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Art & artists

Rage against the machine: The art and heart of William Morris

— June 2012

Article read level: Art lover

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Elements of the great entrance hall reflect the different influences in the house, from the linenfold panels above the mantel, to the slightly ethereal wall paintings over the stairs. This 21st-century gift to the house was painted by Janet Myhill

William Morris and the Arts & Crafts Home

By Pamela Todd

The only problem with Pamela Todd’s William Morris and the Arts & Crafts Home is that it is nearly impossible to get to actually reading it; its pages are thoroughly distracting in the best possible sense, abundantly illustrated with full-page photographs of high-end, low-lit manor houses lavishly decorated in the Arts and Crafts style. 

It is one of history’s ironies, and one that did not escape the notice of William Morris (1834–96) himself, that the moneyed bourgeoisie who could afford Arts and Crafts design was the very target of his many explosive polemics, such as Art and the People: A Socialist’s Protest Against Capitalist Brutality.  Furthermore, the working class, for whom Morris originally directed his work, could only afford the factory-made knock-offs produced by firms such as Liberty, much to Morris’ annoyance.   The Arts and Crafts movement was never intended to produce eye-candy for Victorian era interiors.  Rather, it was an idealistic social and philosophical movement that sought to improve life for the working class, and William Morris viewed handmade Arts and Crafts design as heavy artillery, countering the dehumanizing forces of the machine and the factory.  

Appalled at the ‘wonderful ugliness’ of the factory-made displays in Paxton’s celebrated Crystal Palace in 1851, Morris sought an art and production style imbued with a wistful nostalgia for the Middle Ages, undoubtedly the consequence of having been raised by a peculiarly mediaevalist father.  Morris wanted to replace the machine and the factory with handicraft and the guild.  Machines, Morris maintained, might spare the hand, but they spoiled the mind.  Together with seven likeminded partners,  he established Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. in 1861 with a £100 loan from his mother and a £1 investment from each of the original founders.    

In emphatic opposition to mass production, everything about an Arts and Crafts home was handmade, natural, and personal.  The Arts and Crafts home was ideally constructed with natural materials indigenous to the local surroundings, a feature later famously adopted across the Atlantic by Frank Lloyd Wright.  Morris championed ‘truth to materials,’ preferring, for example, to expose any wooden surface rather than cover it up.  Morris even preferred to work with unbleached fabrics, thinking it unnecessary to mask the natural colour. 

Morris believed interior furnishings should be handmade whenever possible.  To this end, he employed a busy workshop producing furniture that proved irresistibly popular.  Offering escape from industrial urban life, these furnishings generally incorporated design motifs drawn from nature, particularly Morris’ famous wallpaper designs, which depicted labyrinthine networks of flowers and sinuous foliage.  Tapestries and cabinets were adorned with mediaeval and Arthurian themes, responding to his nostalgia for pre-industrial life.  Morris soon had to contend with rival companies such as Liberty, which mass-produced more affordable imitations of Morris’ Arts and Crafts designs. 

Arts and Crafts interiors are so cozy and inviting that it is easy to forget how revolutionary Morris’ ideas originally were.  He created art for the expressed purpose of social reform, and he believed every article within a home should improve the lives of the working class.  Morris hated clutter, and insisted that homes should be filled only with what was either useful or beautiful, asserting ‘I have never been in any rich man’s home which would not have looked the better for having a bonfire made outside it of nine-tenths of all it held’. 

Declaring that it was ‘Hellish wickedness…to spend more than 15 shillings on a chair when the poor are starving in the streets,’ Warington Taylor echoed Morris’ belief, and helped market the popular ‘Morris chair,’ an adjustable chair that was decorative and affordable, allowing the working class to enjoy handcrafted furniture.  Morris even sought to make his workshop pleasant for the labourer.  Writer Emma Lazarus, upon visiting his workshop, was astonished at its pleasant and relaxed atmosphere and its conspicuous lack of drudgery.  Morris advocated craftsmanship with a conscience.

Even if the revolutionary intent of Arts and Crafts design was lost on much of the public, Morris and his workshop successfully popularized an appealing alternative to mass-production.  Arts and Crafts isn’t so much a style, but an ideal.  Shortly before his death, Morris wrote, ‘if I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of art and the think most to be longed for, I should answer, a beautiful house.‘  Morris’ life was replete with ironies, but perhaps the greatest irony of all is that such an agreeable idea should have ever seemed so reformative and revolutionary.

Pamela Todd’s brief pictorial survey of Morris and the Arts and Crafts home is a beautiful, readable book.  Even the typeface, it must be observed, seems strongly reminiscent of something Morris’ workshop would have produced. 

William Morris and the Arts & Crafts Home  by Pamela Todd is published by Thames & Hudson,  2012. 192 pp. 190 colour and 27 mono illus, £19.95. ISBN 978 0 500 290231



Jonathan Rinck
Spring Arbor University
Instructor of Art History

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