William Morris and Kelmscott Manor

20170518_142652It is surprising that I’ve never been to Kelmscott Manor before, but this week I went with a group from the Birmingham Midland Institute. I gave a lecture about William Morris while we were travelling, so I spent the preceding week deeply immersed in Morris’s life and work, and it has increased my passion for him. Visiting Kelmscott consequently felt like something of a pilgrimage. The Manor has an interesting history anyway, dating from 1600, and Morris felt that it was “the loveliest haunt of ancient peace”, which seemed to be rooted in the soil and the people who had lived there. The image of Kelmscott is particularly famous for its appearance as the frontispiece for Morris’s utopian novel News from Nowhere, and it was wonderful to see it in the stone, as it were, and to feel the deep peace which the place exudes.'Kelmscott Manor' 1893  (Frontispiece from 'News from Nowhere')

Morris was fascinated by the medieval period, ideas and ideals as well as aesthetics, since his childhood when he rode around on a pony in his suit of miniature armour and made up stories in the woods about knights, ladies and fairies. As he grew up, rejecting the Church as a profession in favour of architecture while he was at Oxford, his thoughts and ideas all seem to stem from this childhood interest. Books influenced him deeply; he’d apparently read all of Walter Scott’s novels by the age of nine, and at University he discovered Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present, John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice and Charlotte Yonge’s The Heir of Redclyffe. What these books all share, I think, is dissatisfaction with the industrial, self-seeking present, and a desire to revisit the past which is more than nostalgia, but a genuine desire to put right what they felt was wrong with the world. Like the modern-day knight of Yonge’s novel, Guy Morville, Morris’s life demonstrates how he lived out the ideals he developed as a young man.

Morris is mostly remembered as a designer, now, and of course there are many of his designs at Kelmscott Manor, which is perhaps more simply furnished than one might 20170518_144830expect, but in a distinctive style (I’ve now discovered why my parents painted all their furniture dark green) with natural, clear colours. Many of the fabrics and objects there were brought there after his death, but it’s wonderful to see his bed, with the poem he wrote for it embroidered by Jane around it, which begins:

The wind’s on the wold
And the night is a-cold,
And Thames runs chill
‘Twixt mead and hill.

Morris’s poetry, his Norse tales, his Socialist work and his designs all demonstrate a remarkable sense of unity. Though his Socialism developed after he encountered Marx’s Das Kapital, he was always anxious for opportunities for all, and for a fairer system to be achieved in Britain, for which he was quite prepared for violent anarchy – indeed, he felt it was probably the only way, and in News from Nowhere it is apparent that such a revolution had occurred. His desire was 20170518_144819not only for equality but for dignity and respect for all, and that comes in a very Marxist form in News from Nowhere, where all receive the same pay and love their work. The guiding principal of ‘The Firm’ which Morris set up to produce useful and beautiful household objects was that art should be handmade, using the skill of the craftspeople, and that all should have access to it. Of course these things may seem improbable or even impossible, and Morris is nothing if not an idealist, but there is something incredibly appealing about his beautiful, medievalized utopia in which all can share in the beauty of life through art, nature and love. The environment was an important part of this, too: how we connect to what is around us – buildings, places, the natural world – indicates who were are, and it is very clear what he thought of the pollution and destruction of the natural environment in the nineteenth century:

Is money to be gathered? cut down the pleasant trees among the houses, pull down ancient and venerable buildings for the money that a few square yards of London dirt will fetch; blacken rivers, hide the sun and poison the air with smoke and worse, and it’s nobody’s business to see to it or mend it: that is all that modern commerce, the counting-house forgetful of the workshop, will do for us herein.

He is remarkably prescient, I believe: I’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate recently, and Morris’s views that we have lost connection with the environment, that we are wreaking havoc on the wo20170518_144014rld and there will be ecological payback, and that capitalism in the form of industrialised society is the main driver of climate destruction are echoed vividly in Klein’s arguments. Wandering the beautiful gardens at Kelmscott, and walking beside the Thames where Rossetti and Morris wandered, one can see why he felt so strongly about this, leaving behind the polluted rivers and skies of London.

Morris said that ‘History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created.’ To be creative was the source of life for Morris, and Kelmscott Manor provided the peace that he needed for this. He wrote in the late 1870s of sitting in the tapestry room one evening, watching the sun set over the fields and hearing the cows lowing in the pasture; there are still cows there, and it is possible to feel very close to the past here.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Advertisements

News from Nowhere

Finally, I have got around to reading News from Nowhere, William Morris’s 1890 vision of a socialist Utopia, and it was well worth the wait; ‘Nowhere’ is remarkably appealing, despite its flaws. It tells the story of a man, William Guest (disillusioned with the nineteenth century, he is possibly modelled on Morris himself), who one day wakes up in the future, in 2102 – a pastoral future, post-revolutionary, which is an ideal Communist state. Guest travels around London, meeting people who tell him of the history of the revolution which caused this way of life to begin. Ideas of capitalism and indeed of money are things of the bad old days, and humans live in harmony with each other and with the earth, not owning property themselves but holding all things in common. Indeed, in these recession-hit times when we all try to be a bit greener, now is the time to read Morris.

In many ways, New from Nowhere looks back as much as forward; though all hierarchies have been done away with, and beauty and truth are everything, it is nonetheless a remarkably medieval ideal, as the image of the Kelmscott edition (left) shows. Yet this is not a prediction of what will come to pass, merely a dream, or vision; the intro to the Penguin edition, by Clive Wilmer, rightly suggests that Morris’s work “encourages us to dream for ourselves”, which is very true; I have certainly been dreaming up my own Utopia. A striking feature of the book, I found, was that as I read it, I would find myself thinking, “How does this work?”, “How did that happen?” and “This does not take human nature into account”, yet as such queries arise, Morris answers them. The question of human nature is difficult; the general goodness and enthusiasm of the inhabitants of Nowhere does seem unlikely, but Morris explains that our humanity has been corrupted by the corrupted system in which we are trapped: “[W]hat human nature? The human nature of paupers, of slaves, of slave-holders…?” We are so enslaved by the systems created by a politically-motivated and greedy society that we have become unable to make appropriate judgements.

The chapter on politics is a delight – about 150 words long, it basically says that the society of Nowhere has no politics, nor needs any. Yet there are some surprises: the educated Morris suggests there is no need for schools, and even seems to reject books and learning other than that provided by the natural world. Also, although this is essentially a secular Utopia, it is interesting to note the parallels with Isaiah 65: 17-25, where the “new heavens and new earth” are described:

19And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people: and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying.

 20There shall be no more thence an infant of days, nor an old man that hath not filled his days: for the child shall die an hundred years old; but the sinner being an hundred years old shall be accursed.

 21And they shall build houses, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them.

 22They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands.