William Morris in political context

Submitted by AWL on 25 November, 2014 - 6:41 Author: Michéal MacEoin

The William Morris exhibition Anarchy & Beauty at the National Portrait Gallery is well worth a visit for anyone interested in Morris, his art, and the late nineteenth-century socialist movement.

The opening section, a rounded appreciation of Morris, is a marked contrast to the common view of him as a largely apolitical purveyor of Victorian handicrafts. As well as some of Morris’s early wallpaper designs and an armchair produced by his collaborator and friend Philip Webb, we find the 1893 paperback edition of News from Nowhere. The justly famous imagining of a less alienated and more communistic future society first appeared in 1890 in The Commonweal, the newspaper of the Socialist League, of which Morris was a founder member.

Of particular interest is a diary Morris kept from January to April 1887, at the height of his socialist activism. The diary, which recounts a talk Morris gave to the workers’ Hackney Club, was intended, he wrote to his daughter Jenny, “as a kind of view of the Socialist movement seen from the inside, Jonah’s view of the whale, you know.”

But the highlight of the exhibition is the part which elaborates on Morris’s friendship circle from his time at the house living at the Red House in Bexleyheath, (designed by Morris’ friend, the architect Philip Webb), and his deepening commitment to socialist activism.

One series of contrasting caricatures of Morris drawn by his friend Edward Byrne-Jones and fellow pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti shows some of the tensions in the close-knit circle of creative companions. While Byrne-Jones’ rendering of Morris is playful, Rossetti’s ‘The Bard and the Petty Tradesman’, first sketched in a letter to Morris’s wife Jane in 1868, appears more like a barbed caricature of an increasingly rotund Morris.

Peter Kropotkin, Eleanor Marx, Sylvia Pankhurst, Annie Besant, Edward Carpenter, George Bernard Shaw — all make an appearance in the exhibition, showing the ferment in the radical movement at this time.

Though derided sourly as “anecdotes...about long-forgotten Marxists and anarchists” in The Guardian’s review, items such as Edward Carpenter’s sandals, a print of Kropotkin working at his desk in front of Morris wallpaper and a pencil sketch of Eleanor Marx, are necessary for placing Morris in context, and are a welcome correction to portrayals which separate him from the political movements of the day.

Particularly good to see were the imposing red Hammersmith Socialist Society banner, and Morris’s copy of an 1883 French translation of Capital which needed to be rebound within a year because it “had been worn to loose sections by his own constant study of it.”

When it comes to Morris’s artistic legacy, however, much of the politics are obscured here. The early Arts and Crafts Movement is covered reasonably well, with its emphasis on breaking down false distinctions between work and leisure and countering the alienated forms of labour in capitalist society. Particularly good were the tapestries of May Morris, the works of Walter Crane and the exquisite Kelmscott Press edition of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

The point of Morris’s politics from about 1883, however, after he crossed the “river of fire” and joined the Democratic Federation in 1883 — soon renamed the Social Democratic Federation under the influence of Marxists — was that his prefigurations of a more communistic and less alienated society required the overthrow of capitalism. Highlighting the contrast between how we live and how we could live gained meaning in so far as it give impetus to revolutionary consciousness.

This is seen in Morris’s critique of of utopian socialists, such as Robert Owen. He wrote in Commonweal in 1885 that it was impossible “to establish a real Socialistic community in the midst of Capitalistic Society, a social island amidst an individual sea; because all its external dealings would have to be arranged on a basis of capitalistic exchange and would so far support the system of profits and unpaid labour.”

A large part of the second half of the exhibition deals with the garden city movement. A look at Welwyn Garden City and Hampstead Garden Suburb today, in the context of Britain’s extreme housing crisis, largely makes the point about that!

Problematic too is the holding up of figures of Clement Attlee and Herbert Morrison as continuations of Morris’s legacy, particularly the 1951 Festival of Britain public art show at the Southbank Centre.

Morris warned in News from Nowhere “that individual men cannot shuffle off the business of life on to the shoulders of an abstraction called the state, but must deal with it in conscious association with each other” and elsewhere that “some socialists are apt to confuse the cooperative machinery towards which modern life is tending with the essence of socialism itself.” It is difficult to imagine the author of these words as an enthusiast of the Fabian technocracy of Attlee and Morrison.

There is much of interest here, and if it encourages more people to engage with the ideas and work of William Morris then it has done good.