Sleeping Beauty, 1862-1865, William Morris, Authur Clutton-Brock

William Morris (English version)

The text below is the excerpt of the book William Morris (ASIN: B016XN18XU), written by Arthur Clutton-Brock, published by Parkstone International.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, foolish furniture, not meant for use, was made for the rich, both in France and in England; furniture meant to be used was simple, well made, and well proportioned. Palaces might have been pompous and irrational, but plain houses still possessed the merits of plain furniture. Indeed, whatever men made, without trying to be artistic, they made well; and their work had a quiet unconscious beauty, which passed unnoticed until the secret of it was lost. When the catastrophe came, it affected less those arts such as painting, which are supported by the conscious patronage of the rich, than those more universal and necessary arts which are maintained by a general and unconscious liking for good workmanship and rational design.

Cosmo Rowe, Portrait of William Morris, William Morris, Arthur Clutton-Brock
Cosmo Rowe, Portrait of William Morris, c. 1895. Oil on canvas. Wightwick Manor, Staffordshire.

At the time no one seems to have noticed this change. None of the great poets of the Romantic Movement, except perhaps Blake, gives a hint of it. They turned with an unconscious disgust from the works of man to nature; and if they speak of art at all it is the art of the Middle Ages, which they enjoyed because it belonged to the past. Indeed the Romantic Movement, so far as it affected the arts at all, only afflicted them with a new disease. Pinnacles, pointed arches and stained glass windows were symbols, like that blessed word Mesopotamia; and they were used without propriety or understanding. In fact, the revival meant nothing except that the public was sick of the native ugliness of its own time and wished to make an excursion into the past, as if for change of air and scene. But this weariness was at first quite unconscious. Men were not aware that the art of their time was afflicted with a disease, still less had they any notion that that disease was social. They had lost a joy in life, but they did not know it until Ruskin came to tell them that they had lost it and why. In him aesthetic discontent first became conscious and scientific.

Now many men before him had denounced the evils of their day; but he was the first to be turned into a prophet by aesthetic discontent, and the fact that he was so turned was one of great significance. He was a genius who detected a new danger to the life of man and who expressed an uneasiness spreading among the population, though he alone was conscious of it. But he was followed in his rebellion by another man of genius who was by nature not a critic but an artist, that is to say, a man whose chief desire was to make things and to express his own values in the making of them.

Four Pink and Hawthorn Tiles, 1887, William Morris, Arthur Clutton-Brock
William Morris (for the design?) and Architectural Pottery Co. (for the production), Four Pink and Hawthorn Tiles, 1887.
Slip-covered, hand-painted in colours and glazed on earthenware blanks, 15.5 x 15 cm. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

One might have expected that he would be the last man to feel it; since he could himself make whatever beautiful things he wanted. Not only could he express his desire for beauty in poetry, but he could also express his own ideas of beauty in the work of his hands. However ugly the world outside him might be, he could make an earthly Paradise for himself, and could enjoy all the happiness of the artist in doing so. There are some men of great gifts who can never be content with their exercise; but Morris was as happy in making any of the hundred different things that he made so well as a child is happy at play. He knew early in life what he wanted to do; and he was as free as any man could be to do it.

Morris himself, however, held that art is everybody’s business, whether they are themselves artists or not. He thought little of these compared with all the work of men’s hands that used to be beautiful in the past and now is ugly. The ugliness of houses, tables and chairs, clothes, cups and saucers, in fact of everything that men made, whether they tried to make it beautiful or were content that it should be ugly. And at first he, being himself a man of action and an artist, merely tried to make beautiful things for himself and others. But gradually he came to see that this single artistic effort of his would avail nothing in a world of ugliness, that all the conditions of our society favoured ugliness and thwarted beauty. This he knew, as no one else knew it, from his own happiness in his work and the beauty through which he expressed it.

The Creation, 1861., Arthur Clutton-Brock
Philip Webb, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, The Creation, 1861. Stained glass window.
All Saints Church, Selsley, Gloucestershire.

It is easy to call him a visionary; but visionaries are necessary to every great movement, because they alone can give it direction, and they alone can make men desire the goal towards which they move. It is not enough to preach peace by talking of the horrors of war; for men are so made that they prefer horrors to dullness. Morris said that our present society was in a state of economic war, and that for that reason it was anxious, joyless and impotent, like the life of a savage tribe engaged in incessant vendettas. The economic peace which he desired was one in which men would have leisure and power to do all that was best worth doing; and he hoped to bring that peace about by filling them with his own desire to do what was best worth doing.

There was a time when the world was more interested in Morris’s ideas than in Morris himself, and his influence was greater than his name. In his art he affected the art of all Europe so profoundly that what he did alone seems to be only the product of his age. As a poet he is commonly thought of as the last and most extreme of the romantics; but his later poetry, at least, is quite free from the romantic despair of reality and nearly all of it is free from romantic vagueness. When Morris described the world that is not, he was, as it were, making plans of the world as he wished it to be; and he was always concerned with the future even when he seemed most absorbed in the past. In that respect he differed from all the other romantic poets, and in his most visionary poetry he tells us constantly what he valued in reality, what is best worth doing and being in life. All that he wrote, in verse or prose romance, is a tale of his own great adventure through a world that he wished to change; and we cannot yet tell how great a change he has worked or will work upon it.

Pomona, 1885, William Morris, Arthur Clutton-Brock
Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris (for the design) and Morris & Co. (for the production), Pomona, 1885.
Tapestry woven wool, silk and mohair on a cotton warp, 300 x 210 cm.
The Whitworth Gallery, University of Manchester, Manchester.

In this book I have tried to give some description of his greatness rather than to write his life. He is the subject of a volume, not because he was a poet or an artist, but because the minds of men would have been different from what they are if he had never been born. Yet his art and his poetry were a great part of his action; indeed he was artist and poet before he had any conscious intention of changing the world, and the world has listened to his advice because he was an artist and a poet.

This book is written by someone who did not know him, and it is an attempt to show the nature of his influence and of his greatness in his works. He did so many things that it is impossible to speak of them all in a volume of this length; and he was never the centre of a circle like Doctor Johnson or Rossetti. Those who dealt directly with him felt that he made the issues of life and of art clearer to them; and that, we may be sure, he will continue to do for many generations yet unborn.

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