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

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.”