William Morris by GF Watts 1870
‘I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few’
William Morris was born 24 March 1834 Walthamstow and he is an artist whose name has weaved in and out of my life for many years.
Morris Men: Morris, Morrison, Morrison and Morrissey
The first time I really recall hearing his name would have been when I was drinking aged 15 at the William Morris Labour Club in Wimbledon. Members enjoyed its political cameraderie but we were mainly there for its fine jukebox, cheap pool table and subsidised bar.
Benefit gig flyer from the William Morris club 1988/9
Around the same time I took a Saturday job at a local printer’s. One of the first jobs I was given was to handprint small membership cards for the Morris Club, as we affectionately called it.
The William Morris designs on the front of each card seemed incongruent with the music and mayhem that was my experience of the Morris club, but I could see they were beautifully detailed designs, bursting with visual interest. There was more here for me to discover.
Morris aimed to live a life of art and wth the help of his friends in the Arts and Crafts movement he succeeded in this aim. His visionary work helped revive the nation’s textile arts through an idealised passionate evocation of medievalism infused with a love of the natural world.
‘The true secret of happiness lies in the taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life’ William Morris
Spring, William Morris stained glass window
Socialism of the Art
As a designer Morris worked to improve production techniques, employing apprentices from disadvantaged backgrounds and paying them a decent wage, often higher than was expected.
These production values went on to inspire the Bauhaus movement, while his environmentalist beliefs in protecting the natural world from pollution and industrialism were far ahead of their time.
Gradually as a young man I became aware of Morris’s socialism. I learnt how he assisted with the Democratic Federation manifesto, Socialism Made Plain. This manifesto demanded improved housing for workers, free compulsory education for all children, free school meals, an eight-hour working day, the abolition of national debt, nationalisation of land, banks, and railways, and the organisation of agriculture and industry under state control and co-operative principles.
‘Give me love and work – these two only’ William Morris
Over the years I’ve visited Morris’s homes and enjoyed his utopian depiction of William Guest in the novel News from Nowhere, worth a revisit in these changing times.
‘Now let us go, love, down the winding stair, With fingers intertwined…’ William Morris
Unknowingly, until it was pointed out to me by the Gentle Author, I ended up painting a building in Mile End Rd located on the site of the former Essex House, where CR Ashbee established the Morris-inspired School & Guild of Handicraft in 1888.
Lady Essex House, Mile End Artist Unknown c1800
The site of Essex House today
Detail from my painting Mile End Underground
Mile End Underground Mile End Road painting 2016
If we were to invite him to follow in the footsteps of his time-travelling literary creation William Guest, Morris would be disappointed to note that we are still far from Nowhere /Utopia. Despite this, the ideas that Morris helped inspire through his art and life are with us still: healthcare, workers’ rights, the right to a decent home and freedom from oppression are no longer considered to be the radical and dangerous notions of underground subversive movements. Instead these ideas are commonplace in our society, they are rights to be defended, protected and fought for when challenged and oppressed.
Recent financial crises and a global pandemic have demonstrated that the ideas Morris preached are in fact the only ideas that can offset the destructive historical effects of capitalism and industrialisation.
Somewhere Out Of Nowhere
Walking the chilly Springtime streets of the East End of London you can almost hear William Morris on his soapbox seizing this moment to cry out even louder out for Activism! Collectivism! Internationalism! – advocating a socialism of art and heart in heartbreaking times, spurring on the gathering crowd to make somewhere out of nowhere.
‘So long as the system of competition in the production and exchange of the means of life goes on, the degradation of the arts will go on; and if that system is to last for ever, then art is doomed, and will surely die; that is to say, civilization will die’
With thanks to the Gentle Author….
William Morris in the East End by the Gentle Author
CR Ashbee in the East End by the Gentle Author