Sunday, 3 February 2013

William Morris and Japan



The great Victorian artist, designer, poet, writer and socialist William Morris founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement, lived and worked in Leek between 1875 and 1878.

Morris interest in Leek was the consequence of an interest in returning to the colours in dyes derived from natural materials. He came to the town several times from February 1875 onwards some time staying for several weeks working with Thomas Wardle the brother in law of his works manager George at his dye works at Hencroft.

 Morris was faced with working conditions that were the consequences of industrialisation. He regarded one of the worst aspects of factories was the tendency to chain workers to a single repetitive task. Morris would describe in a lecture of the 1880s that the modern factory as “a temple of overcrowding and overwork” His anti factory system writings drew on his Leek experience. For the first time he came across the social consequences of capitalism and its impact upon people. The poor huddled together beside gigantic factories in houses the size of dog kennels. He also saw the spoliation of rivers and the increase in atmospheric pollution which he concluded were the consequence of unrestricted capitalism. The 19th century had a profound impact upon Leek, in the 1870s has seem its population triple from the beginning of the century. This growth in its textile industry would result in it becoming one of the centres of the British silk industry. At the start of his first stay Morris initial opinion about Leek was favourable. He thought the town not nearly as bad as he anticipated and in a letter to his wife described the countryside around as being beautiful.

He lodged with the local industrialist Thomas Wardle  in his substantial house in St Edward Street. Morris became obsessive with the goal of producing prefect original colours naturally. Both Wardle and Morris spoke to older dyers who remembered how they did things before synthetic dyes were introduced. Morris would write back to friends and family chronicling the experiments and the search for natural dyes that he and Wardle were enthusiastically embarking upon but it was the search for the perfect blue that dominated Morris’s time and energy.

 He became an expert at the process, one could almost say obsessive, knowledgeable on the problems of oxidation identifying the smell of “stinking meat” which indicated that the dye was ready. He was” hands on” in this hunt and when he returned to London it amused his friends to discover that his hands were bright blue. It caused embarrassment to him when he was out and about in the capital and he was nervous about gaining admission to the premier of Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera “The Sorcerer” because of the state of his stained hands. While away from Leek he fretted and became engaged in a protracted correspondence with Wardle about the experiments in colour this correspondence is described by Morris’s biographer Fiona McCarthy as being amongst the most remarkable business letters ever written. Morris became more and more demanding and began to loose his temper

“They have been very trying: but I wish I hadn’t been such a fool: perhaps they will turn me out tomorrow or put me in a blue vat”.

Ultimately Morris was dissatisfied with the Leek experience although he continued working on these problems during the following decade.

They are a number of tangible legacies of William Morris time in Leek one being the interest he took in the Leek School of Embroidery which was founded by Mrs Wardle in the 1880s. He offered to design a rug for her woolwork and sending items to a textile museum that she created. Fiona McCarthy believes the most moving aspect of his time in Leek is the existence of so many Morris style church embroidered items- many of them still in use in local churches.

Another monument to Morris in the town was the establishment of the William Morris Labour Church shortly after his death by Larner Sugden. The art work in the church owed a great deal to many followers of Morris in the Arts and Craft movement.  The church had red painted walls with stencilled tracery. Woodwork was painted green and the curtains that hung there were blue velvet of one of Morris’s designs.

Interest in William Morris in Japan was evident within a few years of his death. 316 studies on Morris were published there between 1897 and 1975, the majority of which were written before the outbreak of the Second World War. Early interest in Morris’ writings primarily had to do with his social thought, which was described in Japanese as “artistic socialism”. The 1930s were the golden decade for Morris studies in Japan. In 1934 as a celebration of the hundredth anniversary of his birth, an exhibition of the works of William Morris was held in Maruzen, Tokyo.

In 2008 a major exhibition of work by Morris was held at  Momak Kyoto entitled Arts & Crafts from Morris to Mingei