William Morris, who died 100 years ago this autumn, is the subject of a huge new show that opens in London this week. But wallpaper aside, what are we celebrating?

Tim Hilton
Saturday 04 May 1996 23:02

This month two exhibitions interpret major figures in Victorian visual culture, William Morris and John Ruskin. Morris is celebrated at the V&A, from Thursday, and "Ruskin and Oxford" opens at the Ashmolean on 22 May. Both venues are appropriate. For the V&A is primarily a design museum, and Morris was a designer rather than an artist or a thinker; while the Ashmolean (Britain's oldest public museum) is the centre of Oxford's interest in fine art. Ruskin was the first Slade Professor at the University, in the 1870s. The story of his teaching is of frustration and failure. None the less his intellectual contribution to 19th-century Oxford was colossal.

Morris was an Oxford man too. The city lived in his imagination and helped him to dream that the Middle Ages might somehow be recreated in the 19th century. When he was an undergraduate in the early 1850s, Oxford still had a perfectly preserved medieval aspect - or so it could seem to a romantically minded youth. And then there was the city's setting: low-lying, among meadows strewn with fritillaries, in a country of slow streams and meandering rivers, with quiet little villages built from the honey-grey stone of the southern Cotswolds. This was always Morris's ideal landscape. When he was at the best of life, which was not for long, he made his home at Kelmscott Manor, an old house in the upper Thames valley, closer to Oxford than to London; and these surroundings are quite recognisable in News from Nowhere (1890), the prose romance that brings us closest to his old and unhappy heart.

Undergraduate life gave Morris his taste for companionship with hearty and enthusiastic young men who shared ideals in art. He had a psychological need for comrades. At Exeter College he made friends with Edward Burne- Jones, who was to introduce him to Dante Gabriel Rossetti and other Pre- Raphaelites. In art-historical terms, Morris belongs to the second phase of Pre-Raphaelitism, except that he wasn't really a painter. He could draw quite nicely and should have persevered with the brush. His one surviving canvas, known variously as Queen Guinevere and La Belle Iseult, shows special promise in a person without any training. Perhaps tuition wasn't necessary, and Morris was worrying too much when he gave up painting. His mentor Rossetti had received very little instruction, and its absence had helped him form his style. The same was so of Burne-Jones, Lizzie Siddall and others. Unlike the original Pre-Raphaelites, who often excelled in academic technical virtuosity, this group made a half-naive art; for they were self-taught, or taught by friends.

Here was a good lesson in comradeship, perhaps ignored by Morris because he was in love. The beautiful model for Queen Guinevere was Jane Burden, a working-class Oxford girl (her father was a groom) whom Morris married in 1859. They had met while he was helping with the decoration of the new Oxford Union Society building, a collaboration with Rossetti, Burne- Jones, the sculptor Alexander Munro and others. The stories of their jolly times while painting the murals are part of the Morris legend. But what was the purpose of it all? Murals usually mean something to the world at large. Nowadays we know the Union as a place in which undergraduates practised rhetorical skills before becoming the politicians who rule the country. All the more reason, many will feel, why the place should be razed to the ground rather than decorated. But perhaps the Union did some good in its early days, encouraging students to hold and express their own opinions.

At all events, the 1858 summer of the Union murals was the turning point in Morris's early life. At a youngish age he was democratised. Morris had come from a wealthy bourgeois family with conventional ideas about his future. He had even thought of entering the church. For a little while he was apprenticed to an architect. But to join the reckless, brilliant, impoverished Rossetti in madcap artistic schemes was to reject the idea of a career in the professions. And to marry Jane - in a register office, her parents attending, his absent - was a clear sign that he wished to leave his own social class. Bearded and tousle- headed, dressed in a rough blue serge suit, Morris was always pleased when people took him for an artisan.

He still did not know about his position in life. There's no record that Morris ever said "I want to be an artist" or "I want to be a writer" - though his earliest poems, at their best, are the equal of Rossetti's. He did not have the kind of crea- tive personality that is utterly devoted to self- expression. And therefore, at this crucial time, Morris seems without personal ambition, however energetic he was. He could not narrow and exploit his innate feelings for art. This problem was solved by his personal wealth, the combined efforts of his friends and the enigmatic but inspiring presence of his wife - a woman whose presence was more memorable than her personality, for she was mostly silent. Morris decided to build a house for "Janey" and himself. Everybody would help. The result would be a domestic "Palace of Art".

The Red House was built on a plot of land near Bexleyheath in Kent that Morris bought in 1859. The architect was Philip Webb, another idealist in his late twenties. Webb was no revolutionary, however, and from the outside his house looked rather like a number of other buildings, in particular mid-Victorian rectories. On the other hand the Red House had quite daring interiors. There were large rooms on the upper floors whose walls were suitable for mural painting. But these frescoes, though projected, were never done. Morris in any case thought that tapestried or other hangings were preferable. He believed that hangings were more medieval. This turned out to be impractical, despite Janey's skills as a needlewoman; so in the absence of murals or woven tapestries Morris began his first tentative wallpaper designs.

He also encouraged Webb to design furniture, some of which was painted by Rossetti and Burne-Jones. Then more things were needed, as in any home: in Morris's case candelabra, table-glass and stained glass. It now occurred to him that if such objects could be made for his own purposes then they could be manufactured in some quantity for other people. He had found what was to be his lifelong metier. As the V&A retrospective correctly reminds us, the Red House led to a historic development in the history of modern design. An art critic must also observe that, as yet, there are no artistic achievements in Morris's life. Would there ever be? The whole thrust of his sensibility and comradeship was in the direction of wallpaper. What kind of distinction can wallpaper achieve?

Morris was a great spokesman for "the minor arts", to use his own expression; but as time went on he found that he could only extol the virtues of interior decoration by denigrating art generally considered to be major. Wallpaper and other decorations, he thought, would have the happy power of driving out painting from contemporary life. In News from Nowhere we read that the National Gallery, when managed under Morris's ideal socialist state, would be open only as "a place where pictures are kept as curiosities". This illiberal view was a natural consequence of the experiments with the domestic environment of the Red House. Not that Morris realised the conclusions he would draw when he became a socialist 20 years later. In the 1860s he was more interested in becoming a businessman. His private income was dwindling away. And so, in 1861, he was a co-founder of the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. In 1865 he sold the Red House and went to live above the shop in Bloomsbury.

"The Firm", as it was always called by its associates, made its first public appearance at the International Exhibition of 1862, held in South Kensington. It included a "medieval court", and here Morris showed his wares. Some people found them startling, but Morris also got support and one or two journals said exactly the right things, calling The Firm "an association of architects and painters, who have set up a shop in Red Lion Square, in the same manner as the Italian painters, such as Giotto, did in the Middle Ages". Maybe the comparison with Giotto wasn't accurate but it was certainly gratifying. The range of pieces on display was impressive. Besides wallpaper, there were chairs and wardrobes, a wine and beers buffet, cabinets, book-cases, a backgammon set, a "Bacchus wine-cooler", a red lacquered music-stand, a chest, a screen with stamped leather panels, an inlaid escritoire and an organ-case.

Today, we can look at these objects and recognise them as Victorian treasures: not just for their craftsmanship, which is variable, but for a kind of fancy and ebullience. Though they are much influenced by church furnishings they strive to be secular. This was not an easy task, for The Firm's income depended on commissions for the decoration of newly built gothic- revival churches. Morris and his friends were more lively than most craftsmen who contributed to the church buildings of the 1860s, but there is a limit to the possibilities offered by lecterns and stained glass. You can make such things with loving care, introduce new motifs and so on: none the less a church craftsman is enchained. He does not have the full creative freedom that is claimed by the modern fine artist. Here is another paradox in Morris's character. Officially, he believed in freedom. In practice, he always worked within the constraints imposed by architects, vicars and the upper-middle-class housewives who appreciated his patterns.

He was not a happy man. It may be that he felt frustration with the "minor arts" to which he was bound by habit, finance and ideology. A more usual explanation is that his marriage was desolate. By about 1869 Janey had begun a liaison with Rossetti. They lived together quite openly at Kelmscott, the house Morris had leased because he thought it "a heaven on earth". So much for comradeship. Morris kept away from his wife in order to keep his dignity, but one gathers the hurt he had suffered from the curiously deadened tone of his letters. He busied himself with the affairs of The Firm, his designs for no fewer than 53 wallpapers and the writing of some extremely long poems.

Morris also sought relief from private troubles by taking an interest in political affairs. His socialism is so famous that it is not often noted that he was an active Liberal for some seven years, surely a rather long period. Of course it was common for a Victorian businessman to be a political Liberal, but one might have expected Morris to be more adventurous in his thinking during the 1870s. As things turned out, socialism was the preoccupation of his advanced age and, if we take the utopia of News from Nowhere as its expression, was filled with nostalgia for the Oxford of his youth and bitterness towards people who did not share his certainties. Today's commentators are too pious about Morris's late politics. We can all take it for granted that working people should be happy and live in nice houses. But Morris denied that society should embrace technological advance for the good of its members. He was also hostile to learning and independent fine art. For those reasons his politics are not only irrelevant but objectionable.

A rational and informed examination of Morris's beliefs would have to look at his relations with Ruskin. The two men are often presented as partners in the fight against modern ugliness, and Morris is said to have developed Ruskin's insights. This I doubt. They were of different generations (Ruskin was born in 1819, Morris in 1834), were not friends and had opposing views. Morris certainly read the elder man when he was an undergraduate, but there is no evidence that he considered anything that Ruskin wrote after 1862. Nor, for that matter, do we really know that Morris read anything at all, apart from newspapers and ancient poetry, in the years after The Firm began production. Not only was he not an intellectual, he disliked people who spent their life in study. Thus News from Nowhere felt free to revile the Oxford of the late 19th century, a university so much improved and reformed since Morris's early days. It was, says Morris, "the breeding place of a peculiar class of parasites, who call themselves cultivated people". Socialism would eliminate them.

Alas, this attack is clearly directed towards Ruskin and the younger scholars within Oxford who knew the Slade Professor's personal charm and had been affected by his knowledge, artistic culture and inspiring lectures. Morris knew nothing of this intellectual leadership. It is important to point out that "cultivated people" in late-19th-century Oxford were of value in society and did not deny their cultivation to other people. That is why they were in a university. That is why Ruskin, notably, wished to extend his educational projects beyond undergraduates to working men in Sheffield and elsewhere - maybe everywhere, he sometimes thought. Such matters are explored in "Ruskin and Oxford". It's the first exhibition devoted to Ruskin's attempts to teach a drawing style that might be used both by undergraduates and labourers. I recommend Robert Hewison's accompanying book (OUP, pounds 17.99), an excellent account of the contradictions and tensions that arose during Ruskin's tenure of the Slade chair.

How might undergraduates and working men be united, if not in a drawing style that by its nature would be anonymous? Hewison's exhibition describes the famous work, devised by Ruskin, on the "road-diggings" at Ferry Hincksey, just outside the bounds of the medieval city. There, undergraduates toiled on behalf of the impoverished village. Ruskin never explained his project, so its purpose remains unclear. Obviously he wished to teach young gentlemen their duties to other classes. However, my view is that the villagers were not in dire need of a road. I think that Ruskin's student followers had really been enlisted to dig a sewer. Ferry Hincksey, in marshland, had suffered in the Oxford cholera epidemics, as Ruskin knew.

The Thameswater-meadows so beloved by Morris had unpleasant dangers. But he seems to have been blind to the prospects of rational social improvement, local government and so on. I despair of learning anything about art or the world from Morris. He was blinkered, as visionaries so often are. Ruskin offers much more. He was a subtle historian who engaged in genuine intellectual discussion. Ruskin was a teacher, Morris merely an orator. Lastly, Ruskin is to be preferred as an artist. He had modest views of his own work, generally in watercolour, scarcely ever finished, and scarcely ever framed. But these drawings belong to the aesthetic movement and are among the delicate triumphs of early modern art. One cannot actively dislike Morris's wallpapers, but of course they are mechanical, repetitious and lead us to nowhere. Here ends his news.

'William Morris': V&A, SW7 (0171 938 8638), Thurs to 1 Sept; 'Ruskin and Oxford': Ashmolean, Oxford (01865 278000), 22 May to 15 Sept.

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