William Morris - Art and Idealism

By Harvey, Charles; Press, Jon | History Today, May 1996 | Go to article overview

William Morris - Art and Idealism


Harvey, Charles, Press, Jon, History Today


For the 150th anniversary of Victoria's accession, History Today published a series of articles examining Victorian Values' through the prism of some of the key individuals of her reign and the ideas and movements they reflected and generated. With the centenary of the great queen's Diamond Jubilee coming up next year, we are returning to the subject and expanding the scope of the original series. in the first of our Victorian Values Mark 2 articles, Charles Harvey and Jon Press examine the aesthetic achievements of the multi-talented and pioneering early Socialist, whose life and work are celebrated in a major exhibition about to open in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

William Morris was a man of extaraordinary creative energy who dedicated his life to the cause of art. Personal experience convinced him that art should not be the preserve of a small minority of professionals of refined taste and sensibilities, but should be a universal activity, natural to life, work and leisure. He wished to live in a society which eschewed the production of inferior, ugly wares, made without pleasure by tormented workers. In a decent society, which strove for beauty and relaxation instead of profit and personal advantage, the only goods worth making would be the necessities of life, and objects which were a source of pleasure to maker and user alike. Hence his famous dictum: 'art which is made by the people and for the people, as a happiness to the maker and the user'.

Born in 1834 into a wealthy commercial family, William Morris had the opportunity and the means to pursue the career of his choice. Abandoning his initial intention to enter the Church, he tried his hand at architecture and painting before turning to the decorative arts. Here he found his true metier. Though he was also to become celebrated as a writer, a pioneer of English socialism, and a typographer and printer, it was above all through his talents as a designer, became apparent that he was not suited to a career as an architect, and he later clashed with Street over the latter's drastic restorations of medieval churches, Morris nevertheless drew much from Street's example. Most notable were Street's scholarly approach to architecture - he was amongst the most knowledgeable medievalists of his day - and his insistence that the architect should acquire a good all-round knowledge of the crafts which contributed to interior design and decoration. He himself was proficient in embroidery and designing church silver and metalwork.

Ruskin, however, was the main influence. During the course of the 1850s, his investigations into art and architecture gradually led him towards social criticism and political economy. The first stirrings occur in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). In The Lamp of Life', Ruskin began to evolve a new understanding of the nature of men's work and what it meant for society. Like Carlyle before him, Ruskin was insistent that it was through work that man fulfilled himself. For Ruskin, however, it had to be creative labour, which drew upon the workman's intellectual and moral strengths as well as his physical powers. Such ideas were further developed in The Stones of Venice (three volumes, 1851-53), where they are drawn together in the famous chapter entitled The Nature of Gothic'. Here Ruskin set out his belief that the architecture and art of a particular society express the values of its entire culture.

According to Ruskin, architecture and its attendant arts should be judged according to the amount of freedom of expression allowed to the individual workman. He contrasted the arts and crafts of the Middle Ages and the relationships they engendered favourably with the industrial society of the nineteenth century, which seemed to him to place more restrictions on the workman than any preceding age had done. Modern society - and in particular the Political Economists who supported the new liberal industrial order - was thus indicted for having alienated and dehumanised workers, forcing them to perform monotonous and soul-destroying tasks. …

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