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

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Birth of a Historical Rumor

My friend Tucker recently sent me an excerpt from Bill Bryson's wonderful book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life. It refers to Morris's visit to the Great Exhibition of 1851, a display of the industry and products of “All Nations”, along with some statues, all housed in the glass and iron Crystal Palace in Hyde Park:

“William Morris, the future designer and aesthete, then aged seventeen, was so appalled by what he saw as the exhibition's lack of taste and veneration of excess that he staggered from the building and was sick in the bushes.” p32

This snippet delighted me, but not for the reasons my friend expected. Every other source I'd read reported only that young Morris sat outside of the Exhibition in a principled sulk. Perhaps the vomitous version was a historical rumor, ready to be rooted out.

Bryson has a handy 'Notes and sources' document on his website, which directed me to Liza Picard's Victorian London. Indeed, on page 137 of her book, Picard tells the same story: “He so deeply, viscerally, deplored the examples of modern taste on view there that he had to leave, and be sick outside.” So what was Picard's source? It's not obvious, since there's not a direct footnote. But I did manage to find an earlier occurrence of the story. The claim that seventeen-year-old Morris was “violently sick” outside of the Crystal Palace appears in two architectural Journals, in 1951 and 1952.

I've been hard-pressed to find it anywhere else, though my online search queries have been lots of fun. (“William Morris, vomited, Crystal Palace” being a particular favorite.) Does this mean that Picard found the story in one of these two journals, or is there another source that describes Morris's digestive misadventures? I will have to ask her someday. But the point of this post isn't to point the blaming finger at Bryson or Picard, it's to affirm how easy it can be to make mistakes when writing or speaking about the past. In fact, even Edward Burne-Jones, one of Morris's best friends, mis-reported facts about his early friendship with Morris. (More on Burne-Jones and his memory soon!) If anyone has more information about this story, especially any other instances of it that I haven't listed here, I'd be thrilled to hear from you!

(Photo officially depicts 'contempt' and is from one of Charles Darwin's books. Via "Last Word on Nothing".)

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