Today I was brought up short by the window of H&M on Regent Street. Instead of the usual generic mainstream fashion it is full of William Morris print, which is wonderful even if it feels a little incongruous. H&M are not known for their ethical production values. William Morris practically invented the concept. In fact Morris rolls back into fashion every few decades, but it tends to be his soft furnishing and fabric which is rediscovered, and not what is really significant about him which is the philosophy behind them.
William Morris is very contemporary, with his grand beard, unruly hair, radical left wing politics, his worker clothes, his passion for artisanal craftsmanship and concern for the wellbeing of the workforce. But of course he he lived his whole life during the reign of Queen Victoria, and died well over a century ago. His designs endure to this day, and thought his legacy is less well known, he remains one of the most influential and provocative figures of the Victorian Era.
William Morris is a flawed hero, but a hero none the less. In the summer before we moved to London I was working odd jobs, filling time while Angela was finishing a post graduate course. And found myself working as a sitter in an Art Gallery in the West Midlands. These industrial revolution cities have some of the best collections of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world, probably as a result of the need for beauty to mitigate the unrelenting grimness of the industrial age and the vast wealth that it had produced. It was a privilege to spend the summer absently soaking in the romantic idealism of Burn Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and their brethren. And one day I was asked to fill in at a country house and gallery and travelled out into the countryside to sit in the lovely Wightwick Manor – a grand Victorian house full of Pre-Raphaelite Art and William Morris interiors. It wasn’t so much that I fell in love with it, but that I was able to put a name to something that I already loved.
The great man has an enduring and romantic legacy, but almost entirely for his wallpaper and interiors.In fact in his day he was far better known for his poetry and his writing, and his radical politics.
He was driven by a hatred of what the modern world had become, furious that industrialisation had made men and women into little more than machines, endlessly working at repetitive menial tasks instead of the creativity and craftsmanship involved in traditional labour. He looked back to an idealised pre-industrial England, a land of smiths and farriers, carpenters and stonemasons. And he resented the vast disparities of wealth and the dreadful working conditions and drudgery that were a result of Industrialisation.
One of his most remarkable pieces of writing is a novel called News from Nowhere which is a vision of a working man transported from the late 19th century to an imagined future England freed from politics, religion and money. There is no government – the Houses of Parliament are used to store manure, no currency, and people work for the satisfaction of work itself.
Nevertheless perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, he was a very successful entrepreneur and businessman. Morris & Company had a store in a prime location opposite Selfridges on the very fashionable Oxford Street in London, and he was a shrewd marketeer, he realised that he himself was the brand, and his high profile only served his business interests. He was a pioneer on the global market too, often travelling to the United States to promote his products.
William Morris was born to a wealth family in Walthamstow. He grew up with great privilege and freedom. As a boy he would wander through Epping Forest, then much bigger and wilder than it is now, and there he saw a traditional rural England which would shape his ideals. He went to school in Marlborough, which was a dreadful experience of feral schoolboys, and negligent schoolmasters, which he escaped by walking into the countryside, exploring old churches and sitting amongst the neolithic earthworks of Avebury. He went up to Oxford, initially to study for the Anglican Priesthood, and there he met his lifelong friend and partner Edward Burne-Jones. Together they schemed to escape the church and go into business as designers. In 1856 at the age of 21 they moved to London, to a house in Red Lion Square shared with the Pre-Raphelite painter Gabriel Dante Rosetti, and went into business.
The Red House
After marrying Janey, a beautiful working class girl from Oxford, he set about designing his ideal house, with his friend the architect Philip Webb. Built between 1859-60 in Bexleyheath on the outskirts of London it is an incredibly influential design, drawing inspiration from the redbrick and tiled eaves of traditional English dwellings, and became the model for a whole generation of English suburban architecture. However there is a sense that there is something immature about the building, and clearly Morris was never quite happy with it. He sold in in 1865 and he later found his ideal house Kelmscott Manor (below) in Oxfordshire, a genuine medieval English house, which perhaps reveal what he was aspiring to in the Red house.
Morris and Co.
Some of the most significant of their work to come out of that period is their stained glass, which was designed for churches up and down the country. They combined exquisite craftsmanship with a romantic ideal, often drawing on English mythology and particularly Arthurian Legend.
However Morris had a constant struggle to create products that satisfied his exacting standards for quality and craftsmanship for a price which was affordable by ordinary people. The question of whether customers were willing to pay more for an ethical product was one that Morris never resolved. He became a decorator to the middle classes (and even redecorated a room in St James Palace) but was never at ease in this role and was famously dismissive of his wealthy clientele, which only seemed to make him more popular.
His concern for the wellbeing of his workforce was something that critics have been quick to point out he never really achieved. He wanted better working conditions and more autonomy for his employees, allowing them to develop their skills and take initiative. He wanted education and good living conditions, and this was incredibly radical for industrial Victorian Britain.
He moved production to the green fields of Merton Abbey and established what he hoped would be an ideal factory (the building are still there, slightly lost between car parks chain stores and the traffic clogged A23). It must have been an idyllic place to work after the pollution and overcrowding of the city.
He was always political, but over time became disillusioned with mainstream politics and in 1885 founded the Socialist League, along with leading socialist figures such as Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl Marx) . He largely funded it himself edited and published and edited its newspaper ‘The Commonweal’ in which ‘News from Nowhere’ was originally serialised. They had to fight for the right to free speech, their marches were often broken up by the police, and it is amazing to think of this dignified English gentleman being arrested for that cause.
He was never happy unless he was busy and yet his health was fragile. He died of of tuberculosis on the morning of 4 October 1896. His body was transported by river to Kelmscott and he was buried in the parish churchyard.