get involved
join us

<<< back to Standard Bearers


Visionary for a better world

by Tom Garforth

In the last years of this century, many hundreds of visitors began filing through the William Morris Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. There they feasted on a cornucopia of nineteenth- century design: a panoply of mediaeval, ecclesiastical and ruralist themes transplanted into the age of mass-industrialisation by one man and the circle of artists which he brought together. What William Morris achieved was nothing short of revolutionary - an awakening of a new vision for a better, more spiritual life for mankind. But what motivated this visionary and why the contemporary enthusiasm for his work?

Morris was born in 1834 and during his early years became obsessed with the Gothic grandeur of cathedral architecture. He imagined a mediaeval world inhabited by knights and ladies and governed by pure, noble virtues. It was a mystical vision - an enthusiasm for values that existed outside the present. And it was a vision that would never leave him. At first he sought to build a career as an architect, but found the discipline and detail of this profession too stifling. Art and design eventually claimed him and in 1861 he founded a company, the ethos of which became dedicated to a cultural and aesthetic redesigning of modern life. His business partners included the painters Ford Madox Brown, Burne-Jones and Rossetti, and together they went from success to success, gaining design commissions for churches and museums.

During his commercially successful years, which lasted right up until his death in 1896, Morris sought to transmit something of his early ecstatic vision. He argued that men needed to be liberated from the sterile, inhuman monotony of the machine era. Increasingly radical, he detested what society had become and yearned for a world in which dignity, beauty and harmony would replace a system that regarded men as nothing more than cogs or cattle. And so his artistic and design movement became the vehicle for these beliefs.

Tapestries, textiles, furniture, wallpaper, painting, woodcuts, church design, book design: every conceivable medium was used by the innovators. An anti-industrial, anti-urban theme was stamped on their work and the public became fascinated by the resurrection of an ancient world. Knightly virtue, religious contemplation, courtly love, the pursuit of the Holy Grail, the establishment of a rural arcadia of corn and sunlight - these were among the images woven into Morris’s creations. At last a new, alternative design for living had come into being; an idealism in which the eyes gazed back to an age long before the corrupting influence of capitalist greed and rootless materialism had debased the human spirit.

His work gradually achieved worldwide recognition and the achievements of his circle are still felt today. Examining the artefacts in the Victoria and Albert Museum Exhibition, one wonders how anyone could possibly have fitted so much into a single lifetime. Morris truly packed his years with a phenomenal range of activities. In addition to Morris the designer there was also Morris the writer, propagandist and radical prototype socialist, who believed in brotherhood and community rather than competition.

These beliefs have led some socialist politicians, such as Tony Benn, to claim Morris as an icon for the Left. Yet I wonder how the multiculturalists and ‘politically correct’ egalitarians of Old and New Labour feel about Morris’s devotion to Anglo-Saxon culture; his veneration of Arthurian myth; and to use a favourite term of the Left, his general ‘ethnocentricity’? I wonder how many Labour councillors and MPs would, today, marvel at Morris’s translations of Icelandic sagas; his dream-like, ruralist prophecies; his attraction to the moral certainties of the mediaeval world; and his own personal love of fine living, in harmony with Nature and England?

However, some contemporary socialists (perhaps unaware of Morris’s now unfashionable cultural views) do hold him in high esteem, not least the planners and social scientists of Essex University. This institution, famous for its radical chic, even named one of its high-rise accommodation blocks after the great man. I wonder what he would have thought of a drab, featureless, grey slab bearing the name: William Morris Tower? And I wonder too if the University’s naming committee ever realised that Morris was a vigorous opponent of the idea that people should be packed together in flats! The phrase ‘turning in one’s grave’ comes to mind.

But despite this betraval, the name of William Morris continues to act as a magnet. A whole new generation, appalled by the semi-modernist void in which we live, is being drawn to his nourishing vision. When in the presence of his works, people suddenly wonder what England might have been like today if that vision had truly triumphed. Instead of cosmopolitan cityscapes built from primitive concrete and steel blocks - the sort of architecture which, incredibly, may form the style for the new Victoria and Albert Museum extension - urban Britain could have been a pleasing tribute to the nobility of earlier times. Instead of a population consuming the tasteless products of a globalised, standardised wilderness, we might have had a society in which craftsmanship and quality bred a new race of civilised men.

Yet the tide may soon turn and with it the complexion of the future. Let us hope that generations to come will find that Holy Grail of order, beauty, simplicity, spirituality and civilisation, the quest to which William Morris dedicated his life.

<<< back to Standard Bearers

::: privacy policy ::: terms of use ::: flash intro ::: © The Freedom Party 2003 :::