I have a love/hate relationship with William Morris and I had a love/hate relationship with Fiona MacCarthy’s biography. William Morris was one of those volcanic Victorian personalities – stupendously energetic, deeply moral, highly persuasive, dazzlingly brilliant, massively influential, greatly change-making – like W. E. Gladstone, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Charles Darwin, Henry Cole, Charles Dickens and Florence Nightingale. The Victorian era threw up people like that. Morris’s energy was legendary. He did six things at once and he wanted to do everything for himself: designing, writing poetry, embroidery, wood-engraving, dyeing, printing, lecturing, preserving old buildings and revolutionary politics. Physically he was remarkable: short and stout, scruffy, loud, rapid in his movements and subject to rages, which Fiona MacCarthy thinks were a form of epilepsy because they were followed by trances and forgetfulness. When he died aged 62, his doctor said he died of being William Morris.
It’s not without significance that his first intention was to go into holy orders, and his life was a moral crusade against ugliness and injustice. He said that he was motivated by a hatred of modern civilisation. In 1861, at the age of 26, he started his company, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. with great self-confidence and rapidly won decorating and furnishing contracts for ecclesiastical and institutional buildings – one of his earliest jobs was St James’s Palace. By the time of his death in 1896, every house of taste had some Morris wallpaper or Morris furniture in it. He was the dominant influence in the Arts and Crafts Movement, which was at its height from about 1880 to 1914. He was probably a greater inspiration to the early members of the Labour Party than Karl Marx. His approach to design and manufacturing revolutionised the teaching of art in Britain and his influence was felt in the art schools right up until the end of the Second World War.
So Morris was a man of enormous significance in Britain – and, indeed overseas: he was looked up to by design reformers in Europe, America and Japan – and he’s a man whom it’s hard not to love. But he was backward-looking and he encouraged Britain to be backward-looking too. He hated modern society, hated the railways, hated the factory system, hated the city, hated the division of labour and wanted everyone to be a craftsman. His inspiration was a fantasy of the Middle Ages drawn from Chaucer and the Morte d’Arthur. His first reading was The Waverley Novels, which he had completed by the age of seven. He and his Arts and Crafts Followers were, to a large extent, gentlemen with a contempt for trade and commerce. His ideal society, as described in News from Nowhere was a fantasy of tiny craft workshops, no government, no police, no prisons, no religion, no marriage, held together by the force of public opinion in an uncomfortable anticipation of cancel culture. It was written not in his adolescence but towards the end of his life as a mature statement of his creed.
His influence as a designer is impossible to ignore. His wallpaper designs have never been out of print. He is hugely popular, though he was not unique. The revolt against the design excesses of the Great Exhibition of 1851, ornate, overblown and ugly, was actually begun by Henry Cole, the very man who organised the Exhibition. His contemporary, Owen Jones, produced a large illustrated Grammar of Ornament that advocated the flat, simple designs that Morris produced. Every designer in the 19th century read it and they continue to read it in modern editions. Jones’s protege, Christopher Dresser, went further than him and some of his designs from the 1880s are so modern-looking that they appear to have been made in the 1930s. Morris’s superficially attractive craft ideas were not accepted by all designers. Even though he was a Master of the Art Workers Guild, Lewis Foreman Day argued against the Arts and Crafts idea that every artisan should be a designer and every designer an artisan, because designing and making were specialised skills and you could not do either well if you did not concentrate on one or the other.
Graham Wallas, an admirer of Morris and later a founder of the London School of Economics, shot Morris’s economics to pieces: “Once, while I listened to him lecturing, I made a rough calculation that the citizens of his commonwealth, in order to produce by the methods he advocated the quantity of beautiful and delicious things which they were to enjoy, would have to work about two hundred hours a week. It was only the same fact looked at from another point of view which made it impossible for any of Morris’s workmen, or indeed for anyone at all whose income was near the present English average, to buy the products either of Morris’s workshop at Merton or of his Kelmscott Press.”
Fiona MacCarthy has written probably the best biography of Morris. It covers Morris as designer, poet, political activist and man. It’s subtitled “A Life for our Time”. But Morris, in my humble opinion, has nothing to offer our time. After he died, his influence on design in Britain was wholly negative and held up progress for fifty years. The initiative passed rapidly to Germany and Britain became an Arts and Crafts backwater. The design lessons had been learned and were being applied to industry. His socialism was woolly and romantic and had no practical application. His idea of a craft-based economy, which pervaded the crafts in Britain until the 1970s, was reactionary and irrelevant. MacCarthy does well with Morris’s poetry and novels, which are of variably quality, and admits that he wrote verse too easily – 1,000 lines a day was normal for him.
This is an immensely warm and readable biography of a great but flawed individual. MacCarthy’s passion for Morris and her belief in his ideals makes it a good read, though, for myself, I would have preferred a more critical account.