Socialist by Design, Issue 196 Socialist Review, April 1996.
This article concentrates on William Morris as a political figure. Although art and design can never be disregarded from his life he was highly influenced by his socialist ideas through his works. Socialism and Design were the two key words that could really summarise Morris’ life.
This article started off by looking at Morris as one of the main figures of Revolutionary Socialism. Both his speeches and writings were key in the restoration of the British Socialist Movement in the late 1800’s. His artwork was shaped by his involvement against the Victorian Capitalist Society present at this time.
Morris was extremely interested in the Romantic movement which seemed fitting in a society which had started to be based around an industrial rather than craft. Even from early on in his career nature was a main focus of his artwork and this tied in with his other interests of human equality and romantic visions of the middle ages.As a critique to Capitalist production, Morris was more interested in the process of production itself and the quality of what he was producing. His wallpapers became popular but he did not enjoy mingling with the luxury of the rich. As he became further involved in production, the more he understood the industry injustice and misery of exploitation.
He never meant to fall into the politics, he was battling for a system he believed in. He was searching for justice.
In 1877 there was a threat of Imperialist war. This was the Disraeli Conservative Party against the Russian’s to defend the British interests in the Turkish Empire. Having committed barbarity in Bulgaria the involvement in the Turkish Empire by the Disraeli’s caused shock for the Radicals and Trade Unionists of Britain. Morris therefore joined the Anti-War movement of the middle class Radicals and Liberals again public speaking.
in 1880 the liberalists came into power and showed Morris the real link between politics and class. He decided that Radicalism was made for the middle class and that would never change. In 1883 Morris joined the Social Democratic Federation which was created by HM Hyndman, an ex-Tory journalist and took inspiration from a socialist programme by Karl Marx. Due to the dictatorship Hyndman has started to enforce in 1883,Morris left the SDF and created a new organisation manifesto:
“We come before you advocating the principles of Revolutionary International Socialism, that is we seek a change in basis of society– a change which would destroy the distinctions of class and nationalities.”
On Bloody Sunday a demonstration in Trafalgar Square took place against the arrest of MP William O’Brian, an Irish Nationalist. Soon after Morris took part in a freedom of speech for the SDF campaign which led to his arrest. The Sunday after another demonstration took place with both Radicals and Socialists. This “spirited resistance” did only good for the socialists.
Up to his death, Morris was rooting for for a “socialist movement that would change the world by open revolt”. Morris has ensured that Marxism was taking place in Britain and that socialist movements were once again coming into place.
Morris was extremely committed to the socialist movement and the article proves this through a number of different events. It is interesting to see the link between his art and what was happening in his life at this time and what sort of a person he actually was. Reading this article has helped me to contextualise Morris and I feel this puts me in a stronger position for my research.
Was William Morris actually just a pious bore? Jonathan Jones, The Guardian,October 2014
This article was one of the shorter ones I have explored that looked at the exhibition Beauty and Anarchy. The writing enforced a lot of Morris’ idea on socialism and Marxism that I have explored in the article Socialist by Design. The writing itself was complexed, it said ideas but did not expand on them to an extent making it harder to understand where the writer was coming from. He used complex terms that even as an artist I find hard to associate. Jones complicates a simple idea and I was not pulled in my this article. I only took away some basic information.
William Morris’ revolutionary ideas glorify him as an artist. His political choices led him in so many directions that it was hard to understand how he could be both a Marxist but create prints that adorned the walls of middle class homes.
Morris helped build modernism and his abstract repetitive designs led him to the modernist design. Creating the new and revolutionary in art. He was influenced by everything, this included Robin Day chairs, the festival of Britain and Terence Conron’s Habitat.
William Morris letters show artist was a political firebrand until his death, Maev Kennedy, The Guardian, October 2014
Maev Kennedy’s article discussed the way in which Morris saw women and his “political firebrand”. The collection of letters was discovered by an Oxford undergraduate who studied them carefully. They were a correspondence between Morris and a young married woman with leftwing ideas and were all written within three years of his death. In the letters Morris talked highly of socialism, he discussed the books this woman could read and the socialist league which she could join.
Morris always pointed out the importance woman had on socialism however most of the time this importance came in the form of support for their socialist husbands.
One woman who brought his wallpapers had written to him questioning whether she should become socialist herself. He wrote back stressing a number of positives about the political party and talked about the subject as a whole again pushing her towards a number of books on the subject.
David Barnes, a Oxford English Literature lecturer pointed out that the letters show how Morris was keen to recruit people to the socialists even to just before his death. Bringing back the point of woman and supporting their husbands he quotes ” This is a Morris torn between a commitment to freedom, equality and justice, yet still conditioned by what we might see as typically Victorian views on gender.”
I appreciated this article a lot and how it was unbiased. Kennedy searched through a range of sources and viewpoints before constructing her article. She talks about a lot of what has been discussed unlike Jonathan Jones who seems to put across a lot of his own opinion. I much preferred her style of writing and her article has aided me in further comprehension of Morris’ ideology and his life.
William Morris made poisonous wallpaper, Phillip Ball, Nature – International Weekly Paper for Science, June 2003
The revelation that some of the components that made up the paint in Morris’ earlier pieces were in fact toxic came into light just before the opening of one of Morris’ “greatest achievements”, Red House.
A member of the University of Aberdeen, Andy Meharg, discovered arsenic in a sample of green paint used on early samples of Morris’ wallpaper. He suspects that these were created between 1864 and 1875. Even back then, health hazards were clear, arsenic could produce toxic fumes if damp.
Surprisingly Morris’ was well aware of these hazards due to the shareholds and being part director of his fathers mining company, the Devon Great Consols who were in fact the largest arsenic miners of the era. The workers here were plagued of illness and some died from lung disease. Morris was unconcerned about the health hazards, blaming it on “witch fever”.
Morris always had pre industrial concepts, especially in the making of his wallpapers. As opposed to synthetic dyes he used vegetable dyes that created himself. He started that “they produce beauty almost without the intervention of art”. However it is clear that Morris did not feel the same when it came to the paint. Trellis pattern paper contained a synthetic compound of arsenic and copper.
These pigments, both Scheele’s Green discovered by Swedish Chemist Wilham Scheele and Emerald Green discovered by a German Paint Manufacturer, were cheap and could brush off easily and create toxic dust.
In 1875, producers of his wallpapers changed to arsenic free green. Morris continually had no concern.
This article has really inspired me in the creation of what my piece may contain. Throughout my previous reads I feel that Morris has been depicted as a man of the people however underneath it seems this is somewhat not the case. His involvement in his fathers mine company and his blind eye towards the toxins in arsenic are surprising considering his social status in the public eye.
William Morris – beauty and anarchy in the UK, Fiona MacCarthy, The Guardian, October 2014
In 1890, Morris published a propaganda novel News from Nowhere, first released in serial form for a socialist newspaper (The Commonweal). This novel described a society transformed by the revolution, communistic freedom, gender equality, no private property, no money, no divorce courts (sexual ownership laws have been overthrown) and schools,prisons and central governments have been outdated. As MacCarthy states that the reality Morris in fact predicted came into being around 1952.
Morris argued for the democracy of art throughout his lifetime. He described art as not a hobby but something present in the detail that makes up our daily lives. In the England he describes in his novel, art is universal to the point where it no longer needs determined.
Fiona MacCarthy was the author of Morris’ biography and she curated the exhibition Anarchy and Beauty. All of whom were shown in the exhibition had a relation to Morris’ visionary thinking. They all had to pass what MacCarthy describes as a News to Nowhere test. One of the main pieces of this show was Morris’ copy of Karl Marx, Das Kapital, hand bound in a “gold tooled leather binding”. MacCarthy interprets this book as Morris’ view on how design and craftsmanship should be accessible to all.
Just as Maev Kennedy stated in her article, Morris showed anger towards the inequality of his surrounding society. His wealth was what allowed him to create his art and live in “beautiful surroundings”. He said that whilst people were class divided, real art could not exist. Social mixing was a big theme in Morris’ arts and craft communities.
Morris’ discussed a lot the idea of natural beauty. Nature was one of his main explorations. He saw how humans depended on nature and how it lifted spirits and contributed of psychological equilibrium. With the growth of the cities within Britain, he saw how the landscape was changing and became “uglified”. The Garden Cities came into existence bringing with them a utopia, a balanced mix between city and country. They had a social egalitarien outlook.
Morris was witness to the change in craft to the idea of industrial mass production.
MacCarthy also discusses the South Bank Exhibition, which in some ways was “an expression of state socialism that the anarchist in Morris so despised.” . It had a modernist feel to it whilst also being an ode to the achievement of the British in term of technology. The theme of the exhibition was the contribution of Britain to civilisations, past present and future.
Herbert Read was a friend of Morris knowing him well through the Marxist revolutionary Social Democratic. He sums up Morris extremely well. “He was as extreme as any modern artist, he rediscovered the artistic consciousness, the most essential of all qualities in art.”
Most of Morris’ life was spent making design available to all, regardless of social class.