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Morris mores

In the latest in his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley considers the polymath William Morris

08 January, 2021 — By Neil Titley

William Morris by GF Watts

AT the 2013 Venice Biennale, the artist Jeremy Deller in his painting We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold showed a titanic Victorian figure angrily hurling the yacht of the billionaire Roman Abramovich into the ocean. The man depicted was the writer, poet, architect, interior decorator, painter, publisher, socialist, manufacturer, and conservationist William Morris (1834-1896).

Born into a wealthy middle-class family in Walthamstow, Morris was educated at Marlborough and Oxford. The architecture of the university was influential in developing his appreciation of the medieval world – he saw it as an antidote to the brutality of Victorian capitalism. His dislike of the mass-produced tawdriness it produced forged his maxim that “you should have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.

Nicknamed “Topsy” (after the Uncle Tom’s Cabin character) his appreciation of elegance did not extend to his own appearance as he was renowned for his tousled nest of black hair, his unkempt beard, and his general scruffiness. Richard Le Gallienne reported a meeting where the Duke of Westminster and other notables were on the platform preparing to speak when Morris “blundered in, like a huge bumble-bee… and making a hurried, rather embarrassed attempt to mount the platform, stumbled and almost fell with an uncouth clatter, which provoked a titter of irreverent laughter”.

Oscar Wilde described him fondly as “Morris, our sweet and simple Chaucer’s child.” He did, however, possess a wild temper that his colleague Dante Gabriel Rossetti cruelly used to provoke for his own amusement.

During his lifetime, Morris produced items in an amazing range of different crafts and techniques, including furniture design, hand-printed wallpaper, embroidery, stained glass, typefaces, and woven fabric. Once, while experimenting with the process of textile dyeing, he was called away to be introduced to the composer Richard Wagner. Wagner was utterly perplexed as to why Morris’s hands were bright blue.

Mostly known for his houses in the country, especially the Red House in Bexleyheath and Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, Morris also lived at several addresses in Camden including 17 Red Lion Square in 1856-9 and 26 Queens Square from 1865-72.

Although his marriage to Jane Burden lasted and produced two daughters, Jane admitted that she never loved Morris. She became the mistress in turn of Rossetti and later the adventurer Wilfred Blunt. Morris appears to have turned a blind eye to these liaisons.

To his contemporaries Morris was most famous as a writer, in particular the fantasy genre. His work influenced CS Lewis’s Narnia books, while JRR Tolkien admitted that his Lord of the Rings cycle was inspired by Morris’s work. In his 1896 novel The Wood Beyond the World, Morris even created such character names as Gandolf and a horse called Silverfax.

His poetry was widely respected and, on Tennyson’s death, Morris was suggested as the new Poet Laureate, an idea he quickly rejected. Prompted by a trip to Iceland and his reading of the Norse sagas, he composed a lengthy series of poems called Earthly Paradise, consisting of over 50,000 lines.

Not all of his audience were agog, however.

He was in the habit of visiting the painter Edward Burne-Jones and his wife Georgie to read the latest extracts.

Georgie admitted that she had to stab herself with a hatpin to keep awake.

Among Morris’s many causes, he was outspoken in his attacks on industrialisation, the resulting pollution, and the consequences for the natural world. He also resented the wanton destruction of the English heritage and founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings to counter it, opening its headquarters in Great Ormond Street in 1877. In 1893 his protests helped to prevent the demolition of Lauderdale House in Highgate.

On a visit to Paris, a friend noted that Morris spent much of his time in the restaurant of the newly erected modernistic Eiffel Tower. On being asked why he liked the structure so much, in a famous comment (often attributed to others) Morris snorted: “The only reason that I spend so much time here is that because it’s the only place in Paris that I can avoid seeing the damn thing!”

He became an associate of Karl Marx and often met with him at the Communist Working Men’s Club at 49 Goodge Street. This association emphasised the contradictions in Morris’s world, not least the problem of creating and operating a highly successful and competitive manufacturing company while at the same time being a principled Socialist. He occupied an almost unique position as a medieval Marxist capitalist.

While he was a fine speaker and publicist for English socialism, sometimes his oratory failed. Morris reported: “A dreadful woman has been asking me ‘What is my Message to the People of Hackney Wick’?” I was very nice and did my best. I said I hoped they were pretty well and that I was pretty well and – that was all I could think of. But she wasn’t pleased.”

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