the university, was one of the Oxford parasites whom Morris believed would be swept away in the revolution.

One of Morris’s letters speaks sourly of Ruskin’s Oxford lectures; but, as so often, one cannot tell from it what his real feelings were. Stansky recognizes Ruskin’s Toryism, but still believes that Ruskin and Morris were comrades. This cannot be so. It is more likely that their views have been so long confounded because they both lent themselves to the cause of English working-class self-education at the turn of the century.

This Issue

April 25, 1985