William Morris, the great 19th century volcano

William Morris was born on 24 March, 1834. Happy birthday to the great 19th century designer and social reformer. He had volcanic energy and was one of the most famous men of his age. He did so much that it was said that he died of being William Morris.

 The extraordinary thing about him – the William Morris thing – was that he combined a huge passion for design and making with a passion for poetry and for social revolution. Visual artists are often poor with words, writers sometimes have no visual sense, and many people wedded to politics are philistines. William Morris had it all.

It wasn’t always easy. In the 1880s, when he became committed to the overthrow of capitalism, he left his design business to others while he demonstrated, propagandized, made speeches and organised the Socialist League.

His legacy is both artistic and political. His designs soon became popular and they have remained so. By the time of his death in 1896, every artistic household and institution had Morris wallpaper, Morris fabric and Morris furniture, and for pottery they went to his friend William de Morgan. Morris & Co. continued until the second world war and when they closed their designs were bought and stayed in production. Now, for his birthday, the excellent Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has brought out a range of horrible William Morris merchandise (pictured), printing his fabric patterns on cups and plastic trays.

Although Morris’s patterns were popular, his political ideas were not.  Few of his fans could reconcile the Daisy, Hyacinth, Chrysanthemum and Strawberry Thief designs with revolutionary socialism, and after his death the politics became separated from the style. Well they might, because there is no real connection. Of course, the essence of the Arts and Crafts Movement was the idea that the art of an epoch was an expression of its moral condition and that the factory system was bound to produce poorly-made and ugly things. But design reform progressed apace under capitalism and social reform went forward on another path.

Fitzwilliam Museum: exit through the gift shop

Morris’s insistence on the hand-made was also wrong-headed. Thorstein Veblen, in The Theory of the Leisure Class, written shortly after Morris’s death, reckoned that if the workman was to maintain even the standard of living he had in 1899, and if he was to make everything by hand, he would have to work 200 hours a week. (There are 168 hours in a week.) Advances in design and quality of manufacture were brought about by revolutionizing the Arts and Crafts philosophy and adapting it to mass production. As those great designers Charles and Ray Eames put it in 1950, “The objective is the simple thing of getting the best to the greatest number of people for the least.”

I’ve written here about Morris’s rules for potters, which are unnecessarily prescriptive – everything must be made on the wheel, no turning on the lathe, no “excessive neatness”, no printing on pottery, etc, etc. Here’s an artistic project for you: make some good ceramics by hand, breaking every William Morris rule. That’s ironic. But pretending to celebrate William Morris, without any thought of Arts and Crafts principles, as the Fitzwilliam has done, is the worst sort of marketing, parting fools from their money, and is unworthy of the Museum.

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