William Morris: The Man Who (Re)Discovered Art with a Little 'a'
William Morris: The Man Who (Re)Discovered Art with a Little 'a'

William Morris: The Man Who (Re)Discovered Art with a Little 'a'

Every time we enjoy the elegance of a Braun coffee maker or the sleek contours of a handheld computer, we have William Morris, in part, to thank.

January 1 st 2004

Hans Rookmaaker, in the opening chapter of his delightful little book Art Needs No Justification, gives a brief, penetrating analysis of the changing role of the artist in the modern art world. He focuses his study on how the West arrived at the present dichotomy of high and low art.

In most cultures, including our own, before the new period that began between 1500 and 1800, artists were primarily craftsmen: art meant making things according to certain rules, the rules of the trade. Artists were accomplished workers who knew how to carve a figure, paint a Madonna, build a chest, make a wrought iron gate, cast a bronze candlestick, weave a tapestry, work in gold or silver, make a saddle in leather, and so on. . . . The role of artists, as well as of the arts themselves, began to change in some European countries during the Renaissance. This movement gained momentum and made a break-through in the eighteenth century, the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment. Art became fine art, and the crafts were set aside as something inferior. The artist became a genius, someone with very special gifts which could be used to give humankind something of almost religious importance, the work of art. Art in a way took the place of religion.

Beginning with the great artistic accomplishments of Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael, then progressing through the philosophical aesthetics of Kant, Schilling, and Hegel, and finally ending with Romanticism's concept of the artist as hero, we can say that art became Art (art with a capital "A"). Art was now expected to be the provider and conveyor of meaning, answering the Big Questions, while, at the same time, it became disconnected with the normal functions of life. It became something mysterious, something reserved for the experts, for the connoisseur. The rest of society needed mediators (critics, art appreciation books and classes, etc.) to help make sense of this high, distant thing called Art.

Rookmaaker saw the distinction between Art and craft, which had taken hold by the nineteenth century as the root cause of a contemporary crisis in the arts:

Art has suffered from this. High Art has shunned all practical demands such as decoration, entertainment or any role that might smack of involvement in real life. Yet this type of art inevitably attracts almost everybody with some talent. In the art colleges are many who study painting or sculpture as a free vocation, and they will be the "free" artists of tomorrow, most of whom will not be able to live from their work.

But inevitably the "low" arts have suffered as well. They became the "popular" arts, sometimes called "commercial." It is art in the service of mammon. As all genuinely talented people tend to shun this field, its quality has deteriorated, and too often what is produced lacks all imagination or quality. And because that is usually the art that is offered for consumption, it means that everybody, knowingly or not, suffers. It has its share in the ugliness of the world today.

The art field has changed significantly since Rookmaaker penned these words in 1977, yet this basic high/low dichotomy is still a source of tension. I would argue that graphic design today is full of verve and creativity and is an appropriate expression of post-modern values. (Check out the ads and layout of a recent copy of Wired magazine or the CD covers in the alternative section of the music store.) Full of irony, dazzling visual effects, sly allusions to pop culture, historical references, and various collaged parts juxtaposed together, the "low" visual arts have recently ascended to a central place in contemporary society, even if much of this design is ultimately shallow—all sizzle and no steak.

Avant-garde "high" art, on the other hand, is now dominated by conceptual and performance art and has managed to distance itself even further from society at large and from everyday life, even as it blurs the distinction between art and life. Much of contemporary fine art is so full of itself and so self-referential that it has utterly ceased to be useful to the culture at large, for which it is supposed to provide meaning within the modern understanding of Art.

Rookmaaker recognized that the establishment of Art with a capital "A," and the problems that this idea of the artist's role in society posed, were the subject of serious nineteenth century thought and action.

Laments over the low quality of the arts that were produced, especially in the field of the crafts, the aesthetic design of things for daily use, had already begun in the last century. I can site the names of Ruskin, Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, and many more.

These two Englishmen named by Rookmaaker, John Ruskin and William Morris, were part of a broad reform movement responding to industrialism and the decline of true craftsmanship and artistic integrity in Western society. In this essay, I will survey the basic ideas of William Morris on the arts and the role of the craftsman in society and more broadly on work in general (for Morris, work and craft were more or less the same). [Editor's note: Charles Packer profiled Ruskin's ideas in Comment, Summer 2003.]

William Morris was both a profound and a tragic figure. His writings on the meaning of work agree in many respects with a biblical understanding of work and the consequences of sin on our labours. He was also keenly aware of the effects of industrialization on the nature of work and the quality of manufactured goods. But he failed to see that the real source of the problem was not technology and the machine itself (as he supposed) but how technology and machines were used. This miscue led him down the wrong historical path. Nevertheless, it is worth getting acquainted with Morris's ideas on craft and work and appreciate his attempt to undo the sharp distinction between the fine and decorative arts.

One historian wryly observed that William Morris's entire life was in a way ironic, for while it was true that he disdained the Renaissance notion of the artist-as-genius, it was also undeniably true that he was a Renaissance man in the fullest sense of the term. Nikolaus Pevsner described this versatile Englishman as "a poet, pamphleteer, reformer, designer—trained a little at university, a little in architecture, a little in painting—and ending by being a manufacturer and shopkeeper, though a very special one." We could add to the list fine-press publisher, cultural critic, and amateur historian.

Morris was a man of such remarkable energy and endurance that one doctor explained when he died in 1896 at the age of 62, "The disease was simply being William Morris and having done more work than most ten men." His collected works fill 26 volumes.

William Morris was born to wealthy middle-class parents in 1834. His father had amassed a small fortune investing in a copper mine, which gave him a substantial annual income when he turned 21. It was this steady income that gave him the luxury of being a craftsman and a poet, professions not exactly known for their earning potential. Young William enjoyed regular hikes in the woods near his family's estate in Epping Forest, where he studied the local flora and fauna. He also tended his own small garden.

The boyhood influence of forest and garden can no doubt be seen in the keenly observed floral motifs of his wallpaper and fabric designs for which he is now most famous. Interestingly, Morris was brought up in the evangelical wing of the Church of England, what he called "rich establishmentarian puritanism." Yet he did not stay in the church for long. One has to wonder how many of the biblical and theological ideas he heard as a young man influenced his thought in later years.

The decade beginning in 1853 was crucial to Morris's intellectual and aesthetic development. It was in that year that he went up to Exeter College at Oxford to study for the Anglican clergy. He and his college friends (including Edward Burne-Jones, who was to become a painter and one of his chief collaborators) were at first deeply attracted to the ideas of the High Church Tractarian movement as well as the Victorian cult of medievalism. Morris devoured Ruskin's The Stones of Venice, Thomas Carlyle's Past and Present, and Charlotte Yonge's The Heir of Redclyffe, each of which celebrated different aspects of the Middle Ages.

The Victorian interest in medieval culture was not only about nostalgia and aesthetic taste: it was about social reform. The answer to most (if not all) of modern society's ills was seen in a return to the values and example of the Middle Ages. Gradually, Morris's interest in religion waned during his three years at Oxford, but his love for things medieval remained strong.

This led him to the next phase of his career as an apprentice to G. E. Street, one of the foremost church architects of the time, who, as might be expected, worked in the Gothic revival style. It was at Street's office that Morris met Philip Webb, who was to become his second major collaborator, along with Burne-Jones.

When Street moved his practice from Oxford to London near the end of 1856, Morris, through his friendship with Burne-Jones, came into the circle of the Pre-Raphaelite Brethren, including Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who was Burne-Jones's teacher. After Rosetti's persistent urging and offer to be his tutor, Morris gave up his training as an architect and turned his efforts to learning to be a painter. At the same time, he experimented with stained glass, manuscript illumination, and embroidery. He never succeeded as a painter, since he was unable to master the drawing of figures, but it soon became apparent that he had an extraordinary talent as a two-dimensional designer.

Two projects of the late 1850s cemented Morris's career in the decorative arts. The first was the furniture he designed for his apartment in London. The ostentatious, overstuffed Victorian furniture available in the shops would never do for a radical medievalist. So Morris designed his own huge settle, round table, and some chairs, all "intensely medieval . . . as firm and as heavy as a rock."

Rosetti, Burne-Jones, and Morris painted these pieces with inscriptions and figures from medieval tales. Then, after his marriage to Jane Burden in 1859, Morris asked his friend Philip Webb to design a house "very medieval in spirit" for him and his new bride. The result was the Red House, so named because of the red brick, which was left exposed rather than covered with stucco, as was the standard practice with the then fashionable classical designs.

The house followed the English vernacular tradition of steep tiled roofs, tall chimney stacks, and recessed porches. The interior was notable for its simplicity (especially when compared to the clutter of Victorian domestic interiors). Red House featured tile floors, handmade furniture designed by Webb, murals by Burne-Jones, and tapestries and other decorative fixtures designed by Morris. The result was a modest, gothic-inspired home which became the inspiration of hundreds of mock-Tudor mansions and the widespread brick cottages of the early twentieth century English suburb.

By 1861, the idea came to Morris to start a commercial firm specializing in all things necessary for the decoration of the home. Thus Morris, Marshall, Faulkner

The first product the company offered was glassware designed by Webb. Soon the firm was regularly fulfilling commissions for stained-glass windows, as well as selling furniture, rugs, fabrics, wallpaper, and other handmade decorative objects at its shop in London. The firm was self-consciously organized to fit the pattern of the medieval guild workshop (at least as Morris conceived it to be). Both the design and the making of the goods were done in-house. Almost all of the items were painstakingly handmade rather than mass produced by machine.

In the course of setting up the firm's workshops, Morris had to revive many lost craft techniques and processes, which had been forgotten because of industrialization. He literally had his hands in everything: teaching himself how to weave, dye yarn, stain glass, and print fabrics.

For William Morris, his company was far more than a money-making enterprise. It was a powerful, deliberate social statement, proving by example that high quality, beautiful goods, reflecting Ruskin's ideal of honesty in materials and workmanship, could be achieved when industrial/factory processes were avoided. Ruskin in The Stones of Venice asserted that only handmade items were truly beautiful. He even insisted that handmade decorative objects be made to look as if they were made by hand.

Morris was also severely critical of machine-made goods, exclaiming, "Today almost all wares that are made by civilized man are shabbily and pretentiously ugly." Houses were filled "with tons and tons of unutterable rubbish," which, he suggested, should be heaped onto a gigantic bonfire! "As a condition of life, production by machinery is altogether evil." Yet Morris did suggest that machines could be properly used for extremely repetitive tasks. He greatly desired that all people from all classes be relieved of the cheap, tasteless factory wares and enjoy the simplicity and honesty of handmade goods.

But in the case of Morris & Co., the beautiful handcrafted items were so expensive that only the rich could afford them. If only Morris had been able to see the machine as a potentially useful tool to be used for good and sought out ways to make machine processes turn out high quality, aesthetic goods. But this approach was left to be explored by the Bauhaus collective, who, as Pevsner so aptly demonstrates, were Morris's spiritual successors. It was they who pioneered true industrial design.

It is striking how many of Morris's ideas on work and the arts parallel biblical teachings on the same topic. One of the hallmarks of the Reformation was the rediscovery of the intrinsic goodness of work: seeing it as having a crucial part in humankind's calling to develop and enhance the beauty and fruitfulness of the original garden/creation before the fall (Genesis 2:15). As such, work had its own real value independent of the church's role in formal worship and the call to disciple the nations (Matthew 28:19). In fact, work could be offered up to God itself as service (worship).

Our work should also be a source of pleasure and contentment, as Ecclesiastes 5:18-19 makes clear:

It is good and fitting for one to eat and drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labour in which he toils under the sun all the days of his life which God gives him; for it is his heritage. As for every man to whom God gives riches and wealth, and given him power to eat of it, to receive his heritage and rejoice in his labour—this is a gift of God.

Compare this vision of the role and value of work to the following quotes from William Morris on this topic, which demonstrate his own positive view of work, the place of work cultural development, and the importance of pleasure in work:

Today almost all wares that are made by civilized man are shabbily and pretentiously ugly . . . the race of man must either labour or perish. Nature does not give us our livelihood gratis; we must win it by toil of some sort or degree.

[Architecture is] the molding and altering to human needs of the very face of the earth itself.

Men urged by their necessities and desires have labored for many thousands of years at the task of subjugating the forces of Nature and making the natural material useful to them.

Wealth is what Nature gives us and what a reasonable man can make out of the gifts of Nature for his reasonable use. The sunlight, the fresh air, the unspoiled face of the earth, food, raiment and housing necessary and decent; the storing up of knowledge of all kinds, and the power of disseminating it; means of free communication between man and man; works of art, the beauty which man creates when he is most a man, most aspiring and thoughtful—all things which serve the pleasure of people, free, manly and uncorrupted.

Everything made by man's hands has a form, which must be either beautiful or ugly; beautiful if it is in accord with Nature, and helps her; it cannot be indifferent.

It is of the nature of man . . . to take pleasure in his work under certain conditions.

Note how Morris refers to Nature. He has no notion of work being a gift from and a service unto a sovereign God. Work is merely a necessity of nature (simply a given which we must accept) and is to be done for one's own pleasure and the pleasure of one's neighbour. Work ultimately is its own end.

In this, William Morris's vision of work was not much different from the "art for art's sake" view promoted by philosophers of the Enlightenment. He vigorously criticized the high-class aloofness and indulgence of the painting and sculpture of his time (especially that coming from the orbit of the Royal Academy, with its strong ties to the ostentatious style of the High Renaissance and the Baroque). But in his effort to put the fine arts and the crafts on an equal footing, he adopted the same circular justification, which had proved awkward for the Art with a capital "A" view. He merely drew the circle larger to encompass both the fine and the decorative arts.

Without a transcendent purpose for the arts (i.e., the arts as a calling from God for the purpose of glorifying His name), Morris was left to fall back on the notion of the individual pleasure of the craftsman and doing good for one's neighbour in one's work, which was really no different from the self-interest and altruism that could be (at least theoretically) attributed to the capitalistic factory owners, which (as we shall see) Morris despised.

Morris's real break with the dominant thinking of his time (though in general agreement with the ideas of Ruskin and A. W. N. Pugin before him) was to see that all kinds of work were equally valuable and beneficial. It was not just high culture (paintings, sculpture, classical music, etc.) that was important; ordinary things as well (cooking utensils, furniture, wallpaper) deserved significant attention. Morris recognized the true worth of the crafts: he rediscovered art with a little "a" and strove to give it a prominent place in society.

William Morris once said that "the leading passion of my life is hatred of modern civilization." By the late 1870s, he became convinced that the twin forces of capitalism and industrialism were sapping England of any semblance of beauty: the rural landscape was being gradually displaced by urban expansion; the cities had become dreary gatherings of squalid hovels huddled around dark, smoky factories; and the decorative wares were "shabbily and pretentiously ugly."

From that time on, Morris turned to socialism as the only possible answer to society's ills. "Both my historical studies and my practical conflict with the philistinism of modern society have forced on me the conviction that art cannot have a real life and growth under the present system of commercialism and profit mongering."

What convinced him that capitalism and the factory production of goods were to blame? The answer lay in his understanding of the effect of industrialism on the common worker, who in a bygone era (i.e., the Middle Ages) was free to practice true craft.

The medieval craftsman was free in his work; therefore he made it as amusing to himself as he could; and it was his pleasure and not his pain that made all things beautiful that were made, and lavished treasures of human hope and thought on everything that man made, from cathedral to a porridge pot.

The beauty of handicrafts in the Middle Ages came from this: that the workman had control over his material, tools and time.

William Morris had a romanticized view of the Middle Ages' worker, to be sure. But he recognized that apart from having a real involvement in all (or most) phases of the manufacture of a product, a vision for the finished product was to prove elusive. Quality would inevitably suffer.

The culprit in all this was the profit motive of the factory owners. The economy of larger scale, the division of labour, and the use of machinery were adopted in order to maximize profits. But while this in turn might have made products inexpensive, allowing them to be bought by a wider segment of society, it also cheapened their aesthetic quality, and, most disturbing of all, made the worker's job miserable.

Morris was hardly alone in seeing the dehumanizing effects of factory work. "To compel a man to do day after day the same task, without any hope of escape or change, means nothing short of turning his life into a prison torment. Nothing but the tyranny of profit-grinding makes this necessary." Morris repeatedly taught that variety of work was a vital ingredient toward making work pleasant, along with being involved in making useful objects and working in pleasant surroundings.

To return to Morris's medieval ideal: it would seem that he was viewing history through rose-coloured glasses. It is doubtful that any but the master of a medieval guild shop would have had much say in the design of the goods manufactured. The other members of the shop would have performed the bulk of the repetitive, menial tasks. (A similar division of labour arose in Morris cf. Romans 8:19ff). Even Morris recognized that some toil in work was inevitable. But the deplorable situation in the factories was unacceptable. Clearly, the majority of factory owners had failed to take the mental and spiritual well-being of their workers into account. The occupational circumstances needed to be improved. But was it really impossible to reform factory work and machine manufacturing methods, as Morris supposed?

William Morris turned to socialism as the answer because he believed that it was only by abolishing private property that the stranglehold factories had on the manufacture of goods would be broken. This in turn would open the way for all members of society to be treated equally in their work and to have a more direct and creative involvement in the making of objects. Greater pleasure in work and products of real beauty and usefulness would be the result.

Morris's utopian, socialist ideal was most fully realized in his 1890 fictional tract News From Nowhere, which he wrote as a response to a Fabian socialist tract setting forth an ideal society where everyone is assigned a particular task according to their ability, and technology was all-important. Ian Bradley observes that

Morris's utopia, in contrast, is libertarian, and machines are used only to do essential, but disagreeable tasks. Work which is both inessential and unpleasant has ceased, and all human labor has therefore, become a source of pleasure. It is a society of absolute equality, leading to a static balance of supply and demand, and with the profit motive banished there is no temptation to manufacture and advertise useless and superfluous goods. People make things because they want to, and because they are needed, and for no other reason.

The narrator of the story wakes up to find himself in an England of the future, where "nothing is wasted and nothing spoilt"; all factories have been abolished, and everyone works with their hands. "The society is simple, static and blissfully happy. It is medieval in even the smallest details."

Morris's craftsman's utopia was based on a medieval ideal that never actually existed. (In this he appears to have been mislead by the ideal medieval working community envisioned by Carlyle in Past and Present.) It was a world without any of the destructive effects of sin, a harmonious society with no basis for its hope, other than the self-evident perfection of its ideal.

Morris hoped that by broadcasting his guild-socialist gospel far and wide through his fiction, his published essays, and the numerous lectures he gave throughout Britain, factory workers and tradesmen would be attracted to his ideal and be moved to join craft collectives which would transform society on a grassroots, voluntary basis. (He was strongly against a governmental, legislative solution.) But being firmly part of the upper-middle class (even if he was willing to get his hands dirty), he was not really able to connect with the true members of the working class for whom he offered the greatest hope. The members of his own class thought his ideas were merely odd.

Needless to say, Morris's socialist ideas never caught on, but his revolutionary vision for the improvement of the decorative arts by the reestablishment of guild-like workshops lived on through the Arts and Crafts movement and from there into the rest of Europe and America. To return to Pevsner: "Morris succeeded in what he set out to achieve. He made young painters and architects in all countries turn to craft or design; that is, he directed them towards helping people in their everyday lives."

It is regrettable that the romantic side of William Morris led him to hold on tightly to a nostalgic medievalism and to Ruskin's anti-technological stance. His reluctance to embrace industrial methods of production—to see how factory work conditions might be improved and how processes could be altered or enhanced to improve quality—limited his ability to help a wide segment of society. It was left to others (e.g., the Bauhaus and Scandinavian furniture and craft companies) to synthesize his ideal of honesty and quality aesthetic design with mass production. Every time we enjoy the elegance of a Braun coffee maker or the sleek contours of a Palm V handheld computer, we have William Morris, in part, to thank.

Recommended Reading

  • Ian Bradley, William Morris and His World (New York: Scribner's, 1978).

  • Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).

  • Fiona McCarthy, William Morris: A Life for Our Time (New York: Knopf, 1995).

  • William Morris, News from Nowhere and Other Selected Writings and Designs, edited by Asa Briggs (Hammondsworth, England: Penguin Classics, 1962).

  • Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers in Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius, rev. 2nd ed. (Hammondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1960).

  • Nikolaus Pevsner, The Sources of Modern Architecture and Design (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968).

  • H. R. Rookmaaker, Art Needs No Justification (Downers Grove, IL.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1978).

  • Peter Stansky, Redesigning the World: William Morris and the Arts and Crafts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985).

Topics: Arts Culture
David Bruce Hegeman
David Bruce Hegeman

Dave Hegeman is a librarian and writer in Newberg, Oregon, and does watercolours whenever he can. He is the author of Plowing In Hope: Toward a Biblical Theology of Culture (Canon Press, 1999).


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