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

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.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Guilt of Young Morris

William Holman Hunt's The Light of the World

When William Morris went to Oxford in 1853, he met Edward Jones (later Edward Burne-Jones), and they became close friends. One morning in 1855, "just after breakfast," Burne-Jones remembered,  "he [Morris] brought me the first poem he ever made." This was The Willow and the Red Cliff. Morris read it to Jones, and to their other friends, and it was a hit. That night, or soon after, he wrote another poem, one wracked with guilt:
Dear friends, I lay awake in the night 

When I sung of the willow-tree

And I thought, as I lay awake in the light, 

Of what you had said to me.

For you remember how you had said

That I should be a poet

Ah me: it almost made me sad,

As I lay in the light, to know it.

For I knew, as every poet does,

What a poet ought to be:

Straightway before me there uprose,

My hideous sins to me.

Sweet friends[,] I pray you pray for me

To Him Whose hands are pierced

That, as, on the breast of His Mother, He,

So I on His breast may be nursed.


I consider this poem to be the first great mystery in the record of Morris's life--the mention of "hideous sins", and of failing to be "What a poet ought to be", is intriguing. Does he refer to a literal sin from his past, a transgression that he'd kept hidden, or was it something more subtle?

It's tempting to think that he felt guilty for misleading Edward and his other friends about the number of poems he'd written. He'd allowed them to think that The Willow and the Red Cliff was the first he'd ever written. It wasn't.

Sadly, we will never know what drove him to write the poem. But whatever the "hideous sins" were, they made him feel that he wasn't living up to the ideal of a poet; the poet who, in Mrs. Browning's poem, says “I seek no wages-- seek no fame:/Sew me, for shroud round face and name,/ God's banner of the oriflamme.” He may have feared instead that he was one of Browning's false poets, who boasted “we are not pilgrims, by your leave/ No, nor yet martyrs! If we grieve,/It is to rhyme to... summer eve."

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Arts & Crafts Versus Arts & Crafts

The TV channel TLC recently declared that it was “about to turn crafting on its head” with its show Craft Wars, by assembling “craft virtuosos” for “a knock-down, drag-out fight for supremacy.” As reviews roll in, it seems that the show has indeed managed to turn craft on its head, but not in quite the peppy way that TLC intended.

On the first of last month, Alexandra Lange at the New Yorker posted a scathing review of the show. In her piece, she argued that the show is an offense to all that true craft stands for, by encouraging wasteful consumption, and by separating the creation of objects from their decoration. As an example, Lange picked an episode in which people competed to make the most attractive playhouse:

The contestants … weren’t even constructing the house part: nameless team members wielded saws and hammers, while the (female) contestants added decoration to the plywood frame. It was a setup that forced them to be decorators, and it also narrowed the skill set required for a win to sewing, glueing, and painting …

It's true that this is opposed to Morris's idea of an artist-craftsman who masters every aspect of his or her trade. But does this mean that Craft Wars deserves to be dismissed as a group of people wasting their time by making things “cute”?

A blogger over at “Crafty Manalo” begs to differ. In her rebuttal to Lange's piece, she writes that it is misleading to compare small home projects and the Arts & Crafts movement writ large, then goes on to quote another commentator who summed up the potential value of the show quite well:

I too recoil a bit when glueing pencils onto a window box is lumped into the ‘craft’ category. However, I have also witnessed acquaintances of mine start out stringing beads into nice earrings and necklaces, and become motivated to learn the full spectrum of jewellery-making techniques, or set about learning to make the glass beads by hand.

If even one person is inspired to explore craft more deeply as a result of Craft Wars, the piece concludes, then “it will have served a useful purpose.”

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Passion Without Vocation

Morris's leading passion:  a "hatred of modern civilization"
Coalbrookdale by Night, Phillippe de Loutherbourg

Was William Morris possessed of that magical trait we hear so much about: passion? To understand the most popular definition of "passion" today, one needs only to read a cover letter. When a candidate writes, for example, “Good administrative practices are my passion”, or even “the study of history is my passion”, she wants to tell her potential employers that a specific thing is her vocation: don't worry, I will never get bored of the job and run off to start my own business or become a lobster fisherman in the Bahamas. If that's what passion is in the modern sense—a specific, directed, and reliable sort of vocation—then Morris was about as passionate as a piece of moldy bread.

But if by passion we mean a theme to one's life, a broad goal towards which all the many vocations are merely different paths, then Morris was passionate indeed. Later in his life Morris once said, “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.” Hypothetically, if he'd written this in a cover letter in late 1855 when he was applying to work at the office of G.E. Street, an architecture firm in Oxford, then he would never have gotten the job.

Indeed, perhaps they shouldn't have given it to him, as he'd only settled on architecture months before the beginning of the apprenticeship. For years previous to that, he'd been planning and training to enter the church. But he was so convincing about his new choice that he had many people in his life believing that architecture was his one true vocation. He wrote to his mother along those lines:

“If I were not to follow this occupation I in truth know not what I should follow with any chance of success, or hope of happiness in my work ... Perhaps you think that people will laugh at me, and call me purposeless and changeable; I have no doubt they will, but I in my turn will try to shame them, God being my helper, by steadiness and hard work. … but … I will by no means give up things I have thought of for the bettering of the world in so far as lies in me.”

Alas, architecture turned out to involve too much drudgery and exact drawing, so he switched to painting within a year, leaving G.E. Street in the dust. Was this a sign that Morris was changeable and purposeless, or was he simply seeking different types of work that suited his life's general theme, his life's passion? The latter seems most likely. After all, as he wrote to his mother, he had simple aims: “I do not hope to be great at all in anything, but perhaps I may reasonably hope to be happy in my work...”

After he failed to become a painter as well, this line from his mother's letter took on new meaning. He no longer wanted to work for decades at one thing, in order to become a decent architect or passable painter. He wanted to enjoy his work, and this he did, becoming eminently successful at many different things. He wrote poetry about the deep past, he wrote fantasy novels and Socialist lectures about the far future, and he designed fabrics and papers to beautify the present as much as possible. These projects seem scattered, but were in fact very focused. Every single one of them served one purpose: helping his fellow man to escape, or to improve, the ugliness and unfairness of Victorian civilization.  

Saturday, August 4, 2012

"the sorrow that changed and changes my life"

Charles Eliot Norton in 1903

When Morris returned from Iceland in the fall of 1871, he wrote a long letter to his accomplished American friend, Charles Eliot Norton. Norton, a well-known editor*, had been in Italy with his wife Susan, but was now traveling North. Morris wrote: “Please give my kindest remembrances to Mrs. Norton and the rest of your party … I hope, but don't expect that you will enjoy Berlin—” **

Indeed Norton did not enjoy Berlin at all. In fact he never reached it, because in Dresden his wife died in childbirth. From that moment onwards, he was a changed man: his happiest times would now belong to the past.

Returning to the United States without his wife, he saw his country in a new light. He took no pleasure in coming home: the steamer journey across the ocean had just increased the “material distance between me and the best part of my life”, he wrote. The memories of his time in Italy had become “the secret treasure” of his life; his lonely existence in the US, by contrast, was bare. Perhaps this emotional dichotomy was what allowed him to make a cool, critical analysis of his home country, at a time when so many others were blindly patriotic.

A year after Susan's death, Norton wrote to Henry James in a reflective mode. His letter touched on the subject of the United States, and its relative greatness when compared with the rest of the world:
No doubt there is great & restless vivacity of mind, much brightness of surface; & certainly there are many virtues to be found, even in the newest & roughest sets (at least Bret Harte, our latest immortal, so assures us,)—and Cambridge is no doubt as near the centre of the earth as any place so far north can possibly be. But it is a barren & solitary earth,—and it would be a wretched and unworthy patriotism, or a mere love of paradox, or an unmanly timidity and self distrust, that would hinder one who has known the best, from saying distinctly, “this is not the best & will not in our time be the best.”

Before the tragedy, Norton had been a dear friend to Morris and his circle, but he was sometimes a bit neglected. Edward Burne-Jones wrote to Norton just before the disaster, apologizing for forgetting to write, and pointing out that Morris was just as negligent in writing: “He behaves as badly to you as I do—fifty-two times a year we say to each other 'Have you written to Norton?' ” ***

Although Norton changed after the disaster, his friendship with the circle became closer than ever, and he was clearly less neglected. Georgiana, Burne-Jones's wife, explained the shift: “from that time [Susan's death] our sympathy with her husband changed affection into devotion.'There was no need for you to be dearer to your friends,' Edward wrote to him, 'but you will be.'

*  His distinguished career as a Harvard Professor had not yet begun.
**  From letter #154 in The Collected Letters of William Morris, Vol. I, edited by Norman Kelvin.
***  See page 23 of linked text. Georgiana's quote can be found on page 27.

Monday, July 23, 2012

William Morris's Great Weakness

Morris's Oxford Union mural, How Sir Palomydes Loved La Belle Iseult with Exceeding
 Great Love out of Measure, and how She Loved Him Not Again but Rather Sir Tristram

Morris struggled with the figures in his mural.

In 1856, at the age of twenty-two, William Morris decided to become a painter. It's not a coincidence that this decision came after just a few months of friendship with one of his heroes, the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. At the time, Rossetti had very forceful views, which placed painters above everyone else. According to a friend of his, he claimed that if “any man had poetry in him, he should paint it.” Morris found Rossetti's arguments irresistible, and by July he was writing: “Rossetti says I ought to paint... now as he is a very great man, and speaks with authority and not as the scribes, I must try...” He would never succeed, and his attempts would often drive him wild with frustration.

Very little evidence survives of Morris's long struggle with figure sketching and painting. Morris would be pleased with this situation: indeed, he probably destroyed many of his early works himself. The only canvas painting spared, La Belle Iseult, is good enough to suggest that he was a fine painter, but it was worked on by a number of Morris's friends, including Rossetti, after it left his hands. To Morris's dismay however, an unflattering example of his figure painting did survive, and can be seen to this day.

When Rossetti gathered a group of artists to paint murals in the new Oxford Union building in 1857, Morris agreed to do one of the panels. After being mocked for his figure of Iseult, who apparently looked like an “ogress”, Morris altered the painting, and covered over much of the panel with a twisting thicket of plants and sunflowers. The result was a huge swathe of green, with the rather crude faces of the lovers Tristram and Iseult peeping out in the upper right corner, and the jealous Sir Palomydes watching them from the left.

Morris was embarrassed by the result, writing twelve years later “I believe it has some merits as to colour, but I must confess I should feel much more comfortable if it had disappeared from the wall, as I'm conscious of it being extremely ludicrous in many ways.” When he wrote those words, his wish was coming true. The murals were fading rapidly, and were very difficult to see. It was only later that a restoration revealed the original in all of its awkward glory.

This experience pushed Morris ever closer to the decorative arts, for although he disliked his wall mural, he was very pleased with his ceiling design, a flowing pattern that was very capably done. Sadly, this pattern can't be seen any more, as Morris re-painted the ceiling to a new design in 1875.

If you haven't been to see the Oxford Union Murals, then watch this video prepared by Oxford Brookes University. It was filmed at night, so the murals—normally hard to see for all the sunlight—come out beautifully. They focus on a few of the murals, including Rossetti's and Morris's, while Dr. Christiana Payne and Nancy Langham discuss them.

Unattributed Morris quotes in today's post come from Norman Kelvin's The Collected Letters of William Morris, Vol I. 
The Ogress comment was made by Val Prinsep, and can be seen in Fiona MacCarthy's biography, William Morris: A Life for Our Time.
To read more about Morris's canvas painting, see Jan Marsh's article "La Belle Iseult" in the Summer 2011 edition of the Journal of William Morris Studies. (Vol XIX, Number 2)
There's also a master's thesis on the topic of the murals, here.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Morris and the Machine

The 1893 Chicago World's Fair Machinery Hall
via http://industrialartifactsreview.com/
Standing in the Machinery Hall of the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, Henry Adams, Great-Grandson of the second President of the United States, suddenly realized that science and machinery had “electrocuted Santa Claus.” William Morris died in 1896, just three years after Adams's realization, and already there were signs that “the machine” was coming to dominate human minds and lives. Automobile development was blooming, H.G. Wells's Time Machine came out in 1895, and in 1896, a wireless telegraphic message (precursor to the radio), was successfully sent nearly nine miles across the Bristol channel.

It's easy to think that Morris wasn't ready for the 20th century; that it was somehow fitting for him to pass away before the next wave of technology engulfed the wealthy part of the world. After all, he'd spent most of his life battling the ugly effects of industrialization. He'd even said himself that the leading passion of his life, apart from a desire to make beautiful things, was a “hatred of modern civilisation.”

But he's often misunderstood in this sense. Although he had been among the first Victorians to decry the loss of old ways of life, he was more pragmatic about it than many of us realize. In his 1888 essay, “The Revival of Handicraft,” he gently mocked those who would have everything done by hand, without regard for the craftsmen doing the work: “it is not uncommon to hear regrets for the hand-labour in the fields, now fast disappearing from even backward districts of civilized countries. The scythe, the sickle, and even the flail are lamented over … although I must avow myself a sharer in the above-mentioned reactionary regrets, I must at the outset disclaim the mere aesthetic point of view which looks upon … the reaper, his work, his wife, and his dinner, as so many elements which compose a pretty tapestry hanging.”

He did think that machine labor was degrading, but he laid the blame for this at man's door, and pointed out (in another lecture) that machines could relieve degradation as well as create it: “I have spoken of machinery being used freely for releasing people from the more mechanical and repulsive part of necessary labour; and I know that to some ... machinery is particularly distasteful, and they will be apt to say you will never get your surroundings pleasant so long as you are surrounded by machinery. I don't quite admit that; it is the allowing machines to be our masters and not our servants that so injures the beauty of life nowadays...”

These concessions were limited: his long-term hope was for the reign of Socialism, the simplification of life, and the limitation of machinery once again. But in the the short-term, he quite admitted that “as an instrument for forcing on us better conditions of life, it [machinery] has been, and for some time yet will be, indispensable.”  

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Drunken Promise to Tennyson

Portrait of Tennyson, by Millais.
A figure who inspired upstanding behavior...

William Morris's friend, William Allingham, was an Irish man of letters with a penchant for collecting famous friends. He was also a devoted keeper of diaries. As a result, his unfinished autobiography, "William Allingham, a Diary" is an amazing resource, sprinkled with tales of Morris, Rossetti, Carlyle, and Tennyson.

This is one of my favorite stories from the diary, a re-telling of a story that Tennyson had told Allingham:
I was at an hotel in Covent Garden, and went out one morning for a walk in the Piazza. A man met me, tolerably well-dressed but battered-looking. I never saw him before that I know of. He pulled off his hat and said, “Beg pardon, Mr. Tennyson, might I say a word to you?” I stopped. “I've been drunk for three days and I want to make a solemn promise to you, Mr Tennyson, that I won't do so any more.” I said that was a good resolve, and I hoped he would keep it. He said, “I promise you I will, Mr. Tennyson,” and added, “Might I shake your hand?” I shook hands with him, and he thanked me and went on his way.” 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

One Good Thing to Come out of America

An Attack on a Galleon by Howard Pyle. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

This year, The Delaware Art Museum turns 100. Their excellent collection of Pre-Raphaelite art didn't join the museum until 1935, so the only works to fully celebrate the centennial this year are about a hundred pieces by a single artist: Howard Pyle. Pyle was an American illustrator, artist and author. His art formed the heart of the new “Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts” collection in 1912, after his grieving friends and students banded together to create an institution in his memory.

His illustrations for magazines and books were very well known in his lifetime, drawing praise from American and European artists alike. Vincent Van Gogh was especially taken with his drawings of an old-time Quaker village in Harper's Magazine in 1881, which he thought “astounding”.

Pyle is perhaps best known for his collection of tales, “The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood”, which was published in 1883. Although the story of Robin Hood dates from the medieval period, and had been partially treated by the famous author Sir Walter Scott, Pyle's book was entirely devoted to the outlaw, one of the earliest books to do so in a popular fashion. It was a hit.*

The book even reached England, and found its way into the discerning hands of William Morris. It was right up Morris's street, and not just because of its sympathetic treatment of the tales. Pyle had carefully designed the whole book, which included flourishes of medieval manuscript motifs and sixty-one of this own illustrations. According to art critic Joseph Pennell, Morris had “thought up to that time [that] … nothing good artistically could come out of America." Pyle's beautiful, Romantic book changed Morris's opinion: he was “impressed greatly”.

So when I say Happy 100th birthday to the Delaware Art Museum, I mean to say happy birthday as well to the seed of its collection: Pyle's swashbuckling, adventuresome illustrations and paintings.

*No such luck for many others, including John B. Marsh's version from 1865.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Life is Fun! Grow Tall!

Bradbury in 1975 (Photo by Alan Light)

In honor of Ray Bradbury, who passed away on Tuesday night at the age of 91, I thought I'd share a clip from his Paris Review interview from 2010:

That’s what we have to do for everyone, give the gift of life with our books. Say to a girl or boy at age ten, Hey, life is fun! Grow tall! I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. Burroughs put us on the moon. All the technologists read Burroughs. I was once at Caltech with a whole bunch of scientists and they all admitted it. Two leading astronomers—one from Cornell, the other from Caltech—came out and said, Yeah, that’s why we became astronomers. We wanted to see Mars more closely.

I find this in most fields. The need for romance is constant, and again, it’s pooh-poohed by intellectuals. As a result they’re going to stunt their kids. You can’t kill a dream. Social obligation has to come from living with some sense of style, high adventure, and romance.”

Morris would have agreed heartily. As a boy, he learned the romance of life from Sir Walter Scott's novels like Ivanhoe and Waverley. That excitement and love of the world drove him to become a Socialist and an activist, and to beautify his surroundings with his design firm. It also drove him to write his own fantastical stories, inspiring younger writers like J.R.R. Tolkien.

The gift continues to be passed down in an unbroken chain. Bradbury is a part of this, which means that he achieved one of his most ambitious goals: when he was twelve, he decided that he would never die. In a very important sense, he hasn't.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Our Fat Vic

I am sorry poor old Tennyson thought himself bound to write an ode on our fat Vic’s Jubilee: have you seen it? It is like Martin Tupper for all the world.” *

By the time of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887, William Morris was an ardent Socialist, and he clearly wasn't that keen on what the Queen represented. To mock her and the whole establishment of the monarchy, he had a collection of colorful nicknames for her. He called her “fat Vic” for obvious reasons; “Widow Guelph”, which drew on an old name from her family, transforming her into an ordinary widow rather than a royal; and “Empress Brown”, which saucily played on her close friendship with her servant, John Brown, after she'd become Empress of India.

Morris died the year before Fat Vic's diamond jubilee, but had he lived to see it, he wouldn't have liked it one bit.

* For the quotation, see p39 of this article.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Don't forget to get your thigh-boots...

"William Morris Climbing a Mountain in Iceland" From www.leicestergalleries.com.

The stresses of packing for my upcoming summer-long adventure, and for a move in the fall, made me sympathize with Charley Faulkner, a longtime friend of Morris's. Faulkner, despite his poor health, signed up to go to Iceland with Morris in 1871, and was probably overwhelmed when he kept getting letters like this:

“I have bought a cork bed for your use, but couldn't buy your water-proof coat without your trying it: if you get one yourself it should be that stout india-rubber stuff not the light-coloured M[agnússon] and I both have hoods to ours. Don't forget to get your thigh-boots — and order your breeches if you are going in them, as I shall. Magnússon advises us to take saddles with us after all: I have borrowed one from my mother What will you do? I have seen a second-hand one... A gun I have borrowed I think I told you. I need not warn you perhaps to take an over plus of money out....”

The Icelandic adventure ended up being great fun, but as the packing list hints, it was also quite difficult and exhausting. Faulkner was a devoted friend.

The letter excerpt is from the 1st edition of The Collected Letters of William Morris, Volume I edited by Norman Kelvin. It's p137, letter 138.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Morris's Least Favorite Scott

George Gilbert Scott's St. Pancras Station and (former) Midland Grand Hotel in London.

Sir George Gilbert Scott was the architect of some of the most beloved neo-Gothic structures in Victorian England; he was also a famous “restorer” of countless cathedrals and abbeys. But after Scott died in 1878, Morris called him “that (happily) dead dog”.

Scott's knack for extreme ecclesiastical makeovers made him some enemies, and Morris was clearly one of them. Things had started out badly between the two men - just months after Morris left Oxford's Exeter College in 1856, Scott knocked down the college's lovely Jacobean Chapel to make room for a new chapel in a gothic style – and relations never improved.

Morris hated Scott's work so much that he made it part of his own life's work to keep Scott and others away from historical buildings. In 1877, Morris proposed the formation of his “Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings” (SPAB) with an urgent letter to the Athenaeum, in which he denounced Scott by name. Shortly after, a man named Sir Edmund Lechmere sent Morris's letter along to Scott, provoking a long, thoughtful response to the criticism.

Morris's letter to the Athenaeum and Scott's letter to Sir Edmund, when read together, constitute a sort of discussion between the two men. I've arranged excerpts from their letters into a conversation, to give a sense of the conflict between Morris and Scott as it stood in 1877, one short year before Scott's death.

MORRIS: My eye just now caught the word 'restoration' in the morning paper, and, on looking closer, I saw that this time it is nothing less than the Minster of Tewkesbury that is to be destroyed by Sir Gilbert Scott.

SCOTT: You, my dear Sir Edmund, know whether I am “destroying” the church, or contemplating such treatment of it as is intended by that term. You know whether I am “hopeless, because interest, habit, and ignorance bind” me. Nay, you know whether I have obliterated a single chisel-mark of the old masons, and whether I have not, lovingly and carefully, traced out the almost obliterated evidence and relics of much of their work …

MORRIS: ...Your paper has so steadily and courageously opposed itself to these acts of barbarism which the modern architect, parson, and squire call 'restoration,' that it would be waste of words to enlarge here on the ruin that has been wrought by their hands; but, for the saving of what is left, I think I may write a word of encouragement...

SCOTT: ... painful and galling as it is, I rejoice in such letters and protests: for true—most dreadfully true—it is that what “modern architect, parson, and squire call restoration,” has wrought wholesale ruin among our ancient buildings. I have lifted up my voice on this subject for more than thirty years, and, though not faultless, have striven with all my might to avoid such errors, and to prevent their commission by others. I feel more deeply on this subject than on any other ….

I am, therefore, willing to be sacrificed by being made the victim in a cause which I have so intensely at heart.

MORRIS: What I wish for, therefore, is that an association should be set on foot to keep a watch on old monuments, to protest against all 'restoration' that means more than keeping out wind and weather, and, by all means, literary and other, to awaken a feeling that our ancient monuments are not mere ecclesiastical toys, but sacred monuments of the nation's growth and hope.” 

Photo via Beth M527 on flickr, some rights reserved.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Algernon Swinburne, Sent to the Guillotine

"A.C.S. addressing the people"
Copyright: Syracuse University Library Special Collections

Many of William Morris's friends were famous in their own right. Algernon Charles Swinburne was one of these men, becoming well-known for his poetry in the late 1860s and the '70s. Swinburne is also well-known for his eccentricities. A tiny man with an enormous head crowned by fluffy red hair, he was a sight to see. He was also restless and enthusiastic. In short, he was easy to caricature. His friend Lady Trevelyan did just that in 1861, painting a silly watercolor of him on a Republican tirade.

This sketch, “A.C.S. addressing the people”, is now in the Special Collections of Syracuse University Library, where I stumbled upon it during a mission to read some of Morris's letters. The Library has kindly agreed to let me share the watercolor, which is directly referenced in Chapter IV of William Bell Scott's Autobiographical Notes. The quote explains why the figure of Swinburne is standing in front of a guillotine:

“Louis Napoleon, or, as Swinburne called him, "the Beauharnais," was now in his glory; Victor Hugo, and others dear to all of us, were refugees. Swinburne, always possessed by some pet subject of hatred or admiration, was carried away by un-governable fury at the success of the wretched adventurer ... now settled in the Tuileries, and practised his ingenuity in inventing tirades against him, sometimes full of humour and splendour, at other times grossly absurd. Lady Trevelyan, always ready to enter into his mood, used to assist him; but learning he was going to accompany his family to France, she predicted that he would be caught by the police, and sketched the fate that awaited him. The figure of A.C.S. addressing the people was wonderfully good.”

You can contact me at clarafinley1@gmail.com if you want to see a higher resolution image. Click to see more views and thumbnails! 

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Two Beatrices: A Companion to the New-Found Rossetti

"The Salutation of Beatrice" and "Jane Morris as Beatrice"
 Left, the newly discovered oil ( 
© Christie’s Images Limited 2012.)
Right, the watercolor via Rossettiarchive.org. [copyright 
DGR 1828-1882: An Exhibition (Tokyo 1990)]

After lying hidden in a private collection in Scotland for the past century, a forgotten oil painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “The Salutation of Beatrice,” will go on sale at Christie's at the end of May. It features Jane Morris in all of her glory as Dante's love, and it's been hailed as “the finest oil portrait by the artist to come to auction in over 25 years.”

Its appearance resolves some mysteries about Rossetti's work. The first mystery comes from one of Rossetti's letters to Jane, written late July of 1869: “I want much to get the little Beatrice I was doing from you finished,” he wrote, “but the hands are in the way as I think I must alter them and all the models have such vile hands.” When this letter was published in Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Jane Morris: Their Correspondence in the late seventies, the reference to the painting was a bit confusing, because the only likely candidate for a Beatrice from 1869 didn't have hands anywhere in the picture.

A footnote tried to get around the problem : “It is difficult to identify this picture. It may be the Beatrice … which is a replica of the head of the 1870 Mariana ... Having such difficulty with the hands he may have cut down the canvas and kept the head and shoulders” But the dating of the newly emerged painting - 1869 - means that we have a much simpler, and more likely, explanation for this reference.

Another mystery was the purpose of a Rossetti watercolor, "Jane Morris as Beatrice"(Alternately titled “The Salutation of Beatrice”). Some scholars thought that it was a study for an oil painting of a completely different design. We see now that it is obviously the same design as the discovered painting. If the dating of both works is correct, the watercolor was probably a copy of the oil painting.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

May Morris's 150th Year

May Morris in a painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1872

2012 is May Morris's 150th anniversary year, an occasion that the Royal Mail (UK) marked with bringing out a stamp featuring one of her lush embroideries.

May, Morris's second daughter, was an impressive textile designer and artist in her own right; she was also a close partner to her father during his years of Socialist activity. After her parents passed away, she lived out her days at Kelmscott Manor, with her devoted companion (and possible lover) Miss Lobb.

Marjorie Breakspear, the niece of one of May's friends, wrote a beautiful account of her days living in a cottage on Kelmscott Manor's grounds, and of her memories of May. May, though quieter than the brash Miss Lobb, was evidently up for a laugh:

“...May Morris came and dug up our potatoes, and it was a good joke for her when we offered to pay her at the current rate! She accepted the money, with much laughter, and spat on it in her hands, as she had seen the farm labourers do. She also kept goats, and loved the kids, gambolling over her head and shoulders. She liked knitting, but not crochet, and her favourite colour was a soft blue.”

Happy 150th birth-year, May Morris!

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Cheeky Letter from Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson, penning some grammar corrections.
(Top, a sentence to set Stevenson's teeth grinding.)

Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and a fan of Morris's poems, drafted this letter to Morris from his estate on a Samoan island in February of 1892. The “touches of affectation and constraint” weren't normal for Stevenson, so it seems he felt uncomfortable or even nervous about writing it. In the end he couldn't bring himself to send it. This was probably for the best. Morris wasn't overly sensitive to criticism, but he didn't exactly relish it.
“Master,—A plea from a place so distant should have some weight, and from a heart so grateful should have some address. I have been long in your debt, Master, and I did not think it could be so much increased as you have now increased it. I was long in your debt and deep in your debt for many poems that I shall never forget, and for Sigurd before all, and now you have plunged me beyond payment by the Saga Library. And so now, true to human nature, being plunged beyond payment, I come and bark at your heels.
“For surely, Master, that tongue that we write, and that you have illustrated so nobly, is yet alive. She has her rights and laws, and is our mother, our queen, and our instrument. Now in that living tongue where has one sense, whereas another. In the Heathslayings Story, p. 241, line 13, it bears one of its ordinary senses. Elsewhere and usually through the two volumes, which is all that has yet reached me of this entrancing publication, whereas is made to figure for where.
“For the love of God, my dear and honoured Morris, use where, and let us know whereas we are, wherefore our gratitude shall grow, whereby you shall be the more honoured wherever men love clear language, whereas now, although we honour, we are troubled.
“Whereunder, please find inscribed to this very impudent but very anxious document, the name of one of the most distant but not the youngest or the coldest of those who honour you, 
              Robert Louis Stevenson.”

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Happy 178th Birthday, William Morris!

Our lemon drizzle birthday cake for Morris.

Today I thought I'd write about what Morris did on his 44th birthday, 134 years ago. That year, he spent his birthday at “The Grange”, home to his friends Edward and Georgiana Burne-Jones. Although it was March, it still felt like winter and snow came “with a sudden & mighty squall” at about 3PM.

His wife and teenage daughters were away in Italy, so they sent him notes and gifts through the mail. His daughter May, barely sixteen, sent him a stylish tobacco pouch. He wrote thanking her: “the shape ... is very pretty & the colour: only I ask you to put silk strings to it as cotton on cotton sets my teeth on edge: of course 'tis indigo.” It could be tough having a designer for a father.

The next night, he had a belated birthday dinner at his mother's house with his mother and his unmarried sister, Henrietta. He stayed overnight, and in the morning a servant gave him a haircut in front of his mother, sister, and a resident parrot.  Apparently, the parrot “was delighted” by these proceedings, drowning out their conversation as he “mewed & barked & swore & sang at the top of his vulgar voice.”

It was a very good birthday indeed.

All quotes from Norman Kelvin's The Collected Letters of William Morris, Volume I.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Dueling Socialists

Swinish Luxury: Edward Burne-Jones's Heart of the Rose, based on a wall hanging he'd designed for Sir Lowthian Bell.

Warington Taylor, the business manager of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Co. from 1865 until his death by consumption in 1870, was a proto-Socialist. This fact came out fairly obviously in 1866, during the firm's decoration of St. James's Palace. At this time, he wrote* to Philip Webb: “Just remember we are embezzling the public money now - what business has any palace to be decorated at all?” Morris's daughter May later claimed** that Taylor had been instrumental in Morris's conversion to Socialism. This seems to be borne out by the timing of Morris's first overtly political work- a poem called 'God of the Poor', published in 1868 at the height of his friendship with Taylor.

So, why would Morris tell John Bruce Glasier, years later, that he “never knew whether the manager [Taylor] was at all inclined favourably towards Socialism”? Morris went on to say that he'd only discovered Taylor's leanings after he died, when “suddenly a curious thing came to light.” This was a document in Taylor's private desk, an estimate for the decoration of a church. Under the item "silk and gold altar cloth", Taylor had noted “...the above item is a wholly unnecessary and inexcusable extravagance at a time when thousands of poor people in this so-called Christian country are in want of food—additional charge to that set forth above, ten pounds.” “'That,' said Morris, 'at once explained our not getting the order; but I was more than delighted that the chap had done it. You see,' he added with a chuckle, 'I had succeeded in making the dear old chap something of a Socialist after all!'”

This is a jarring departure from May's claim. It might sound like Morris was grand-standing to Glasier, and willfully mis-representing Taylor, but this version of the story fits with how Morris viewed himself. Morris believed that he had been a Socialist, in some sense, for his entire life. In his 1894 lecture “How I became a Socialist”, he wrote “Now this view of Socialism which I hold to-day, and hope to die holding, is what I began with; I had no transitional period...” Apparently, the only change had come when he joined the Democratic Foundation in 1883, and converted to "practical Socialism".

He'd always had the ideal of Socialism in his mind, he explained, even before “modern Socialism” rose up. His study of history and art, and his reading of Ruskin, had pushed him “into a hatred of the civilization which, if things were to stop as they are, would turn history into inconsequent nonsense”. Thus he claimed that “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.”

Morris may not have liked to admit it, but he had gone through a transitional period. To be sure, there's evidence that he had loved the medieval period, and hated modern civilization, from adolescence. But whether this caused him to think about the poor of Victorian England, or be inclined to Socialism from an early age is more doubtful. When he first arrived in Oxford, his friend Dixon remembered,“His manners and tastes and sympathies were all aristocratic.” Hardly promising traits for a Socialist. Even when he started the “Oxford and Cambridge Magazine” with his Oxford friends in 1855, it was a couple of his friends - not Morris himself - who seemed most interested in social issues.

In the article “Unhealthy employments”, for example, Cormell Price and Charles Faulkner wrote about the dangerous conditions suffered by match and cutlery manufacturers; and in an article attributed to Price, “The work of young men in the present age”, he asserted that “If we work with patient zeal we need not fear but that the poor will be oppressed no longer ... no longer will countless human beings herd together, day and night, in one small room”. By contrast, Morris's many of contributions of stories and poetry focused on a love and longing for the past, and betrayed no explicit interest in current social issues.

Jump forward to 1868, and Morris's strident poem “God of the Poor” presents a very different picture. The poem is about an evil, wealthy lord who treats poor people like dirt. The poem contains such cutting lines as “Twenty poor men's lives were nought/ To him, beside a ring well wrought./ The pommel of his hunting-knife/ Was worth ten times a poor man's life.” Or jump farther forward to the mid 1870's, when Morris's hatred of modern civilization had brimmed almost to the point of over-flowing. At this time, Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, one of the wealthy clients of Morris's decorating firm, found him agitatedly talking to himself, and so asked him if anything was wrong. Morris wheeled around “like a wild animal” and said “It is only that I spend my life in ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich.”

Had Taylor's personal influence, heightened by his tragic death in 1870, contributed to Morris's change; or had Morris's aesthetic hatred of his own era grown, un-helped, into a hatred of the era's inequalities? Morris claimed the latter; his daughter asserted the former. Who should we believe?

*See entry for 27 December 1866 for the reference to this letter.
** See entry for 3 March 1865 for the reference to this claim.

For the photo, thanks to: www.leicestergalleries.com