A blog about the famous Victorian poet, designer, and Socialist, William Morris.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

I'm Back, and I'm in Iceland

Dear Morris World,

I am back, and I am visiting Iceland. The two facts are not related, but make up a coincidence more than nice enough for a blog post. Instead of arriving by cold, heaving seas, and setting foot on the very shore of Reykjavik, as Morris did in 1871 and again in 1873, I flew into Keflavik airport, stepping out into a warm, postmodern interior with faux wood flooring and skeins of yarn in the welcome gift shop. The tourism board has arranged for (admittedly great) quotes to be painted on the walls here, like 'There are many wonders in a cow's head' or 'It's a pity we don't whistle to each other, like birds. Words are misleading'. Fish and crabs are embossed on the coins instead of old men and women with flinty, xenophobic gazes. It is a good first airport impression.

I spent thousands of krona on a sandwich and a latte (almond milk! Seemingly by default!) and sit down to think about Morris's start here. He'd come for the ancient sagas and the harsh wilderness. He'd come to escape his semi-wrecked life, in which his wife was in love with his old mentor, the artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He'd bought a new nest—Kelmscott Manor—and left those two particular birds together while he winged away to the lava wastes. He'd come to scrub his mind out with volcanic rock; to blot out his view of London with some inky mountains.

But he soon found that Iceland blotted nothing out. Far from allowing anyone to forget everything, Iceland was the blankest page, containing nothing but humans and memories:

a piece of turf under your feet, and the sky overhead, that's all; whatever solace your life is to have here must come out of yourself or these old stories, not over hopeful themselves.”

This is obvious from my very first step outside the airport: no trees, just long bleak stretches, and free-falling views all the way out to the distant mountains. The airport, far from a dominating symbol of the 21st century, suddenly feels like tenuous stake of indoor-ness, threatened on all sides by this vast exposure. If those mountains were my destination, it would be a daunting start to my journey. I had no idea it would be this dramatic. The scale of it all puts the bravery of Morris's adventure into perspective.

But he never thought of it that way. He wasn't thinking of himself, he was observing the people around him, and imagining the people who used to live there, in the saga times. He felt by turns envious of the happy simplicity of life on an icelandic farm—haymaking and brandy and salmon and curds—and sad for how “little” everything had become from the grand, savage days of the sagas.

Nor did he feel especially sad for the poverty of the Icelanders. He'd seen working men in England, and their brutalized lives, and knew who had the better lot. This trip contributed to his social thought in new and unexpected ways, and he came away thinking “the most grinding poverty is a trifling evil compared to the inequality of classes”.

Also added to his imagination were the interiors, tiny and innocent of drapery. These simple wooden places blurred the boundaries between inside and out with their turf roofs, and sometimes with ivy growing inside too. They were all small, and humble, and almost all of them were clean. This furthered his vision for the small, classless house of the future. Later in the '80s, he would write to Thomas Coglan Horsfall, “What furniture a workman can buy should be exactly the same ... as a lord buys.”

When he left after his second Icelandic journey in 1873, he felt as if “a definite space of my life has passed away,” and vowed to himself that he would be a “really industrious man: for I do not mean to return to Iceland again if I can help it.”

This trip is only my 1871 however. I hope to see more of what Morris saw in this place, and I mean to come again if I can help it. To come for an 1873, and maybe even for that third trip that he never needed or couldn't manage.

(Sources: William Morris Online Edition, John's Purkiss's The Icelandic Jaunt, and The Collected Letters of William Morris, Volume II, Part A.)

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Mark Samuels Lasner: The Collecting Life

Mark Samuels Lasner, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Delaware Library, is an authority on the literature and art of 1850-1900. He has spent years collecting thousands of items from the period, and his collection is largely housed at the University of Delaware's Morris Library, under the name of the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection

His books include The Bookplates of Aubrey Beardsley; and bibliographies of Aubrey Beardsley and William Allingham. His writings have appeared in journals such as Book Collector and Browning Institute Studies. With Margaret D. Stetz, he has co-authored books and curated exhibitions including England in the 1880s: Old Guard and Avant-Garde; The Yellow Book: A Centenary Exhibition; and London Bound: American Writers in Britain, 1870-1916.
He was the principal organizer of "Useful & Beautiful: The Transatlantic Arts of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites," a conference and related exhibitions held at the University of Delaware, Delaware Art Museum, and Winterthur in 2010. Works from his collection are frequently included in outside exhibitions as well, including the excellent show this spring, Pre-Raphaelites and the Book, which was shown alongside the Tate Britain's Pre-Raphaelite show when it visited the National Gallery of Art.

I met Samuels Lasner at his home away from home in Manhattan, The Grolier Club. Each room in this bibliophile's club, founded in 1884, seems to contain only dark wood, stately chairs, and books. The Grolier Club library contains an impressive 100,000 volumes, mostly surrounding the theme "books about books." Despite the existence of the perfectly apt "Morris Room" on the fifth floor, we met in the smaller Phillipps room instead, and began to talk about collecting, William Morris, Max Beerbohm, and the three tales that a book can tell.

Can you pinpoint a particular experience, or acquisition, which led you to become a collector?

Well, I'll go back and start with my usual story, which seems even more remarkable now as I get older than it did when it happened. I grew up in suburban Connecticut, and lived with my grandparents in a wonderful Queen Anne “summer cottage” designed in 1898 by Bruce Price, the architect of Tuxedo Park. I loved that house; in fact I might claim to have had a turn-of-the century childhood in the 1950s. The atmosphere was of the late Victorian period. Of course my grandparents were born in the 1890s.

My grandmother had an elderly friend, May Bradshaw Hays, whom we used to visit. Mrs. Hays was the daughter of Joseph Jacobs, the Australian-born British writer and folklorist. She was born in 1880 and was full of tales about growing up in London. And she had known William Morris and had visited Kelmscott House; she had known Burne-Jones; she had met Robert Browning; she remembered, as a teenager, being taken rowing by Frederick Furnivall. Mrs. Hays even claimed, and it was possible, that George Eliot had seen her as an infant.

I heard all these reminiscences, which only reinforced my love for everything about that period. When I graduated from Connecticut College in 1974, at which point Mrs. Hays was 94 years old, a box arrived. In the box were two hand-painted fireplace tiles; those were her parent's wedding present from Edward and Georgiana Burne-Jones; and four pieces of blue and white china, the remnants of the tea set that William and Jane Morris gave them. That was the moment I started to collect. And I now realize that I knew the last living person to have known William Morris. It's just astonishing. As Lorelei Lee says in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, “fate just keeps on happening”—and it keeps happening to me.

You own such treasures as Morris’s handwritten catalogue of his books, Edward Burne-Jones’s visitors book from North End House, Rottingdean, and a rare original print by Max Beerhbohm: is there a single item that you would consider to be the crowning jewel of your collection?

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Morrisian Interview Series, #2: John J. Walsdorf

John J. Walsdorf, the talented Portland-based collector and author, has been collecting William Morris and Kelmscott Press related books and ephemera for almost fifty years, while also working on other collections. He is currently the Vice President of the William Morris Society, and serves on the board of the Lake Oswego Preservation Society.

Among his many publications are a complete bibliography of the work of author Julian Symons; a book on the American printer Elbert Hubbard; and a memoir about his experiences, entitled "On Collecting William Morris," which was brought out in a fittingly beautiful, limited edition volume by The Printery. Happily, there are also records of all his impressive Morris collections, even those which have been sold on. The first collection can be found in his 1983 book William Morris in Private Press and Limited Editions: A Descriptive Bibliography of Books by and About William Morris; the second lives on in his 1994 volume, William Morris and the Kelmscott Press; and two years later, the third was preserved in Kelmscott Press: William Morris & His Circle.

I met up with him this January at the Modern Language Association conference in Boston, and it was on a cold, sunny day that we convened to the marble-floored lobby of the Fairmont Hotel. There, perched on some Queen Anne furniture in a corner dominated by a big, jungly potted plant, we began our wide-ranging chat, touching on Morris, the future of the book, and the surprises that can hide in bookstores (or even in your own collection, if it's large enough).

Your collecting career can be broken into distinct stages—might you be able to talk us through that progression a bit? How did it start?

Well, first of all, I would say that I am a life-long collector. When I was really young, 6-12, I was serious about stamp collecting, and I still have those collections. In high school, I didn’t do any formal collecting, but I did a tremendous amount of reading.

When I did my undergraduate work—and I was an English major—I started collecting books, but reading copies only. Especially American and English literature: I really liked Maugham, Hardy, Dreiser, Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But it was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison where I really got into collecting, and I started collecting fine press books and fine printing on a very, very modest budget.

I would haunt the local used bookstores, especially one in downtown Madison called Paul’s Book Store, and I would go in there and I would just spend my time looking for beautifully printed books and interesting books. It was also at graduate school that a professor of mine at the school of library science, Rachel K. Shenck, introduced me to Kelmscott Press books. She actually owned two Kelmscott Press books, and she brought them to the class, and she passed them around. And she let us handle and look at them, and I simply fell in love with the printing of the Kelmscott Press books.

And really, after that introduction, I knew I wanted to find a way to go to England. And I was lucky enough to get a job, on a library exchange position program two years after graduating from U.W. Madison: I got an exchange at the Oxford City Library.

It must have been wonderful to work in the library of such a literary city.

Yes: the wonder of Oxford was not just the buildings, nor the bookshops, nor the city of Oxford itself, but also the people.  Which leads me to my most famous encounter, and for the truth in the saying: "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

One of the patrons at the City Library was J.R.R. Tolkien, and one day I remarked to some of my colleagues at the library that I was going to send him a copy of The Hobbit to inscribe.  They thought that that was simply an unbelievable idea, the thought of sending him a copy of my book to inscribe was unheard of, at least to them.  Nevertheless I did it, and a number of weeks passed, without the return of my book.  

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Gems from Jane's Collected Letters, No. 1

Cheer up, love.
My Father and Mother never could come to a clear understanding about what had disagreed with my Father the day he lost his situation at Fothergill's. 
My Father thought it was the sausage and mashed potatoes he had for lunch at the Rose and Crown, at fourpence, and as much mustard and pepper as you liked. My Mother thought it was the beer.
There was something to be said for my Mother's view, on the score of quantity.

This is how William De Morgan's 1906 novel Joseph Vance opens, and it continues in much the same cheery vein. Jane Morris, reading it in Burford Old Hospital mere months after its release, was delighted by it, and immediately wrote a letter to De Morgan. "Dear Bill,  I don't think I have ever written you a letter before, but this is such a very grand occasion that I feel I must put pen to paper and say how happy your book has made me."

"I have not laughed so much for many a long year" she wrote, "I can't write half what is in my mind to say in praise of the book, letter-writing being a lost art with me now."

Monday, December 10, 2012

Ada Lovelace: Weaving Algebraic Patterns

On this day in 1815, Augusta Ada Byron, the future Ada Lovelace, was born to Lord Byron and Lady Noel Byron. The marriage broke down in the first few months of Ada's life, so she never met her famous father. As she grew, her intellect became obvious, and her private education taught her more math and science than was available to most of her female contemporaries.

In 1834, the year that Morris was born, Ada heard Charles Babbage lecture on the “Difference Engine,” which he'd invented, but hadn't yet built. (Although he never managed to build it, this “difference engine” was the first computer.) Ada was fascinated, and began a correspondence with Babbage. During her short but bright mathematical career, she worked and corresponded with Babbage, and wrote what's considered to be the world's first computer program, making her the world's first computer programmer.

One computing innovation that preceded the Difference Engine—or Babbage's other computer, the “Analytical Engine”—was the humble Jacquard Loom. Although it was not a computer, it could receive and execute complex commands in the form of punch cards. Morris, heralded as the father of the Arts & Crafts Movement, felt conflicted about the Jacquard loom and machinery in general, but did use the programmable loom in his silk-weaving operations.

When Ada tragically died of cancer in 1852, she was 36. Morris was just a teenager at the time, preparing to go to Oxford. The tiny overlap in their lives and work was summed up unwittingly by Ada: “We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.”

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Morrisian Interview Series, #1: Professor Florence S. Boos

Today I have the pleasure of inaugurating my exclusive Morrisian Interview Series, in which I'll be interviewing all manner of influential and fascinating Morrisians.

The first interview is with Florence S. Boos, Professor of Victorian Literature at The University of Iowa. She's often written on the works of Morris (and Rossetti), and she has brought out annotated critical editions of The Socialist Diary, The Earthly Paradise, and The Life and Death of Jason. She's the current President of the Midwest Victorian Studies Association, and Vice President of The William Morris Society in the US. She's also the editor of the forward-looking Morris Online Edition, whose contribution to global Morris related studies cannot be overstated.

Our interview took place in Iowa City one day after Obama's campaign stop there, and the same day as an important football game, so the streets were festive and crowded. We met at lunchtime, but struggled to find a quiet place: at last we settled in the back of a roomy Italian restaurant and began.

Q- I have to ask, is there a specific text or set of texts that first attracted you to nineteenth century literature?

I did always like everything that I read of nineteenth century literature, but I think very important for me was a course that covered Victorian poetry, and we read Tennyson's In Memorium, and some of the other absolutely beautiful poems of the time, on time passing and death. What was appealing about them was their visual quality, of course that is the Pre-Raphaelite quality; and then they are so musical, so metaphysical and so reflective. So, I liked that aspect of the literature, and I still like it—the combination of the musical and the intellectual. Of course one finds this quality from time to time in Victorian fiction, but I do think in the poems of Morris and those of others of his time one finds it very exquisitely.

Later, I read The Defence of Guenevere. I was a very young woman, and it was the 1960s.  It seemed to me explosively sexual, and at the time, that would have been the case because people were re-discovering erotic qualities in literature in a way that would now not be required, because they would seem more commonplace. I still think there's a dramatic intensity in The Defence of Guenevere, and a sincerity, that is unique.

Q- You edited a collection of Morris’s juvenilia in 1982. What prompted your recent return to the subject, with your forthcoming book, Art and Love Enough: The Early Writings of William Morris ?

When I was young, I wanted to write an account of Morris's development that was thorough. I felt that all the one-volume works had not addressed the complexities of his literary works. But what I actually got into print at the time was the segment on The Earthly Paradise, so that incompletion nags at me, and I'm returning to those prior topics. I've written tons of articles on the subject, so it was time to come back and see if there was a greater pattern to it all, and to deal again with the question of to what extent you can find the full development of his thought in his earlier reflections.

And I also want to do that with the later materials, too, so this is section one. If I live long enough, I'll work on the third section. I'd also like to gather together something on the Socialist writings. I was so fortunate as to find almost ten unpublished essays, and that has attracted me again to the subject of how remarkably forceful and well-stated and well-thought-out those essays are. I don't have life enough and time to try for a collected edition of Morris's prose, but that's something that has been granted Carlyle and Arnold and many of the other Victorians, and I think Morris too should should be among them. But what I’m working on are little parts towards a whole.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Richest Girl in the World

One of Doris Duke's Islamic art objects on show at the M.A.D. in New York City

Doris Duke was born in New York in 1912, to an incredibly wealthy family. She grew up on Fifth Avenue, and her beauty and wealth attracted much attention. Dubbed "the richest girl in the world," she became a celebrity as well as an heiress.

Duke soon married and became Doris Duke Cromwell, but their dream globe-trotting honeymoon became tiring as the media hounded the couple from place to place. Luckily, the harried pace of the tour didn't distract her: from the blur of daily sightseeing, one canon of art and architecture stood out clear as a flame. She was enraptured with Islamic Art.

With images of the Taj Mahal dancing in her head, she set out to extend her parent's Palm Beach home in the style of the grand mausoleum. Locals mocked her, joking about the impending “Garage Mahal”, until one day, the project was cancelled. Duke and her husband had decided to flee the media spotlight, and build their home in Honolulu instead.

Thus was born the famous house, Shangri-La, and it could be said that Duke spent the rest of her life furnishing it. She travelled the world to collect beautiful art objects like sculpted chairs, wooden chests flecked with mother-of-pearl, and delicately pierced iron lanterns, all which added to the mystique of her carefully-curated home.

While I stood in the exhibit, “Doris Duke's Shangri-La” at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City the other week, gazing at an 18th century Iranian chair, a woman beside me commented to her companion, “This reminds me of William Morris”. Yes, there was a floral pattern on the upholstery, but it was more than that. The chair had a slightly gothic shape, and the tasteful decoration was so painstakingly hand-crafted, its very existence reminded the viewer of the original artisan. There was indeed something very Morrisian about the chair.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise, since Morris admired the design of “Persian” textiles, and vastly preferred hand-crafted wooden furniture to poofy, fully upholstered pieces. It could be argued that Duke's chair is a rough intersection of the two. Perhaps if Morris had travelled farther from home than Europe or Iceland, he would have gone beyond Persian carpets, and collected more widely from the Islamic decorative arts. Because ultimately, William Morris was a collector. He may have had many other strings to his bow, but the truth is, he collected those strings before he added them.