William Morris: Anarchy and Beauty

This piece first appeared in Issue Eleven of the New Escapologist magazine. 

Any New Escapologist happening to idle past London’s National Portrait Gallery between now and 11 January should make some time for Anarchy & Beauty, an exhibition tracing the work, ideals and lasting influence of the great Victorian artist, designer, poet, novelist and campaigner William Morris. Curated by Morris’s biographer, Fiona MacCarthy, the show gathers a fascinating array of items illustrating his idea of ‘art for the people’ and the achievements of those he inspired.

Morris believed in life, and set himself against everything that denied it. For him the desire for creative expression through the exercise of skill and the imagination is a fundamental human need, like that for love, food and shelter. He considered the measure of a civilised society to be the opportunity it affords its members to find meaning and satisfaction in their work, and indeed in all of the ordinary tasks of everyday life.

For Morris everything we do has an aesthetic dimension, and can afford its own opportunity for creative fulfillment. ‘It seems to me’, he wrote, ‘that the real way to enjoy life is to accept all its necessary ordinary details and turn them into pleasures by taking interest in them’. He wanted a society where art has become such ‘a necessary part of the labour of every man who produces’ that it has no name.

Famously, Morris lived by that creed, mastering an extraordinary range of skills ranging across the conventional arts and well beyond. He was a poet, a novelist, an essayist and an artist; a furniture designer, an embroiderer, a weaver, a typographer, printer and bookbinder; an architect, a town planner, a gardener and a cook.

The Red House

Morris’s outlook began to take shape as an undergraduate under the influence of John Ruskin, who evangelised the restoration of the value of craftsmanship in the age of industry, holding up the medieval artisans who built the great cathedrals as the very image of the skilled, fulfilled worker. Morris had the opportunity to pursue that ideal for himself soon afterwards, when he and a close circle of friends built what became known as the Red House, in Bexleyheath, Kent.

The project was a labour of love involving an exceptional set of talents that included the Pre-Raphaelite artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones, the architect Philip Webb, and Morris’s wife Jane. With its courtyards, sloped roofs, arches, gables, casement windows, turreted well house and sumptious interior decoration, the Red House was a virtuoso reimagining of the best elements of the Gothic architecture Morris and his friends so admired.

But the venture was no rich man’s folly: though inspired by an ornate medieval vernacular and richly furnished, the House has an austere aesthetic. Every detail is considered, no more or less complex than it needs to be. Everything is both beautiful and useful, judged according to an exacting criterion of value that anticipated the modernist ideal of form and function.

For Morris the full significance of the project lay not just in the work that was accomplished, but in the way it was done: by a group of close colleagues, with complementary skills, working together in an atmosphere of mutual respect to create something of lasting worth. Their experience inspired the founding of the celebrated design firm Morris & Co, which aspired to bring the Red House aesthetic and its motivating values to a mass audience through the sale of well made furniture, glass, metalware, embroidery, hangings, wallpapers, stained glass, and more.

But – just as significantly – the project radicalised Morris. He was acutely aware that he and his friends had only been able to pursue their ideals because of their independent wealth, which sheltered them from the harsh economic constraints governing the freedom of others. He wanted everyone to have those same opportunities for creative expression, for control over the nature of their work, and for the exercise of skill, in good company, in pleasant surroundings. Morris despaired that so many were shackled to machines supervising the manufacture of shoddy goods under souless conditions of mass production:

How can we bear to use, how can we enjoy something which has been a pain and a grief for the maker to make?


Morris followed that insight through with characteristic bluntness, concluding that the mass of working people could only be granted control over their lives through revolutionary social change. Under capitalism the conditions under which people worked and lived were determined by capricious economic forces. That, Morris argued, was to get things the wrong way round. Asked why the man is slave to the machine, Morris replied: ‘Because he is slave to the system for whose existence the invention of machinery was necessary.’

The kind of co-operative economic system that would make room for the flourishing of human potential would only be possible through society’s embrace of the concept of limit: a common resolve to ensure new technologies and economic processes facilitated liberation rather than enslavement. In his essay The Society of the Future Morris wrote of ‘a society conscious of a wish to keep life simple, to forego some of the power over nature won by past ages in order to be more human and less mechanical and willing to sacrifice something to this end’.

Morris’s notion of restraint anticipated a core principle of today’s green movement, with its emphaisis on environmental sustainability and ‘green growth’. He horrified Morris & Co’s middle class customers, many of whom also read his novels and poetry, by joining the revolutionary socialist Social Democratic Federation to campaign for the radical democratisation of social and economic life, before setting up his own party, the Socialist League. (It is nicely symbolic of Morris’s belief in the necessary relationship between art and radical politics that he had his copy of Marx’s Das Kapital covered in a gold- toothed binding.)

Morris preached his liberationist gospel through dozens of plainspoken speeches and essays with robust titles such as Useful Work versus Useless Toil, Labour and Pleasure versus Labour and Sorrow and A Factory as it Might Be. His polical philosophy was most fully expressed in his utopian novel News from Nowhere, in which, as Fiona MacCarthy writes:

England is now a place of communistic freedom and genuine equality between men, women and children. Schools, prisons and central government are overthrown. There is no private property, no money, no divorce courts since the laws of sexual ownership have been overthrown. Work is no longer drudgery but positive pleasure in a shared sense of community endeavour.

The story is set in a future post-revolutionary London, now transformed into a green city of parks, woods and gardens, a kind of giant Bexleyheath, dotted with a thousand Red Houses. As Morris put it:

[S]uppose people lived in little communities among gardens and green fields, so that you could be in the country in five minutes’ walk, and had few wants; almost no furniture for instance, and no servants, and studied (the difficult) arts of enjoying life; and finding out what they really wanted; then I think one might hope civilisation had really begun.

Morris’s legacy

The purity of Morris’s vision, with its absolute demand for the recognition of the dignity of work and the priority of culture over commerce, had a collosal impact on late 19th and early 20th century art, design and politics.

It was the root spring of the Arts and Crafts movement, innumerable furniture makers, embroiderers, bookbinders, typographers, jewellers and other craftsmen and women adopting the Morrisonian creed of usefulness and beauty, and coming together to form communal craft guilds. The movement’s rigorous dedication to durable, authentic, useful and simple design was in turn taken up by the early modernists.

Morris’s radical political philosophy, both utopian and yet utterly down-to- earth, was a formative influence upon the early Labour Party, and some decades later, as we have seen, on the green movement. News from Nowhere’s vision of a co-operative commonwealth was a primary inspiration for the generation of Labour politicians forming the 1945 administration that laid the foundations of the welfare state. The post-war Prime Minister Clement Atlee kept a portrait of Morris in his Downing Street office.

Morris’s belief in a sustainable economy that respects the dignity of labour and ecological boundaries, is at the heart of the green economics popularised by EF Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, and today’s concept of ‘green growth’. And his ideal of the leafy market town was the blueprint for the early 20th century planners who designed the first ‘Garden Cities’, Letchworth and Welwyn, and innovations within existing urban centres such as Hampstead Garden Suburb.

Morris and technology

The final rooms of MacCarthy’s exhibition anticipate and attempt to address a fundamental question that has been asked of Morris’s philosophy: how can it accommodate technological change? Morris was dreaming his utopias when the industrial age was still relatively young, at a time when it still seemed possible to him and his circle that the march of the machines might at least be contained, if not turned back altogether.

But in today’s digital world of vast cities Morris’s rural landscape of self- contained craft-based communities seems impossibly distant, a late Victorian dreamworld. Reading News from Nowhere transports us to the imaginary world of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, or JRR Tolkien’s Shire – curiously filtered through the lens of The Communist Manifesto – with its celebrations and feastings, gatherings of ‘handsome, happy-looking men and women’ seated down long tables, with ‘bright faces and rich hair over their gay holiday raiment’, looking like ‘a bed of tulips in the sun’: a Pre-Raphaelite tableau, rendered in three-dimensions.

But as MacCarthy shows, Morris wasn’t a Luddite, and his notion of skill did encompass and allow for new technology. Though he clearly favoured the craft techniques of the past he used machinery himself from time-to-time, and Morris & Co relied on it to process its order books. Morris’s overriding concern was that the maker’s skill should never be subsumed and dissolved by technology or automation: hand and machine should complement each other. MacCarthy notes:

His true focus of attack was not this or that particular machine but, as he put it, ‘the great intangible machine of commercial tyranny, which oppresses the lives of us all’.

The exhibition draws on the intriguing example of the 1951 Festival of Britain to show how Morris’s principles can adapt to the modern world. The Festival was staged on London’s South Bank to mark the 100th anniversary of the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, and to showcase the best of British design. Its exhibitors were idealists, concerned to demonstrate the capacity of good design to contribute to the building of a new post-war society. The Festival highlighted architecture and household goods which though made with the latest technologies and materials respected Morrisonian values: attractive, simple, useful, well made, and understated.

This spirit animated some of the most successful design businesses of the post- war era, notably, perhaps, Habitat, a 1960s high street chain founded by Terence Conran that in certain respects followed in the spirit of Morris & Co. MacCarthy writes:

Conran, although a modernist, always also retained an Arts and Crafts aesthetic, a love of the vernacular, of homeliness and sturdiness. He, like Morris, understood that the route to progress lay in appreciation of the skills and values of the past.

The city and the sublime

Stepping out into the heart of the city again, onto the National Portrait Gallery stairway after a couple of hours contemplation at the shrine of Morris, is somewhat disorientating, and poignant.

Trafalgar Square is a maelstrom of crowds, traffic and noise. In News from Nowhere Morris imagined the Square as the site of the final bloody clash between the authorities and the people that ushered in his revolution, after which it was quietly transformed into a pleasant flowered field, and the Houses of Parliament down the hill retained only as a giant store for manure. Morris’s The Earthly Paradise envisaged London as one of his garden cities:

Forget the spreading of the hideous town;
Think rather of the pack-horse on the down,
And dream of London, small, and white, and clean,
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green;

Today, Trafalgar Square, and the roaring city that surrounds it, is Morris’s inferno, an urban, claustrophobic, cacophony. And yet, much as I love Morris, I cannot share his disgust at it all: I find myself, as I always have, enthralled and energised by the spectacle.

Morris’s ideal of the contented, rural commune dedicated to the simple arts of life tugs at the heart. But the 21st century metropolis has a sublimity of its own. The city has a fathomless, daemonic quality, growing like some force of nature, towers clustering like forests, cranes lining the skyline, the steel and glass of the new pushing up through the blackened stones of the old. the Shard looming over Southwark Cathedral, the City a sci-fi spectre beyond St Paul’s.

Morris wanted order. But, as he knew so well himself, the mind is restless, forever seeking out the new, the breaking of boundaries. Morris’s own restlessness drove him from one craft to another, and perhaps to his early death at 62, one doctor diagnosing his fatal illness ‘as simply being William Morris’.

The wildness of the city, in Morris’s day, and our own, is emblematic of our abiding desire to escape limit. I will always defend Morris’s powerful and moving assertion that work must be dignified, and that our economic arrangements should be organised to give everyone the opportunity to find beauty and meaning in their lives.

But Morris’s utopia is a curiously static one. The creative impulse is a stranger thing than I think he wanted to acknowledge. The imagination wants the vast as well as the local, the uncanny as well as the familiar, anarchy as well as order.

Let us have creativity, yes, always, for everyone. But let that creativity find expression through the exploration of uncharted seas, in the skyscraper piercing the sky as well as the hand on the weaver’s loom.

All images in the post are courtesy of Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy by Fiona MacCarthy. The featured image at the top is We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold by Jeremy Deller, painted by Stuart Hughes, 2013.