Unsung heroes for everyday life
Into a Victorian English society of coal-stacks, bustling factories and crowded workhouses, William Morris unleashed of flurry of artistic endeavor. The labels poet, artist, designer, manufacturer, and socialist don’t quite capture the diversity of his life. Morris founded a movement of art and design that sought to revive lost means of production, reintroducing beauty and humaneness into everyday life and inspiring generations of artists to come.
As a child of a wealthy family that lived on the edge of the ancient Epping Forest, Morris was mesmerized by the beauty and intricacy of the world. A voracious reader, he was especially fascinated by England’s medieval past, by Arthurian romances, Chaucer’s poetry, and later, the heroic Viking sagas of Iceland.
He entered Oxford hoping to enter the ministry but quickly became much more interested in art than theology. He gave art the old college try in the fullest sense of the phrase. He devoured all the English Gothic literature he could find in the library, wrote romantic poetry, formed a “brotherhood” of artist friends, and cherished a vision of founding a monastery for artists with his considerable fortune. Instead, however, he apprenticed himself to a prestigious London architect, only to quit a few years later to pursue painting at the behest of friends such as poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
His artistic focus shifted to making beautiful the objects of everyday common life. He designed and built his own country home, the “Red House,” so-called because of its revolutionary use of red brick. Morris then formed one of the first ever “design” firms with several friends. They opened up shop in London, specializing in design and furniture for houses and churches. With meticulous attention to detail, quality and a rare concern for beauty, the firm quickly became a success.
Even while business was booming, however, Morris kept up his poetry on the side, producing some 50,000 lines of narrative poetry and translating several Icelandic sagas into English.
Morris relentlessly pursued a more graceful present by reviving the tatters of a more graceful and humane past. He took up illuminating (hand-illustrating) massive books, scribing, and book-making, invented fonts, and expanded the firm’s enterprises to include traditional dying techniques, and the lost art of carpet weaving. As always, he focused on producing beautiful and useful things of the highest quality.
Morris considered art to be not an isolated elite activity but a “function of life,” a commitment led him into conflict with the burgeoning industrial establishment. He saw that a society oriented around industrialism quickly becomes dehumanizing. The only response, he figured was to reorganize society to be more human. As the Socialist party seemed to be the only party remotely moving in that direction, he joined with gusto, authoring propaganda and giving speeches on the streets.
He eventually grew dissatisfied with socialism and retreated back into the world of literature. He opened a small printing press, passed leadership of the firm over to his partners, and organized various guilds for designers and decorative workmen. He declined the poet laureateship of England before passing away in 1896.
Though his single deepest instinct was the “love of the earth and worship of it,” we can learn from the way Morris took beauty seriously and pursued it relentlessly. For him, art was simply a way of reintegrating life and making the world a better place to live in.
In our own postmodern age full of doubts about what is true and if we can even know truth, beauty has become one of the last universal means of communication. People still pay attention to beauty. Especially since we acknowledge beauty and goodness in the created world as proceeding from a loving Creator, how much more should we take beauty seriously as a manifestation of that Love to the world?
What was the last thing you did for the sake of beauty?