National Portrait Gallery
16 October 2014 – 11 January 2015
If you are looking for any hint of actual anarchy or anarchism, a better grasp of how Morris’s work and art and design connected to his politics or dedication to Socialist struggle, or the ways in which this connection or a political legacy continued on through the years, this exhibition will make you just a little sad. The very limited exhibit brochure states:
…this major exhibition illustrates Morris’s concept of ‘art for the people’ and highlights the achievements of those he inspired.
And this really was about ‘art for the people’, and much of the later part of it about ‘art for the people to look at from afar’, which perhaps explains why to me it missed the greater point which always was art by the people, of the people, and how this connected to everyday labour and struggle. From his pamphlet on Art and Socialism, as paraphrased by E.P. Thompson:
Art is Man’s expression of his joy in labour
Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making, or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers
the only healthy art is ‘an art which is to be made by the people, and for the people, as a happiness to the maker and user’
William Morris became political and turned to Socialism because of and through art, because he firmly believed in these things. He wrote ‘…neutrality is impossible in man’s handiwork…a house, a knife, a cup, a steam engine…anything that is made by man and has form, must either be a work of art or destructive to art'(646 – ‘The Socialist Ideal: Art’). I think it’s telling that E.P. Thompson’s massive biography is nowhere referred to, though the earlier biography by Mackail features heavily, and the exhibition is curated by Fiona MacCarthy who has written biographies of Morris, Eric Gill and Edward Bourne-Jones. I have read none of these others so can’t be too critical I suppose, and I am sure there are some things Thompson got wrong (Janey Morris for example) but this exhibit certainly somehow stripped so much of struggle away. The description beside the photograph of George Lansbury, for example, said nothing about his prison sentence for refusing to pay rates as head of the Poplar council. I can’t help but feel that is the principal reason he is remembered and still beloved today. As for anarchy — well, I will come back to that.
All that said, I loved the first half of the exhibit where the focus is William Morris himself, because his huge personality and the different aspects of his work demands the inclusion of it all. Perhaps most of all I loved the discovery of just how many wonderful little drawings of Morris there are by Edward Bourne-Jones, who actually features very little in what I’ve read, but a great deal here. I knew how close Morris was to Edward’s wife Georgiana Bourne-Jones from long excerpts of their wonderful letters used by Thompson (she’s represented here by only a portrait sadly), but Edward was his working partner and friend for just as long, and his caricatures of Morris at work and play are grand and give so much insight to their characters I think. Do a google search and you will see! I like the one above, from 1865, Morris reading to Bourne-Jones. The one shown in the exhibit is this:
A picture of William Morris demonstrating weaving, from 1888. His rotund little figure gets up to all sorts of antics, he’s even shown in the bath. The dates give an idea of the longevity and awesomeness of this close personal friendship, and also, I think, how Morris just could not have taken himself too seriously. There’s another, and not so kind, caricature of Morris from Rosetti, The bard and Petty Tradesman from 1868:
It encapsulates quite clearly what Rosetti thought of Morris’s arts and crafts designing and selling things nonsense. If he couldn’t paint, poetry was the thing.
I loved seeing Morris’s old satchel, and the huge and beautiful Prioress’s Tale Wardrobe, painted as a wedding present by Bourne-Jones. I had no idea Morris kept a ‘Socialist Diary’ for three months — the only period he kept a diary. They had it, there to read the one open page, three month’s worth of ‘a view of the Socialist movement from the inside, Jonah’s view of the whale’. Awesome. I want to read it (and can online here). They had the beautiful Hammersmith Socialist Society Banner, made (or designed and crafted through the business) by May Morris, and I learned a little more about her relationship with her father, both as head of the company’s embroidery division and in politics. They had Morris’s wonderful copy of Marx’s Le Capital, specially bound after his original had fallen apart through his study (I love that fact!), and several of the beautiful books from Kelmscott Press, including the giant Chaucer:
and a lovely cabinet crafted specially to hold it by Charles Voysey. Of course, this beautiful piece of furniture that I love also highlights the fairly elite nature of much of the arts and crafts movement and ‘the people’ who are in engaging in it inspired by Morris’s work. Not quite ‘the people’ Morris referred to, spoke to, worked with and fought for, which this exhibit does not really reflect on at all.
I found out more, saw more of the Red House. Really, I so love the art and the craft of Morris, I confess this exhibit shows a good sample of those beautifully. To me the house is indeed one of ‘the beautifullest place on earth’, designed by Phillip Webb and William Morris and both inside and out full of lovely handcrafted things. It was also wonderful to look at a full size print of the famous picture by Hollyer (seen on the cover of the book at the top of this post), pictures of him and his family, pictures of the Hammersmith Socialist Society as well as the portrait of him by George Frederic Watts below. How interesting too, to find out that WB Yeats had a copy of this over his mantel.
The way that so many figures of the social movements of this time intersected with the arts was also fairly revelatory. I had no idea that Sylvia Pankhurst was such an artist and craftswoman, designing the WPSU’s logo, badges, and beautiful silver brooches given to women who had been incarcerated for the cause. There is a wonderful site — sylviapankhurst.com — full of resources on her life, struggle and art. Many more of Morris’s contemporaries have art and portraits on display here, and that I loved too. It’s as the exhibit moves through time that it becomes more and more about artisanship, the arts and crafts aspect from which all connection to labour and struggle has seemingly been stripped that I didn’t like so much.
There was quite a lot about the garden city movement, again art for the people, and while the original dream of the garden city had political content, the reality as built had very little. A superficial reading of the ideals of Morris may be somewhat reflected in the ‘cultured cottage style’ of so much of the residential building at Letchworth, which is a centre of one of the exhibit sections. Yet I rather wish I could hear the explosion of his famous temper were he to be thanked for the end result of fairly highly priced suburban accommodation that only achieved a shadow of the original ideal for building working class, sustainable communities.
What happens, I think, is that artisanship and hand-crafting is portrayed as inherently radical, that a bunch of wealthy people absconding to the country to live their ideals should somehow be in Morris’s revolutionary tradition. Morris hated more than anything the Victorian architectural tradition of using a superficial mishmash of gothic ‘features’ rather than understanding the relationship of work and art that he felt was truly gothic, he railed against it. I feel that the cultured cottage style, and many other arts and crafts objects, are themselves just such a superficial reference to a very different ideal that combines art and socialism. One of the last objects is an erotic garden roller designed by Eric Gill to maintain grass tennis courts:
Cool enough, but individually owned grass tennis courts make my lip curl a little, not exactly part of a simple life. In News From Nowhere, Morris imagines a society of plenty where everyday objects are things of great beauty. There would be plenty of time to create such a tennis lawn roller for community use. But under capitalism? Morris struggled after converting to Socialism with how best to live simply and according to his ideals, run a workshop and employ workers, create things that a wide number of people could afford while still providing pleasure in labour to the craftsman, whether he should give all of his money away (a sacrifice he seemed willing to make but hesitant for his family though who can really know) or use it to employ workers and fund the movement. The second of which, in the end he did. Honestly, I doubt many things could be further from this interior struggle than such a roller — though it is strangely the primary focus of the short Guardian article on the exhibition by Mark Brown, who clearly cares little and knows less of Morris himself. Gill was a Fabian and then a Socialist, so perhaps I am being too hard on him, but nothing here really connected his work to his politics (or the controversies over his claimed sexual abuse of his children and other revelations, which make me uninterested in anything else about him really).
So how does this all this connect back to anarchy? I still puzzle over the use of that word in the title. Perhaps if I could have afforded or wanted the book, it would have been made more clear. One thing I love about Morris is that he partially bridged the growing split between Socialism and Anarchism in his life and work. That’s nowhere here. Anarchy here seems to to be referring to a very general and minimal revolt against society, and its limited use emerged most when it was looking at Morris’s connections to women’s and queer liberation — and those are only explicitly through his influence on the arts really, I have no idea if he ever openly pronounced on matters of sexuality. Artistically though, there’s Edward Carpenter, a pioneer of gay rights, and his workshop crafting artisanal sandals (you can see a pair of his sandals here). C.R. Ashbee was another, with the Guild and School of Handicraft and his bisexuality. Yet Morris’s own prizing of women’s liberation both in work and freedom within relationships that might make more sense as part of the tradition of ‘anarchy’ or radicalism is missing for the most part. You can never tell how much men actually practice of their rhetoric around women’s liberation of course, but News From Nowhere is at least an openly expressed preference for fairly open relations between the sexes, as well as a variety of living arrangements with little desire for a nuclear family. I loved that, even if women tended to ‘prefer’ domestic duties. Anyway, in this exhibit there was a lot of beauty, no real anarchy at all.
So in the end I have mixed feelings, and wonder what people take away from this who don’t know much when they walk in. As I say, though, the materials themselves relating to Morris and the early arts and crafts movement are brilliant to see and read about, so it’s probably worth going.
(All coincidence in terms of timing, but I’ve just been reading all about this, reflections on E.P. Thompson’s biography can be found as Part 1 and Part 2, and thoughts on News From Nowhere are here)
One thought on “Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860-1960”