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

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.”