William Morris: His Philosophy and Working Practices

This essay is going to look at the life of William Morris and his working practices by analyzing his writing and historical and social background, and discuss to what extent Morris’s actual practices reflected his views on social and artistic reform. William Morris and the Victorian Britain William Morris is one of the most famous British designers of the 19th century. Although his reputation today relies on his textile designs and decorative arts business, he was actually far more than just a designer. He was a poet, writer, socialist, and activist.

Morris was born in Walthamstow, a rural area in East of London, on 24th March 1834. His father, William Morris Senior was a bill broker, and the Morris family was relatively wealthy in the society at the time (Harvey and Press, 1996). Morris was born into the period, which is referred as the Victorian era. This period is highly significant in British history because it is when Britain took its first step towards modernization by the industrial revolution and the expansion of the British Empire. The society at the time was changing rapidly because of the invention of machineries.

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It enabled cities to grow more rapidly and become more urban. The invention of steam power was led by the birth of the stagecoaches and steam ships, and it changed the whole situation of the society by improving communication links (Sussman, 2009). Although the industrial revolution contributed to the development of the society, it certainly had a negative effect as well. As a result of the industrial progression and the urbanization, Britain saw a rapid increase in population, and it stimulated the serious problem of the widening gap between rich and the poor. (Sussman, 2009)

The Victorian industrial society and Morris’s ideal The Victorian era was definitely the era of massive progress in terms of economical and industrial development, however, behind the glory of the modernization, there was opposition happening at the time as well. While the society was rapidly becoming urbanized and mechanized, the rise in the interest in medievalism and the past, especially in the Art and Design sphere was becoming significant. Design from the middle ages was slowly gaining in popularity, and the idea that design reflected the ethical values was spreading.

William Morris was definitely playing an important role in this ‘anti-modernization’ movement. Burdick (1997, p. 4) mentions in his writing that Morris said in his lecture one day: “Apart from my desire to produce beautiful things…the leading passion of my life is hatred of modern civilization. ” Clearly, Morris’s motivation for creation was his strong passion for going against the trend of Victorian society. He was concerned about degraded taste of the industrial society, and his passion was to revive the beauty of the art in everyday life.

He believed that there was a strong relationship between quality of art and social tendency, and he thought that he could embellish the world by altering the tastes of society. His theory was that “healthy art was not possible in an ill society” (Burdick, 1997, p. 7), and that was to say that bad design directly reflected moral decay of the society. An encounter with John Ruskin Morris started to gain the idea of social criticism through an encounter with various artists and thinkers, and it is possible to say that John Ruskin is the most influential person of all in terms of the formation of Morris’s ideal.

Ruskin, a social thinker and also an artist himself, argued that the industrial society was morally decaying, and it was forcing the working class into poverty, both culturally and materially (Harvey and Press, 1996). It was also Ruskin’s belief that a man can only fulfil himself through work, and he was against the trend of the industrial society, that to force workers to do monotonous tasks (Harvey and Press. 1996). Ruskin strongly believed that one should learn practical details before designing or producing a product.

Following Ruskin, Morris began to displace the way of specialization in labour characteristic in the industrial society, as he grew older. In his writing, he says: “For the lesson Ruskin here teaches us is that art is the expression of man’s pleasure in labour; that it is possible for a man to rejoice in his work…that unless man’s work once again becomes a pleasure to him, the token of which change will be that beauty is once again a natural and necessary accompaniment of productive labour, all but the worthless must toil in pain. (Harvey and Press, 1996, p. 196) It is clear that Ruskin was the one who was significant for the formation of Morris’s ideal. Ruskin had a very strong opinion about the degraded morality of the society, and also he was concerned about the value of art, particularly the Decorative art being disregarded (Harvey and Press, 1996). Morris reinforced his view on situations of art and craft world at the time through reading of Ruskin, and he eventually came to succeed to Ruskin’s philosophy.

Morris and his friends started to see themselves as a ‘medieval brotherhood’; which later Edward Burne-Jones, who was the member of the brotherhood, said that it was “Holy warfare against the age” (Burdick, 1997). Morris began to hate the perfectionism of mechanical mass production. It was his concern about the Victorian hierarchy that eventually drove him to admire the medieval art. Establishment of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. William Morris wrote in preface of Art and Craft Essays, “The position which we have to face then is this: the lack of beauty in modern life (of decoration in the best sense of the word). (Members of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, 1977, p. vii) He claimed that the lack of beauty in the society was only recognised by minority of people, and that was the factor that made him to create beautiful things in order to take up the forgotten value of traditional, genuine art. He particularly mentioned about Decorative art, stating that the most important side of art was the decoration of utilities and mundane things, and it could only be completed by “furnishing them with genuine artistic finish in place of trade finish” (Members of the Arts and Crafts

Exhibition Society, 1977, p. xiii). Morris’s intention was to change the public’s appreciation of the decorative arts, and by doing so, to transform the society. This philosophy became the foundation of his firm, which later established as Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. in 1861 (Meynell, 1947). A revival of Decorative art in Victorian Britain was already in progress when Morris started his firm; the Great Exhibition was held in 1851, and since then mass-produced home decor and furniture was becoming the mainstream (Burdick, 1997).

Various kinds of revivals were booming in Victorian era; Gothic, Italian Renaissance and such were all making comebacks, and there was no particularly distinctive style. The notion of beauty in furniture and design at the time was completely different from what Morris was aiming for. Maynell (1947) says, “… The domestic horrors of the British home round about the 1860’s – the niggling monstrosities in furniture and design, the shocking colours; costliness, not beauty, ornateness, not line, being the only criterion of value then. ”

It is obvious that, to Morris’s taste, Victorian rooms were too gaudy and uncomfortable. Burdick (1997, p. 65) states that Morris once said, commenting on the degraded taste of society, “Shoddy is king”. It was not only the degraded taste but also the method of production that drove him to be against mass-produced decor. Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. produced wide range of products such as furniture, wallpaper, stained glass and so on, and their method of production was opposite from the trend of mass production which heavily relies on machinery.

It was also Morris’s belief that the artist or designer should be familiar with the whole process of production and materials used, and the artist, designer and craftsman should be seen as a unity (Harvey and Press, 1996). Morris & Co. was against the separation of design and an actual production process, and no major factory labour was included (Burdick, 1997). Morris himself was also heavily involved in every production process, especially in the ones on textiles and wallpapers.

Morris’s design – rebellion against the modern civilization William & Co. ’s products designed by William Morris have distinctive style to them; most of his design feature patterns from nature. It is to say that the source of inspiration is originated from his childhood. Morris was born in the Epping Forest which is just miles away from London, and he grew up seeing both industrial and rural side of society (Burdick, 1997). By being brought up in English countryside, Morris acquired an affection of nature and gained his sense of beauty.

Morris produced many nature-inspired products, from flower-patterned wallpapers such as Chrysanthemum (Fig. 1), to textiles such as Lily Carpet (Fig. 2). These flowery patterns are signature design of Morris, and its delicacy and elegance differ from manufactured or mass-produced products, which were common at the time in the Victorian era. Not only printed products and textiles, Morris & Co’s furniture had a distinctive style as well. Victorian furniture, such as the one exhibited in the Great Exhibition (Fig. ), was generally gaudy and neither function nor sustainability was regarded. On the other hand, Morris & Co’s furniture was designed to be simple. A table (Fig. 4), which was one of the firm’s most popular products, well reflects Morris’s belief that “style and ornament should never compromise utility” (Burdick, 1997, p. 68). Fig. 1: Chrysanthemum Wallpaper, William Morris, 1876 Fig. 2: Lily Carpet, William Morris, 1877 Fig. 3: Mechi’s oriental and inlaid bagatelle table, date unknown Fig. 4: Table, Morris & Co. , date unknown

His hatred of modern techniques and admiration for the past led him to explore old traditional hand dyeing methods. Single Stem (Fig. 5) is one of his famous prints which he used ancient herbal dye method. He started exploring different kinds of dyes from vegetable dyes to wood dyes from the Middle Ages, but they were unsatisfactory due to the colour results, so he began to experiment with indigo and herbal dyes (Henderson, 1967). Morris reported to have said, “Some of the wood-dyes are very beautiful in colour; but unluckily none of hem permanent, as you may see by examining the beautiful stuffs of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries…” (Henderson, 1967, p. 158) This quotation suggests that he was consulting the designs from the Middle Ages. He was also interested in the method of dyeing; he did a lot of experiments by himself, and his arms were famously blue with dyes (Burdick, 1997). Fig. 5: Single Stem, Morris & Co. , date unknown A man of contradiction Morris was groping for the way of applying the traditional value of fine art to the production of decor pieces throughout his life.

However, on the other hand, his life is full of contradictions. Duchess of Hamilton et al (2006, p. 25) state in their writing, “He was a rough-edged radical whose religious parents were respected members of the higher bourgeoisie; a dreamer who was intensely practical; ruggedly masculine, yet with a delicate sensitivity; …a man of the people who often preferred places to humankind; a socialist who was a successful manufacturer; a countryman who lived most of his life in town; a self-confessed unbeliever who made stained-glass windows for churches. Indeed, his life was full of paradoxes. Henderson (1967, p. 368) argues, “Morris’s social theory of art had little relation to his actual practice”.

Although he was a socialist, he designed products for houses of wealthy capitalists or liberal politicians, and he was also involved in the production of stained glass for churches, which he had never got himself involved with. Another thing to note is that, although Morris insisted, “…art should be ‘a joy to the maker and to the user’” (Henderson, 1967, p. 68), it appears that there was no way Morris could know whether if workmen who printed his designs were happy with the working condition because most of his designs were printed without Morris’s supervision. It may appear as hypocrisy, however, as a businessman, he had to meet the demand of the time. Morris was struggling between his ideal and reality throughout his career. As he was running the firm, he started to find it extremely difficult to extend his way of working, which is time-consuming, to all workers in the firm.

And it also troubled Morris that making all workers fully understand his idea of aesthetic was almost impossible, and eventually he realised that there was so little that he could do to free those workers from the notion of “profit-grinding society” (Burdick, 1997). As Morris himself mentioned, at the beginning, his major passion for creation was hatred of the industrial world, which lacked morals and aesthetic taste; the idea of anti-modern civilization was the source of his creation. However, it seems that the success of Morris’s decor business was dependent on the social situation, which he hated.

Morris & Co. ’s products, especially large-scaled decor were not something that working classes could afford; it was reality that only the rich could afford them. Morris declared his hatred of luxury repeatedly in his lectures, claiming that luxury is what ruined the art since the Renaissance era, and insisted that “the only hope for a rebirth of the arts of design is a return to unaffected simplicity of life” (Henderson, 1967, p. 153), however, his firm’s success could not have been realized without the rich who were wealthy enough to purchase the firm’s products.

It was after his business got off the ground that Morris finally understood that what he was aiming for could not be realized under the social condition of Victorian Britain. He felt that the key to the reformation of the art did not lay on art itself but on politics and economy. He claimed that any improvement could not be expected within the Victorian society, and insisted, “The middle and upper classes were enabled to live in luxury and idleness on the poverty and degradation of the workers.

There was only one way in which this state of things could be altered – society must be turned downside up” (Henderson, 1967, p. 289). He came to realise that the only way he could infiltrate his ideal to the Victorian public was to change the system of the society. Morris was confronted with the limit of revolt through artistic activity, and eventually shifted his interest to political area when the firm became highly profitable and stable on financial ground in the late 1870’s (Burdick, 1997).

It was contradiction within Morris himself that eventually drew his attention to socialism. Conclusion Morris was one contradictory man, who was dreaming about the past and yet looking for a hope for the future in social alternation. I believe that Morris’s principles were well reflected on his attempts as a designer at his firm. His idea of anti-modernization and traditionalism were shown in his method of production; his heavy involvement in production process and diligent study of medieval art methods are remarkable.

However, the fact that Morris’s success as a designer and businessman could not have been accomplished without the Victorian society is in conflict with his own ideal. Living in a capitalist society, he had to deal with this contradiction, however, as an artist, he failed to overcome the dilemma. Morris’s principle was reflected in the actual working methods and design outcomes to some extent; however, I must say that his principle contained many paradoxes as well when it comes to the actual practices.

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