On a tour of William Morris’s Red House, in the London suburb of Bexleyheath, our National Trust guide asked us what we thought Morris was best remembered for today. “Wallpaper!’ the group of fifteen chirped in unison. “Socialism,” one solitary voice returned.
Wallpaper and Socialism nicely summarise Morris’s image in the twenty-first century. In England, Morris is inescapable. In London, his designs are used on Daunt Bookshop’s shelving. They cover much of the merchandise in the Victoria & Albert Museum shop. Liberty of London stocks upholstery, wallpaper and rugs made to his designs, as they did 120 years ago. Morris books and souvenirs are sold at nearly every major and many a minor British museum and gallery. Perhaps most tellingly, pencils, mugs and umbrellas with pirated Morris designs on them can now be found on the souvenir knock-off market.
As a figure of historical importance, Morris has recently been added to the curriculum of British primary school eduction. The William Morris Societies in the UK and USA coordinate public events, preservation initiatives, publications, exhibitions and festivals that celebrate, remember and reflect on Morris and his life.
I can think of few other artists with such an immense, or invested and active, contemporary public following. Morris is poster boy both for the Arts and Crafts Movement that he popularised and for the history of British design and craft more widely. His striking curly mane, bearded profile and naturalist designs are identifiable to many, if not most, of the British public today – to say nothing of his international following.
This image of Morris was employed by Jeremy Deller in his exhibition English Magic, first shown in the British Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2013 and now touring the UK.
Deller, an installation, video and conceptual artist, sees himself as a conjurer rather than a creator. In English Magic, he brought together numerous works that referenced English heroism, folklore and politics. The iteration of the exhibition at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, which I saw, included a video projection of owls flying and swooping on prey in mesmerising slow motion, taxidermy, portraits from David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour contrasted against contemporaneous images of the 1984 Workers’ Strike, immense compacted Range Rovers and a series of drawings by British ex-soldier prisoners, from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The exhibition culminated in a mural of William Morris, made colossal, lifting a luxury yacht above his head, poised ready to throw it into Venice’s lagoon. The work, entitled We sit starving amidst our gold, references the docking of Roman Abramovich’s £115m, 377ft super-yacht beside the Giardini at the 2011 Venice Art Biennale. The yacht, which blocked the views over St Marks Basin, was despised and ridiculed by tourists and locals. Exploring the relationship between Morris and Abramovich further, Deller hung on the walls surrounding the mural framed examples of Morris’s nineteenth-century hand printed Socialist pamphlets and privatisation coupons dating to the fall of the Soviet Union, which resulted in the mega wealth of today’s Russian oligarchs, Abramovich amongst them. Deller said of his hero in an interview:
Well, Morris came to Venice, and loved aspects of it, and he was apparently a great chucker around of things. I had the sense this yacht and its connection to the art world was the kind of thing that would have pissed him off. So I kind of summoned him up.
Ascribing upon Morris the status of an English hero is not new. In 1959 the historian E. P. Thompson wrote:
Morris was one of our greatest men, because he was a great revolutionary; a profoundly cultured and human revolutionary… Moreover, he was a man working for practical revolution. It was this which brings the whole man together. It is this which will make his reputation grow as the years advance.
Thompson’s biography, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, established the popular understanding of Morris’ Socialist activities as an extension of his artistic and philosophical Romanticism. Subsequent biographers, and there have been many, have written their own Morris’s into being, but the thread of a hero runs through them all.
Morris was, however, a complex and anachronistic figure in the nineteenth century. I would be so bold as to argue that Morris was not a Victorian. He lived all but his first four years under the rule of Queen Victoria, but he hated the society that her reign produced. Morris disdained the trappings and greed of commercialism; he opposed fine art and its capitalist core, espousing instead the value of ‘useful art’. His review of the Royal Academy’s 1884 summer show found it deficient in the principles he believed essential to art. His criticism of the ‘art for art’s sake’ mantra of the Aesthetic Movement was widely known. His vocal opposition of Prime Minister Disraeli’s action on the Eastern Question even saw him criticise the foundation of the Victorian age: Empire.
Morris looked to history as an antidote to the Victorian belief in progress. He believed Victorian society to be oppressively ugly, aesthetically and morally, and he used history to produce ‘useful art’ (including poetry and literature) that was purposefully anti-modern. Morris looked to ancient history and English folklore as his guide and muse. Morris saw classism, the backbone of Victorian society, as a greater inequality than poverty, and he founded the Socialist League in 1884 in response. Aligning himself with the working class man, he embarked on a series of speeches across the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, however, Morris was operating a successful commercial business. Morris & Co., begun as an artist’s cooperative of six in 1861, employed over 100 people by 1880. The initial ‘Firm’ (as its founders affectionately referred to it) hoped to reinstate decoration as a fine art and practice a policy of affordability and anti-elitism. By 1881, the business had expanded to the point that Morris was able to lease a seven-acre former silk weaving factory, Merton Abbey Mills, in Southwest London. Whilst working conditions at the Abbey were better than in many Victorian factories, Morris found his Socialist ideals and financial success opposed one another, and the majority of his employees worked on a piecework basis whilst the owners of the Company profited.
Well over a century has now passed since Morris’s death and it has become easier to categorise his legacy. He is a gentle revolutionary, a humanist, a Socialist and Marxist unsullied by the horrors later committed under the banner of Communism. His image and legacy, wrapped in tapestries and wallpapers, securely keep him in the nineteenth century where, thanks to historical distance, he is easier to understand, to hang on our walls and remember as an industrious, well-intentioned and practical worker, artisan and craftsman who fought for the rights of his fellow man.
It is this view of Morris, found in today’s gift shops, that Deller’s work does much to challenge. The work forces the viewer to consider Morris’s more complex biography and legacy. Initially, we see Morris as the hero, as his popular biography promotes, lifting Abramovich’s luxury yacht above his head, ready to throw it into the sea, saving the art world for the common man. Then we are encouraged to make our own free artworks; large rubber stamps, ink pads and paper are provided, enabling the viewer (now an active participant) to reproduce the image – an obvious reference to Morris’s block printed designs and belief that the ‘useful arts’ can and should be practised by all. But we are also forced to see Abramovich’s wealth and understand its creation as the consequence of Russia’s Communist past. Here Morris and Abramovich become uncomfortable bedfellows, as Morris’s pamphlets and the coupons that secured Abramovich’s fortune hang together in the room. The former becomes an idealistic campaigner for Marx’s ideals, the latter one of Communism’s ugly twenty-first century profiteers.
Morris’s biography shows a man of two halves in opposition to each other: an anti-Capitalist reformer and a businessman. Historians have tried to reconcile these halves, but as Deller’s ‘We sit starving amidst our gold’ tells us, a person’s life is not easily reconcilable, and it is in the ambiguity between intent and action, or belief and practice, that meaning can be found.
Cunningly, it is in the gallery shop, as we leave the exhibition, that we can choose to become consumers of Deller’s Morris. Catalogues, postcards and even a miniature version of Deller’s Morris rubber stamp are all for sale. Do we want to buy Deller’s image of Morris? Can we reconcile that Morris was a Socialist hero with a commercial agenda? And that profit is still being spun off this contradiction today?