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

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

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