William Morris (1834 – 1896) The legacy of a great Victorian Polymath
Designer, Writer, Poet, Social Campaigner, Artist, Retailer, Interior Designer, Businessman, Printer, Conservationist, Leader and Famous Victorian polymath.
We all think we know plenty about William Morris, many of you will have had William Morris wallpapers at home, curtains, a sofa covered in a Morris print, a reproduction of one of his tapestries or rugs if not then perhaps a mug or two, notelets, diary or birthday card. During our lifetime it has been hard to avoid the work of this great man. A simple visit to a National Trust gift shop will give us all the exposure to William Morris designs we ever need. It may not matter that the design was intended specifically for curtains, it will do quite nicely on a pretty little biro for you handbag. William Morris’ work is truly ubiquitous. How would William Morris feel about this?
This is not a talk about the history of William Morris, (although there will be plenty of William Morris history in it), I am sure you have access to this history very easily. You may have already had a talk of this type before – I can always provide one if you have not – this talk looks at his legacy, how do we see him and his work, the ‘myth’ of William Morris, we will look at the way his work has been used and misused over the past 120+ years since his death. How does this differ to the way he was thought of in his lifetime and the influence – if any – the legacy, how do we relate to his work today.
A number of houses are open to the public …. The National Trust have The Red House in Bexleyheath, Kelmscott Manor, Standen in West Sussex, and Whitwick Manor in Wolverhampton, there is Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire run by the Society of Antiquaries of London and Kelmscott House has rooms open occasionally, and there is an entire museum in Walthamstow. There can be few Victorians who play such an important part in todays historic leisure industry. What is it about the William Morris story that we find so appealing and why do we continue to devour his particular idea of the English rurally derived idyl – if that is what it is.
Alongside the designs and interiors Morris was a great writer, his ideas on the arts have continued to inspire designers and craft workers. One quote in particular has been used over and over again:
If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.
First used in a lecture at the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design on 19th February 1880, and later published in Hopes and Fears for Art: Five Lectures Delivered in Birmingham, London and Nottingham, 1878 – 1881. An absolute favourite of the minimalist decluttering propagandists to suggest we throw nearly everything we own away and live the idyllic modernist minimal existence. A quote that Morris used to justify his interiors, and others use to justify theirs. What did Morris mean and how can his words be used to add legitimacy to such differing interiors.
Challenge all you know about Morris, consider the history of William Morris throughout the twentieth century – Morris & Co did not close until 1939 – and explore the part he plays in our minds today. A talk for all those interested not only in the Arts and Crafts movement and the Pre-Raphaelites but in the continuing legacy of the Victorian period and one of its greatest polymaths.