What do Pattern, Poetry, and Polemics have in common? The Arts and Crafts Movement’s poet, novelist, publisher, translator, architect, designer, craftsman, retailer, environmentalist, and social activist William Morris! I was delighted to be able to visit the William Morris Gallery, in Walthamstow, which tells the story of William Morris and his multiple achievements: the elaborate, detailed, inspirational designs and their manufacture/production/application; the poetry and prose; the perfectly hand-crafted books; the politics, speeches and support for the Victorian poor… Morris applied himself with awe-inspiring energy and dedication to an astonishing array of disciplines.
There’s an organic unity in his work, each piece containing seeds from whatever he’d been working on, in whatever field. Despite this connectivity and continuation in his work, Morris has often been strongly and unfortunately linked with mere wallpaper design. I found this contradiction interesting in itself, as if the critics and the viewers, the consumers of his work, could not cope with someone different to themselves, someone excelling in many fields, rather than just one, if at that. It is not the only contradiction. The critical assessment of his work rests on this ground of contradictory perception, for example, when it is pointed out that Morris decorated the houses of the rich while campaigning for the rights of the poor.
Yet, Morris himself was aware of the connections between disciplines and the depth achieved when we become conscious of them. Lecturing on design, in 1881, he claimed,
‘any decoration is futile … when it does not remind you of something beyond itself’.
Beyond Morris’ decorations, patterns, and wallpapers lie references to the medieval world, history and myth, nature and society, beauty, and above all the assertion that we are all made of the same stuff. Although referring back to a pre-industrial age, his is a utopian vision of humans fulfilling their creativity, and themselves, in self-determined, non-alienated work, within an egalitarian society that supports them in this endeavour. In those terms, in addition to his role in the Arts and Crafts movement, he comes across as a social thinker and moral visionary working towards a better world.
the heart of a soft