Before I get into the awesomeness that is William Morris, I want to take a moment to say this is my 201st post on this blog. Not a huge milestone, as far as these things go, but still, that’s pretty cool.
Anyhow, William Morris.
One of the things about the 19th century in England that people don’t tend to talk about very much is how it’s a period of personal achievements akin to the Renaissance. We talk about Renaissance men (and women) who were great artists and poets and lawyers and Classical scholars and diplomats and priests — or at least four or five out of six. Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rabelais, a great number of other people whose heights were perhaps not quite so grand but whose breadth was, and who were better at more things than most of us, in our specialised era, are at our specialties. There are poets today who are as good as Sir Walter Raleigh or John Donne; most of them will not be going down to history for their gallantry, their piracy, their sermons, their piety as well. Though it would be pretty cool if they did.
When we come to the 19th century, we have another run of absurdly wide-ranging talented people. (Mostly men, but not entirely.) We have people who went off and conquered half the world for England, and also were botanists, palaeontologists, linguists, translators, diplomats, spies, mathematicians, painters, philosophers. (Many of them were also Classical scholars. It seems to go with the territory.)
William Morris is one of these Renaissance men of the 19th century. He is best known today for his wallpaper, I expect, and other interior-decorating designs. He was a social reformer, an extremely successful businessman, a writer of manifestos — that other great product of the 19th century — an artist of no mean skill, a poet (not one of the greatest, but not one of the worst, either), and a novelist whose stories are still worth reading today, though you do have to be in the mood for them because he made up an archaic version of English prose to go along with his visions of a Medieval England as imaginary and delightful as the imaginary England of the Inklings a few decades later.
My favourite of Morris’ novels is The Well at the World’s End, in two volumes, which you can often find in used bookstores because it was reprinted in the 1970s by Ballantine Books. This is a story about a quest to find the well at the world’s end; adventures ensue. The women characters are quite strong, pleasingly enough. Another one I go back to fairly often is The Water of the Wondrous Isles and The Wood Beyond the World (you can see he had a thing for alliterative titles beginning with W). I’ve never quite gotten in to News from Nowhere,which is a time-travel story of a utopian future.
I really like William Morris’ designs, and work slowly away on various needlepoint tapestries based on his designs (I get kits from Beth Russell; I’m currently working on The Peacock). I also very much like his most famous pronouncement:
“If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” (“The Beauty of Life” lecture, 1880).
I am not a minimalist by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve mentioned this before; I acquired some twenty-five books, a coat, several rocks, a small jug, two agricultural implements (a sickle and a hedge-laying tool), about fifteen notebooks, and a tea tin on my walk across England, along with some Christmas presents at the end that don’t count. I do, however, try hard to make this rule count. When I was packing to move, there were only a very few things I wanted to get rid of, because although I tend to have too many things for the space I have, I don’t accumulate them indiscriminately. Well, maybe I do rocks on the beach, but I’m trying to get better about that.
A blog I enjoy reading a lot, Pancakes and French Fries, has a regular feature called “The William Morris Project” which is to go through her house and put this golden rule into practice. Me, I don’t do it as often as I ought, but I’m working on it. Spring cleaning is around the corner and a thorough organisation of my books. I aim at things that are both beautiful and useful — not much easier now than it was in Morris’ day, when he created a company to supply such objects to the English population, and helped create an entire architectural and artistic style that continues to this day.
(On my trip across England I stopped in a few heavily Morris-influenced places, including Cragside house near Rothbury in Northumberland, the ‘Arts and Crafts’ church in Brampton, and the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight, the Wirral. I was pretty disappointed I got to the Thames valley too late in the year to go to Kelmscott, Morris’ house; I’ll get there another year.)