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.