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William Morris: Anarchy and Beauty

“The art or work-pleasure, as one ought to call it…sprung up almost spontaneously, it seems, from a kind of instinct amongst people, no longer driven desperately to painful and terrible over-work, to do the best they could with the work in hand – to make it excellent of its kind; and … a craving for beauty seemed to awaken in men’s minds.”

–William Morris, News From Nowhere, 1891

“Nothing which is made by man will be ugly, but will have its due form, and its due ornament, and will tell the tale of its making and the tale of its use.”

–William Morris in his article “Art,” The Socialist Ideal, 1891

William Morris Anarchy and Beauty

Ivy Sanders Schneider–

Art and politics are frequent bedfellows, and while sometimes the art does its work from inside of museums or galleries, other times it rebels, quietly, in the homes of the elite themselves. William Morris, the 19th-century textile designer and poet was also an outspoken socialist activist. Although, ironically, Morris’ intricate, expensive designs were favorites among the wealthy, the manufacturing processes which made his art so desirable reflected a deep respect for the manufacturers themselves. Morris rejected the cloned, careless products of industrial assembly, asking instead, “How can we bear to use, how can we enjoy something which has been a pain and a grief for the maker to make?” – an outlook bred of his love of careful craftsmanship, and his commitment to social equality. As Fiona MacCarthy writes in her new book, Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy: 1860-1960, Morris’ passions as an artist and activist were closely linked. Industrialization led to “waste and greed” and luxurious excesses, and Morris “exert[ed] a prick of conscience.” In his 1891 utopian novel, News From Nowhere, Morris dreams of a world where, “all goods come from known sources, and nothing is superfluous to basic human needs” (MacCarthy, 2014).

Morris was born in 1834 into an upper-middle class family. He studied Classics at Pembroke College at Oxford, where he formed friendships fellow students who would be his companions and collaborators throughout his life. He also began to adopt attitudes that would shape his eventual socialist outlook;­ he began to read John Ruskin, whose work emphasized “joy in labour [and] the personal involvement of the workman in the work” (MacCarthy, 2014). Ruskin pointed out what Morris later experienced first hand: the divide between the manual and the intellectual, and the separation of manufacturing from artisanal crafting. Morris bemoaned the low quality of many contemporary designs and furnishings, his disappointment stemmed from his belief that “art made by the people for the people [is] a joy to the maker and the user.”

After college, Morris apprenticed with architect George Edmund Street, but after meeting the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Morris transitioned to painting. Both of their styles were a sort of medieval revivalism, and Morris continued to incorporate that aesthetic into his work for the rest of his life. Morris never had success as a painter, and eventually abandoned it in favor of decorate arts. Together with Rossetti, his college friend Charles Faulkner, and five others, Morris founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. in 1861, where he did his most influential work.

Morris lived from 1834 to 1896, but MacCarthy covers an offset 100-year period, from 1860-1960, beginning with the founding of his company. MacCarthy, having already written a comprehensive biography on Morris’ personal, professional, and political life (William Morris: A Life For Our Time, 1994, 780pp) here focuses closely on Morris’ art. With his aesthetic rooted firmly in the medieval past, his production process based on artistic movements of the present, and an influence reaching a century into the future, William Morris could hardly have imagined the breadth of his legacy.

In 1951 Britain held an art and craft festival on the banks of the Thames, the same river that Morris had described as an “earthly paradise.” Anarchical sentiments in the art schools of the 1960s can be traced back to Morris’ own aggressive politics; craft revivals in the 1970s and even the do-it-yourself ethos of this decade has roots in Morris’ deep respect for the lovingly handmade.

“If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

–William Morris

Ivy Sanders Schneider, a sophomore English major in Yale College, is an art & architecture intern at Yale University Press.

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