William Morris and The Arts and Crafts Movement.
In our regular look at art and artists from a socialist perspective, Kenny McEwan examines the work of William Morris
Born in 1834 William Morris was a revolutionary figure on many fronts. A member of the Pre- Raphaelites, the hugely influential art movement, a founder of the Arts and Craft movement, whose ideas and theories spread across Europe and are the basis of many other art styles and, last, but not least an early pioneer of socialism and socialist ideas.
Morris was born into a comfortable upper-middle class family, who for much of his life enjoyed the trappings of that background. He was educated at Marborough and Oxford, where he met up with Edward Burne-Jones with whom he had a life long friendship. Both had a deep interest in medieval craftsmen/artists, which for Morris would form the backbone of some of his later ideas. During this period he linked up with one of the main driving forces of the Pre-Raphalites, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Pre-Raphalites who rallied against the academic painting of their time, looking to the early Italian masters for their artistic inspiration, hence the name, they would go on to become a world famous artistic movement which was eclipsed only by the Impressionists of France. This movement will be covered in detail at a later date. Morris, though a designer more than a painter, did, however, play an integral role in the life of the Pre Raphalites. One of his few remaining paintings 'Queen Guenevere' (1858) was done under the direction of Rossetti, and in around 1857 he assisted Burne-Jones and Rossetti to paint frescoes for the Oxford Union.
At this point in his life Morris was not yet committed to the ideas of socialism, however, he saw that industrialisation was having a detrimental effect in the production of furnishings and decorative goods, with cheap, mass produced commodities tending to be shoddily made and of poor quality. Also Morris saw that the craftsman's skill was being lost due to these methods. In an attempt to combine the artist and the craftsman to produce good quality, merchandise, he set up the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co in 1861 which produced furniture, tapestries, stained glass, carpets and wallpaper. Later the firm became, simply Morris &Co. Around this time he married Jane Burden, who would become the model for many of Rossetti's paintings i.e., 'The Lady of Pity' (1875), and 'The Day-dream' (1880). Indeed, she is one of the ideal Pre-Raphalite women, porcelain skin, full lips, and long flowing hair. He commissioned the Red House, in Bexley Heath, for them, which became a model for many of the ideas he had about housing being more than just a dwelling place but somewhere that should also reflect art and beauty. Later, Morris would describe the homes of workers living in a socialist paradise in his 'News from Nowhere' (1886) in terms that would reflect his own house.
By the 1870's Morris was beginning to understand the effect that capitalism was having not just on the goods it produced but on the people that produced them and the conditions they were forced to live under. He opposed the aggressive foreign policy of the Disraeli government, and for a time supported the Liberals under Gladstone, until the 1880 election.
Along with Morris's social awakening came a developing of his ideas for combining the skills of the artist with those of the craftsman, with equal recognition for the talents of both. Though the term Arts and Crafts Movement was not coined until 1887, the main tenet of breaking down the hierarchy of art, which elevates painting and sculpture, above that of, traditional crafts and design, were championed by Morris, Burne-Jones, and Ruskin much earlier; some consider the Red House as being the first application of these theories. Key to the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement was that artistic or beautiful objects should not be just for those who could afford them, Morris proclaimed, 'I do not want art for the few, any more than I want education for the few, or freedom for the few'.
Thus, Morris & Co was set up to try and copy the guild concept of small workshops in a non-industrial way. The idea was that craftsmen designed and executed their own work alongside artists such as Ford Maddox-Brown, to produce useful and decorative objects. Unfortunately, the one thing that mass industrial production can do is make things cheaply, and one of the criticisms levelled at Morris is that his goods were too expensive for the majority of people. This outcome, however, was not lost on him and by about 1880 the realisation dawned on him that only socialism could free the working class from their drudgery and exploitation. In 1883 he joined the Social Democratic Federation contributing articles to its journal 'Justice'. He soon, however, began to disagree with the leader of the SDF, H.H. Hyndman over the direction the party was taking and left to form the Socialist League along with Eleanor Marx among others. The party manifesto advocated a revolutionary international socialism and Morris was the main contributor to the journal 'Commonweal'. From here on in Morris committed more and more time to fighting for the cause of socialism, he spoke at meetings, went on demonstrations, produced tracts and books, espousing the cause of socialism. In July 1887 he was arrested after a demonstration, in London, this, however, did not deter him from attending further demonstrations, including one where three people were killed and 200 injured in Trafalgar Square.
After his friend was killed in another demonstration he wrote 'Death Song' In 1887 he wrote 'A Dream of John Bull' which he illustrated, here he goes back in time to the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and explains how one day feudalism will end to be replaced by capitalism. The Peasant rejects this idea as fanciful; just as to day people see the end of capitalism as fanciful. A year later he wrote his most famous book 'News from Nowhere' here a man has a dream following a Socialist League meeting, in his dream he sees a utopian future where working class people are well fed, living in good housing surrounded by beautiful things and have time to pursue other activities instead of working constantly to make ends meet. The man wakes up, inspired by what he saw, and is determined to fight for a socialist future.
Meanwhile, the Arts and Crafts movement continued to spread across Europe and America. People like Charles Voysey, continued to expand its ideas, and set up groups like the Arts Workers Guild, to advance education and public awareness of their goals. This was necessary, as the Royal Academy would not exhibit decorative art, which prompted the decision to form an Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. Despite many of the set backs the Arts and Crafts Movement had, its ideas nevertheless found a resonance across Europe.
In Scotland, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, was very influenced by its ideas, combining architecture, design, and practical application in his work. In the Glasgow School of Art, Mackintosh not only designed the building but using Arts and Crafts ideas, all the internal fittings. Across Europe these ideas were developed and resulted in Art Nouveau style, which swept across the continent. From Paris to Prague, the new architectural and design, movement would combine beauty and function, building hotels, houses, underground stations, and even churches. In Catalonia Art Nouveau was called Modernism, its principal advocate there was Antoni Gaudi whose work's can be found all over Barcelona. Other proponents include Alphonso Mucha the Czech painter, and set designer and Louis Tiffany of the USA. The Arts and Crafts movement originally called, 'Jugendstil' in Germany, probably found it finest expression under the Bauhaus school, which managed to link the ideas put forward by Morris, but in a modern, more industrial way.
Like many artists before him, who were radical, William Morris has been sanitised by modern society. Many catalogues will sell Morris reproductions, indeed they are really beautiful designs, reflecting his love of nature but you will be hard pushed to find mainstream books that will cover Morris' very considerable contribution to socialism and to the conditions of the working class of his time. Morris firmly believed that art should be for all but this could only come about under socialism.Top