Thursday, 13 December 2012

On reclaiming William Morris

During the early 80s my parents visited the dacha or summerhouse of the Russian composer Tchaikovsky outside Moscow. My father commented about the homosexuality of the composer. Despite all the evidence to the contrary the guide declared that Tchaikovsky was not gay.

This anecdote came into my mind following a visit to the National Trust property Wightwick House just outside Wolverhampton. It id a splendid Arts and Craft inspired house built in the 1890s by the paint manufacturer Manders family. It was inspired by a Oscar Wilde lecture that one of the family attended in 1884 on the House Beautiful. The house is filled with the art of the Pre Raphaelite Movement central to which is William Morris. The influence of Morris in the place was palpable. There was a plaque of Morris with the words “artist, craftsman and designer” surrounding his image. The house and its contents were certainly beautiful. But there is one think that is missing in all the displays that was that Morris was a socialist and a Marxist one at that. Incidentally so was Oscar Wide!  In the same way that the Soviets were pained by Tchaikovsky’s sexuality it seems that the National Trust appear embarrassed by Morris’s political belief. It was central to his work. A driver of the Arts and Craft movement was a rejection of the excesses of late capitalism of the Victorian era. Fiona McCarthy’s biography that came out in 1995 has a chapter on the impact that witnessing the living conditions of the workers in Leek had on leading Morris to embrace a radical response. We do a great injustice to Morris if we attempt to neuter him by overlooking his politics. He saw his passion for the cause as an extension of his work as an artist and a designer. He put it very simply: "nothing can argue me out of this feeling," he wrote, "which I say plainly is a matter of religion to me: the contrasts of rich and poor are unendurable and ought not to be endured by either rich or poor." It could serve as a creed for today