The Soul of Man under Socialism by Oscar Wilde (1891)

Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.

 A brief recap

Wilde debuted with a volume of slender and derivative poems in 1881 and was promptly invited to undertake a lecture tour of America in 1882 which proved fabulously successful. Throughout the 1880s he established himself via essays, reviews and articles (not least for The Woman’s World magazine which he edited for a spell) as a flamboyant journalist, leading representative of the Aesthetic movement, as well as fashioning himself into one of the London’s most notorious and newsworthy personalities.

Tiring of makepiece journalism, towards the end of the decade he made the transition to becoming a full-time writer of prose with a series of short stories and essays:

– as well as his one and fabulous novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) – before embarking on the series of comic dramas which clinched his reputation:

  • Lady Windermere’s Fan  (1892)
  • A Woman of No Importance (1893)
  • An Ideal Husband (1894)
  • The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)

The Soul of Man Under Socialism, published in 1891, was therefore written at the height of Wilde’s powers as a prose artist.


The Soul of Man under Socialism

Believe it or not, this essay was written under the influence of the contemporary anarchist philosopher, Kropotkin, whose works Wilde had been reading. Dangerous thing, reading.

It is foolish to try and extract too sensible, coherent or linear an argument from a Wilde text. His whole purpose is to entertain and delight, and witty paradox or bon mots will always take precedence over logic. And sure enough the second half of this long essay does wander a long way from the ostensible topic, so much so that it ceases to be a consideration of Socialism, the political platform espoused by (in their very different ways) George Bernard Shaw or William Morris, and becomes a long defence of Wilde’s theory of Individualism.

In the first part, insofar as their is an ‘argument’ in this, Wilde’s only statement on politics, it can be summed up quickly: Capitalism forces men to waste their energy and genius trying to help each other in vain and silly ‘politics’ or pointless ‘charity’. In a world set free by technology, everyone would be free to express themselves creatively. Wilde the artist and art critic, rather inevitably sees Art as the highest form of being, and involvement in creating or appreciating art the highest fulfilment of human nature.

His vision of socialism is one where everyone devotes all their energies to developing and moulding themselves into the most exquisite art works possible. It is everyone’s duty to cultivate their individuality. Anything which prevents this ie the entire set-up of Victorian society, is bad.

For individualism

Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism.

Under the new conditions Individualism will be far freer, far finer, and far more intensified than it is now. I am not talking of the great imaginatively-realised Individualism of such poets as I have mentioned, but of the great actual Individualism latent and potential in mankind generally.

With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.

In the central part of the essay, at its hinge or transition, Wilde makes a prolonged case for Jesus as the first prophet of Individualism, a radical reinterpretation, spangled with Wildean paradox, but eventually quite convincing (or as convincing as many of the other dogmas and sects whch have been spun out of the Big One’s words). He presents a Jesus who is continually emphasising that the kingdom of God is within you, nothing to do with external possessions or even actions:

He said to man, ‘You have a wonderful personality. Develop it. Be yourself. Don’t imagine that your perfection lies in accumulating or possessing external things. Your affection is inside of you. If only you could realise that, you would not want to be rich. Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man. Real riches cannot. In the treasury-house of your soul, there are infinitely precious things, that may not be taken from you. And so, try to so shape your life that external things will not harm you. And try also to get rid of personal property. It involves sordid preoccupation, endless industry, continual wrong. Personal property hinders Individualism at every step.’

At moments a strightforward rehash of Jesus’s teachings, at others it suddenly sheds new light, making Jesus appear an 1890s Aestheste. This section can’t have made him many friends with late-Victorians, and it would be remembered at his trial. Everything beautiful and inspiring which he wrote would be used against him.

And so he who would lead a Christlike life is he who is perfectly and absolutely himself. He may be a great poet, or a great man of science; or a young student at a University, or one who watches sheep upon a moor; or a maker of dramas, like Shakespeare, or a thinker about God, like Spinoza; or a child who plays in a garden, or a fisherman who throws his net into the sea. It does not matter what he is, as long as he realises the perfection of the soul that is within him.

It is to be noted also that Individualism does not come to man with any sickly cant about duty, which merely means doing what other people want because they want it; or any hideous cant about self-sacrifice, which is merely a survival of savage mutilation. In fact, it does not come to man with any claims upon him at all. It comes naturally and inevitably out of man. It is the point to which all development tends. It is the differentiation to which all organisms grow. It is the perfection that is inherent in every mode of life, and towards which every mode of life quickens. And so Individualism exercises no compulsion over man. On the contrary, it says to man that he should suffer no compulsion to be exercised over him. It does not try to force people to be good. It knows that people are good when they are let alone. Man will develop Individualism out of himself.

‘Sickly cant about duty.’ This is a deliberate insult to the Kipling worldview and the entire administration of the greatest Empire the world has ever seen. For them, for the public school ethos which provided the administrators of the Empire, Duty is paramount, and Duty is about suppressing the self, crushing the self, denying the self in order to do your duty by God and Her Majesty the Queen-Empress. Knowing what lay ahead, it is impossible to read this bating of the Establishment without anxiety.

Against coercion

Wilde repeatedly warns that the whole point of socialism or communism (in his view) is to free people to do as they want and to be themselves. It follows that any sign of compulsion in the movement will risk instituting a new tyranny worse than the current one. How horribly prophetic.

I confess that many of the socialistic views that I have come across seem to me to be tainted with ideas of authority, if not of actual compulsion. Of course, authority and compulsion are out of the question. All association must be quite voluntary. It is only in voluntary associations that man is fine.

[For] all authority is quite degrading. It degrades those who exercise it, and degrades those over whom it is exercised.

No Authoritarian Socialism will do. For while under the present system a very large number of people can lead lives of a certain amount of freedom and expression and happiness, under an industrial-barrack system, or a system of economic tyranny, nobody would be able to have any such freedom at all.

What is needed is Individualism. If the Socialism is Authoritarian; if there are Governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have Industrial Tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first.

People sometimes inquire what form of government is most suitable for an artist to live under. To this question there is only one answer. The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all. Authority over him and his art is ridiculous. .. all authority is equally bad.

Morris and Wilde

Both men are more radical than their modern watered-down reputations suggest. Morris genuinely called for a violent revolution. Wilde supported Irish nationalism and signed petitions supporting arrested anarchists. They attacked the Establishment. They both thought the British Empire was ridiculous and immoral. (When Kipling returned to London for the first time as an adult in 1889, this is the kind of literary culture and writing he found offensively short-sighted, ignorant and unpatriotic. Which side would you have been on?)

Superficially their utopias sound very different: Morris’s utopia, in News from Nowhere, is rural and simple and arts and crafts-y. It in effect calls for a radical simplification of human nature, until everyone is reduced to the level of a pipe-smoking rustic. Wilde’s utopia sounds, at first, as if it lies at the other extreme, overwhelmingly urban, upper-class, cosmopolitan and super-sophisticated. And yet Wilde – after the Jesus section mentioned above – disconcerts with his vision of the character of the future, liberated, humanity – in its way even more wilfully infantile than Morris’s:

It will be a marvellous thing – the true personality of man – when we see it. It will grow naturally and simply, flowerlike, or as a tree grows. It will not be at discord. It will never argue or dispute. It will not prove things. It will know everything. And yet it will not busy itself about knowledge. It will have wisdom. Its value will not be measured by material things. It will have nothing. And yet it will have everything, and whatever one takes from it, it will still have, so rich will it be. It will not be always meddling with others, or asking them to be like itself. It will love them because they will be different. And yet while it will not meddle with others, it will help all, as a beautiful thing helps us, by being what it is. The personality of man will be very wonderful. It will be as wonderful as the personality of a child.

More art, more individualism

The second half of the essay wanders away from politics to become an extended disquisition on the nature of Individualism, on the necessary individualism of the artist, and consequently how all genuine artists must prompt the enmity of the stupid, suburban, philistine English and their lackeys in the popular pres, the critics who always want more of the same and never understand the New or the Beautiful. Socialism is left quite a way behind. The essay should really be called something like The Necessity of Individualism.

And on reflection I realise this is the weakness in the argument (if it is an argument rather than a collection of beautifully written witticisms and generalisations about Art): No matter how many times he writes that he is thinking about everyone in society when he urges a philosophy if Individualism, in practice figure of the Individual is always set against the hectoring of vile journalists, ignorant art critics, bombastic politicians and, behind them all, the vast stupid public, brought up to have the lowest, most degraded taste, and to be the great squid against which the true Individual must struggle to assert himself.

This, as Morris, Shaw et al realised, was not the language of the joiner, the supporter, the member of any political movement they recognised. How to get from a society where a few scattered individuals (like Wilde and his clique) were fortunate enough to be able to truly express themselves to one where everyone, absolutely everyone, either wants to or can, is the vast leap Wilde takes for granted. Just as Morris struggles to imagine how society can possibly make the transition from Victorian repression to the utopia of News from Nowhere, in which it takes the form of a kind of great spiritual awakening.

Now we know that it is brought about by social breakdown, anarchy, the seizure of power by a well-organised vanguard who seize the mechanism of the state and institute a reign of terror. England 1647. Paris 1792. Petersburg 1917. Tehran 1979.

Summary

This essay is often spoilt, wilful, showy, overly paradoxical. And yet in his disgust at the poverty and misery of so many of his fellow human beings in Victorian England’s grotesquely unfair society, and in his warning against the coercive element in Socialism which risked imposing a tyranny worse than the ills it set out to cure, Wilde was bang on the nail.

And in his combination of good humour, clever sophistry, flowing clear style and witty paradoxes, he is a master of this form, to be enjoyed and relished for his skill no matter what he’s saying.

Related links

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

The hopes of civilisation by William Morris (1885)

‘Hope’ is Morris’s key word, a central concept in his writings. It occurs 58 times in this essay, a fact which might give the impression the text is a wishy-washy set of liberal hopes for the amelioration of the wretched state of the Victorian working classes. In fact, this is by far the toughest-minded, theoretically advanced and historically grounded of Morris’s essays. He has been reading Marx and Marx has colonised his thought with a vengeance.

This lecture was delivered to the Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist League at Kelmscott House on 14 June 1885. In the preceding months he had been reading Marx and other advanced socialist economists – some of his other essays and lectures of the time go out of their way to explain Marxist concepts such as surplus labour in great detail: ‘On the whole tough as the job is you ought to read Marx if you can: up to date he is the only completely scientific Economist on our side.’ (Letter to J Carruthers, Feb 1885)

The hopes of civilisation amounts to a long and detailed recapitulation of the claim from The Communist Manifesto that all history has been the history of class struggle and proceeds to describe these class struggles in great detail. Early on there is some of the old medievalising Morris we’re used to:

Not seldom I please myself with trying to realize the face of mediaeval England; the many chases and great woods, the stretches of common tillage and common pasture quite unenclosed; the rough husbandry of the tilled parts, the unimproved breeds of cattle, sheep, and swine; especially the latter, so lank and long and lathy, looking so strange to us; the strings of packhorses along the bridle- roads, the scantiness of the wheel-roads, scarce any except those left by the Romans, and those made from monastery to monastery: the scarcity of bridges, and people using ferries instead, or fords where they could; the little towns, well bechurched, often walled; the villages just where they are now (except for those that have nothing but the church left to tell of them), but better and more populous; their churches, some big and handsome, some small and curious, but all crowded with altars and furniture, and gay with pictures and ornament; the many religious houses, with their glorious architecture; the beautiful manor-houses, some of them castles once, and survivals from an earlier period; some new and elegant; some out of all proportion small for the importance of their lords. How strange it would be to us if we could be landed in fourteenth century England; unless we saw the crest of some familiar hill, like that which yet bears upon it a symbol of an English tribe, and from which, looking down on the plain where Alfred was born, I once had many such ponderings, we should not know into what country of the world we were come: the name is left, scarce a thing else.

The middle ages which epitomised everything he felt was good about life. But the rest of the essay is tough-minded and merciless in its Marxist analysis: all eras, of Elizabeth, the Stuarts, the civil wars and Restoration and Glorious Revolution etc are seen through the lens of the class struggle between landowners and the nascent businessmen on the one hand, and the propertyless journeymen labourers on the other, who will form the basis of the capitalists and industrial proletariat of his own day.

Now, in all I have been saying, I have been wanting you to trace the fact that, ever since the establishment of commercialism on the ruins of feudality, there has been growing a steady feeling on the part of the workers that they are a class dealt with as a class, and in like manner to deal with others; and that as this class feeling has grown, so also has grown with it a consciousness of the antagonism between their class and the class which employs it, as the phrase goes; that is to say, which lives by means of its labour. Now it is just this growing consciousness of the fact that as long as there exists in society a propertied class living on the labour of a propertyless one, there MUST be a struggle always going on between those two classes–it is just the dawning knowledge of this fact which should show us what civilization can hope for–namely, transformation into true society, in which there will no longer be classes with their necessary struggle for existence and superiority.

His previous lectures cared very little about the situation on the Continent. With his new, post-Marxist cosmopolitanism, this lecture has sections giving precise Marxist analyses of the French Revolution and the Commune, the situations in Germany or Russia, more or less copied from Marx and his epigones.

The defeats and disgraces of [the Franco-Prussian] war developed, on the one hand, an increase in the wooden implacability and baseness of the French bourgeois, but on the other made way for revolutionary hope to spring again, from which resulted the attempt to establish society on the basis of the freedom of labour, which we call the Commune of Paris of 1871. Whatever mistakes or imprudences were made in this attempt, and all wars blossom thick with such mistakes, I will leave the reactionary enemies of the people’s cause to put forward: the immediate and obvious result was the slaughter of thousands of brave and honest revolutionists at the hands of the respectable classes, the loss in fact of an army for the popular cause: but we may be sure that the results of the Commune will not stop there: to all Socialists that heroic attempt will give hope and ardour in the cause as long as it is to be won; we feel as though the Paris workman had striven to bring the day-dawn for us, and had lifted us the sun’s rim over the horizon, never to set in utter darkness again: of such attempts one must say, that though those who perished in them might have been put in a better place in the battle, yet after all brave men never die for nothing, when they die for principle.

Here we can hear the true Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, the vaunting vainglorious rhetorical style which came to characterise communist regimes in the twentieth century. It is strange that it’s an essentially Victorian rhetoric, one which had to be abandoned by even its most jingoistic supporters in the West after the Great War, and yet lived on in the world’s communist regimes, sounding with ever-more ludicrous hollowness, enduring into the 1970s and 80s in the Eastern bloc, and still surviving in bizarre anachronisms like North Korea even today.

The essay ends with a detailed critique of all the possible responses to the current political crisis, as Morris sees it: he itemises the possible responses and then witheringly explains how every one is inadequate, short of full-scale Revolution and the overthrow, probably by violence, of the besieged Capitalist classes, before the new day of freedom can dawn.

Once he had taken the plunge, once he had joined the Socialist League, Morris wrote to all his friends, writers like Swinburne or his mentor, Ruskin, his artist colleagues Burne-Jones et al strongly suggesting they also join. It was the only way he could see out of the artist’s indefensible isolation from his fellow men and the guilt of living a fulfilled happy life in a society based on slavery. It would be interesting to anthologise the apologetic and sheepish replies he had from his correspondents as, one by one, they backed away and failed to make the great leap forward which meant so much to Morris.

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A meeting of great beards!

A meeting of great beards!

Useful Work versus Useless Toil by William Morris (1884)

To sum up, then, concerning the manner of work in civilized States, these States are composed of three classes – a class which does not even pretend to work, a class which pretends to works but which produces nothing, and a class which works, but is compelled by the other two classes to do work which is often unproductive. Civilization therefore wastes its own resources, and will do so as long as the present system lasts.

In January 1883 Morris joined the tiny Democratic Federation, the only socialist organisation in England. The move crystallised the sentiments he had been publicly expressing in lectures for years, that something was seriously wrong with English society. Here we were, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, commanding the most advanced technology the world had ever seen and yet the majority of the population lived in grinding poverty and misery, either altogether unemployed or employed as slave labour in nightmareish factories producing horrible tat.

This lecture was written and delivered in 1884, in Morris’s new socialist phase. As in his previous lectures he seeks to analyse the causes of the problem, but for the first time he inserts explicitly Marxist analysis of how Capital works to distort and exploit human effort, and in the peroration for the first time states that it may take a violent conflict to bring about the revolutionary overthrow of the established order.  His argument goes:

Defining types of work

Man must work; we must wrest our livelihood from Nature. But work need not be a curse, it could be a blessing, it should be the way humans express themselves, freely and creatively. More precisely, Morris analysis three aspects of productive labour: ‘hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure in the work itself’ ie that it should last a reasonable period and leave enough time to recover and rest; that it should be engaged on making useful and beautiful things; and that the work itself should give pleasure, as an animal feels pleasure in the exercise of its animal abilities.

To all living things there is a pleasure in the exercise of their energies, and that even beasts rejoice in being lithe and swift and strong. But a man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body. Memory and imagination help him as he works. Not only his own thoughts, but the thoughts of the men of past ages guide his hands; and, as a part of the human race, he creates. If we work thus we shall be men, and our days will be happy and eventful.

The class system analysed by its relationship with work

Having defined useful work, who in Victorian society actually does or is able to do it? Morris defines three classes: the aristocracy who make a point of ostentatiously doing nothing; the middle classes who bustle about a lot claiming to work but their work is either marketing and selling products made by others, or servicing the aristocracy (lawyers, doctors) and the great majority of the population who work like slaves to support the rest.

The upper class (does no work)

As to the class of rich people doing no work, we all know that they consume a great deal while they produce nothing. Therefore, clearly, they have to be kept at the expense of those who do work, just as paupers have, and are a mere burden on the community.

The middle class (busies itself servicing the upper class, doing no productive work)

As to the middle class, including the trading, manufacturing, and professional people of our society, they do, as a rule, seem to work quite hard enough, and so at first sight might be thought to help the community, and not burden it. But by far the greater part of them, though they work, do not produce, and even when they do produce, as in the case of those engaged (wastefully indeed) in the distribution of goods, or doctors, or (genuine) artists and literary men, they consume out of all proportion to their due share. The commercial and manufacturing part of them, the most powerful part, spent their lives and energies in fighting amongst themselves for their respective shares of the wealth which they force the genuine workers to provide for them; the others are almost wholly the hangers-on of these; they do not work for the public, but a privileged class: they are the parasites of property, sometimes, as in the case of lawyers, undisguisedly so; sometimes, as the doctors and others above mentioned, professing to be useful, but too often of no use save as supporters of the system of folly, fraud, and tyranny of which they form a part.

The working classes produce everything in a state of slavery

In fact Morris’s analysis goes deeper than the traditional three classes to look closely into the kinds of employment there are for the labouring classes. It is striking how unchanged society is from his analysis.

The class that remains to be considered produces all that is produced, and supports both itself and the other classes, though it is placed in a position of inferiority to them; real inferiority, mind you, involving a degradation both of mind and body. But it is a necessary consequence of this tyranny and folly that again many of these workers are not producers. A vast number of them once more are merely parasites of property, some of them openly so, as the soldiers by land and sea who are kept on foot for the perpetuating of national rivalries and enmities, and for the purposes of the national struggle for the share of the product of unpaid labour. But besides this obvious burden on the producers and the scarcely less obvious one of domestic servants, there is first the army of clerks, shop-assistants, and so forth, who are engaged in the service of the private war for wealth, which, as above said, is the real occupation of the well-to-do middle class.

Working lives wasted producing rubbish

A horrible irony of the system is that a large proportion of the working class spends and wastes their lives producing tat, so-called luxury items which Morris, with his keen aesthetic sensibilities, considers anything but.

The mass of people employed in making all those articles of folly and luxury, the demand for which is the outcome of the existence of the rich non-producing classes; things which people leading a manly and uncorrupted life would not ask for or dream of. These things, whoever may gainsay me, I will for ever refuse to call wealth: they are not wealth, but waste. Wealth is what Nature gives us and what a reasonable man can make out of the gifts of Nature for his reasonable use. The sunlight, the fresh air, the unspoiled face of the earth, food, raiment and housing necessary and decent; the storing up of knowledge of all kinds, and the power of disseminating it; means of free communication between man and man; works of art, the beauty which man creates when he is most a man, most aspiring and thoughtful – all things which serve the pleasure of people, free, manly, and uncorrupted. This is wealth. Nor can I think of anything worth having which does not come under one or other of these heads. But think, I beseech you, of the product of England, the workshop of the world, and will you not be bewildered, as I am, at the thought of the mass of things which no sane man could desire, but which our useless toil makes – and sells?

The logic of exploitation

If the men who labour are forced to do so to support the (admittedly small) upper class, and the much larger varieties of non-productive middle class, it follows that only a minority of their labour effort is left over to produce goods for themselves and that, because their labour is controlled by their masters, they will be forced to produce and consume only the most inferior produce possible.

For if many men live without producing, nay, must live lives so empty and foolish that they force a great part of the workers to produce wares which no one needs, not even the rich, it follows that most men must be poor; and, living as they do on wages from those whom they support, cannot get for their use the goods which men naturally desire, but must put up with miserable makeshifts for them, with coarse food that does not nourish, with rotten raiment which does not shelter, with wretched houses which may well make a town-dweller in civilization look back with regret to the tent of the nomad tribe, or the cave of the prehistoric savage. Nay, the workers must even lend a hand to the great industrial invention of the age – adulteration, and by its help produce for their own use shams and mockeries of the luxury of the rich; for the wage-earners must always live as the wage-payers bid them, and their very habits of life are forced on them by their masters.

This cheapness is necessary to the system of exploiting on which modern manufacture rests. In other words, our society includes a great mass of slaves, who must be fed, clothed, housed and amused as slaves, and that their daily necessity compels them to make the slave-wares whose use is the perpetuation of their slavery.

Is this civilisation?

Can this appalling situation really be the climax of thousands of years of history and so-called civilisation?

Men urged by their necessities and desires have laboured for many thousands of years at the task of subjugating the forces of Nature and of making the natural material useful to them. To our eyes, since we cannot see into the future, that struggle with Nature seems nearly over, and the victory of the human race over her nearly complete. And, looking backwards to the time when history first began, we note that the progress of that victory has been far swifter and more startling within the last two hundred years than ever before. Surely, therefore, we moderns ought to be in all ways vastly better off than any who have gone before us. Surely we ought, one and all of us, to be wealthy, to be well furnished with the good things which our victory over Nature has won for us.

But what is the real fact? Who will dare to deny that the great mass of civilized men are poor? So poor are they that it is mere childishness troubling ourselves to discuss whether perhaps they are in some ways a little better off than their forefathers. They are poor; nor can their poverty be measured by the poverty of a resourceless savage, for he knows of nothing else than his poverty; that he should be cold, hungry, houseless, dirty, ignorant, all that is to him as natural as that he should have a skin. But for us, for the most of us, civilization has bred desires which she forbids us to satisfy, and so is not merely a niggard but a torturer also.

Thus then have the fruits of our victory over Nature been stolen from us.

It is this robbery and waste on the part of the minority which keeps the majority poor.

The way forward

Abolish the unproductive classes. Make everyone do productive work.

The first step to be taken then is to abolish a class of men privileged to shirk their duties as men, thus forcing others to do the work which they refuse to do. All must work according to their ability, and so produce what they consume. hus, at last, would true Society be founded. It would rest on equality of condition. No man would be tormented for the benefit of another – nay, no one man would be tormented for the benefit of Society. Nor, indeed, can that order be called Society which is not upheld for the benefit of every one of its members.

By simple maths, if twice the number of people did the work which is currently done to produce X, then it will take half the time. Enough work will be done to maintain Society and also guarantee the workers enough leisure time to enjoy their lives.

When class-robbery is abolished, every man will reap the fruits of his labour, every man will have due rest – leisure, that is.

As things are now, between the waste of labour-power in mere idleness and its waste in unproductive work, it is clear that the world of civilization is supported by a small part of its people; when all were working usefully for its support, the share of work which each would have to do would be but small, if our standard of life were about on the footing of what well-to-do and refined people now think desirable. We shall have labour-power to spare, and shall, in short, be as wealthy as we please. It will be easy to live.

But Morris wants to go beyond this, beyond the workers reaping the fruits of their labour, to insist on one more condition: that everyone’s labour be pleasurable.

As long as the work is repulsive it will still be a burden which must be taken up daily, and even so would mar our life, even though the hours of labour were short. What we want to do is to add to our wealth without diminishing our pleasure. Nature will not be finally conquered till our work becomes a part of the pleasure of our lives.

After the revolution

But when revolution has made it ‘easy to live,’ when all are working harmoniously together and there is no one to rob the worker of his time, that is to say, his life; in those coming days there will be no compulsion on us to go on producing things we do not want, no compulsion on us to labour for nothing; we shall be able calmly and thoughtfully to consider what we shall do with our wealth of labour-power. Now, for my part, I think the first use we ought to make of that wealth, of that freedom, should be to make all our labour, even the commonest and most necessary, pleasant to everybody.

Part two – pleasurable work

All the above is only the preamble, accepted by most socialists, to the section which interests Morris. How, after the revolution, can we ensure that work is pleasurable.

  1. All work will be socially useful, unlike current work most of which is socially useless and thus waste
  2. The working day will be short, since a) everyone will now be doing the work which only half the population did before b) the great burden of pointless work, producing tat or pointless luxuries, will be abolished
  3. We will be able to vary the work we do: ‘A man might easily learn and practise at least three crafts, varying sedentary occupation with outdoor – occupation calling for the exercise of strong bodily energy for work in which the mind had more to do.’
  4. Education will be completely reformed to support this utopia:

At present all education is directed towards the end of fitting people to take their places in the hierarchy of commerce – these as masters, those as workmen. The education of the masters is more ornamental than that of the workmen, but it is commercial still; and even at the ancient universities learning is but little regarded, unless it can in the long run be made to pay. Due education is a totally different thing from this, and concerns itself in finding out what different people are fit for, and helping them along the road which they are inclined to take. In a duly ordered society, therefore, young people would be taught such handicrafts as they had a turn for as a part of their education, the discipline of their minds and bodies; and adults would also have opportunities of learning in the same schools, for the development of individual capacities would be of all things chiefly aimed at by education, instead, as now, the subordination of all capacities to the great end of “money-making” for oneself – or one’s master. The amount of talent, and even genius, which the present system crushes, and which would be drawn out by such a system, would make our daily work easy and interesting.

6. Popular art, which has been crushed and destroyed by commercial Capitalism, will be restored.

The craftsman, as he fashioned the thing he had under his hand, ornamented it so naturally and so entirely without conscious effort, that it is often difficult to distinguish where the mere utilitarian part of his work ended and the ornamental began. Now the origin of this art was the necessity that the workman felt for variety in his work, and though the beauty produced by this desire was a great gift to the world, yet the obtaining variety and pleasure in the work by the workman was a matter of more importance still, for it stamped all labour with the impress of pleasure. All this has now quite disappeared from the work of civilization.

7. Decent housing and pleasant surroundings. Once luxury and the parasite classes are abolished and the capitalists incessant drive to make a profit, to ‘make money’, then we can get ride of the squalid rabbit hutches we call houses and build homes worthy of the name, and not all cramped into slum quarters but spread out so as to allow for trees and greenery, for Nature to adorn our lives.

Capitalistic manufacture, capitalistic land-owning, and capitalistic exchange force men into big cities in order to manipulate them in the interests of capital; the same tyranny contracts the due space of the factory so much that (for instance) the interior of a great weaving-shed is almost as ridiculous a spectacle as it is a horrible one. There is no other necessity for all this, save the necessity for grinding profits out of men’s lives, and of producing cheap goods for the use (and subjection) of the slaves who grind. All labour is not yet driven into factories; often where it is there is no necessity for it, save again the profit-tyranny. People engaged in all such labour need by no means be compelled to pig together in close city quarters. There is no reason why they should not follow their occupations in quiet country homes, in industrial colleges, in small towns, or, in short, where they find it happiest for them to live.

[Regarding factories, where they are necessary] Science duly applied would enable the workers to get rid of refuse, to minimize, if not wholly to destroy, all the inconveniences which at present attend the use of elaborate machinery, such as smoke, stench, and noise; nor would they endure that the buildings in which they worked or lived should be ugly blots on the fair face of the earth. Beginning by making their factories, buildings, and sheds decent and convenient like their homes, they would infallibly go on to make them not merely negatively good, inoffensive merely, but even beautiful, so that the glorious art of architecture, now for some time slain by commercial greed, would be born again and flourish.

A new art

Some of his artistic colleagues complain that what we currently call Art (ie luxury) will almost certainly disappear in this new utilitarian society. a) It will be worth it, says Morris, but also b) genuine art is irrepressibly intrinsic to human nature and will reappear, but in new forms.

If the cripple and the starveling disappear from our streets, if the earth nourish us all alike, if the sun shines for all of us alike, if to one and all of us the glorious drama of the earth – day and night, summer and winter – can be presented as a thing to understand and love, we can afford to wait awhile till we are purified from the shame of the past corruption, and till art arises again amongst people freed from the terror of the slave and the shame of the robber.

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William Morris by Christine Poulson

I don’t have many rules of reading. One of them is: always go back to the source text, never read a summary or biography – read the thing itself. Every element of an original text, its spelling, its title page, the chapter headings and sidenotes and footnotes, the entire way it is presented, tell you reams about the author, their purpose, and the times they wrote in, or when the edition was printed. And all that’s before you get to the text itself…

This breaks my rule by being a biography, a large-format coffee table book by Christine Poulson who was, at the time of writing it, Curator of the William Morris Society in London. It tells the story of Morris’s life clearly and authoritatively in chapters which cover:

  • childhood, Oxford and the pre-Raphaelites
  • 1857 published poems in The Defence of Guenevere, little noticed, discouraged him from writing
  • 1861 setting up the Firm – Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. the start of 30 years of creating stained glass, murals, wallpaper, furniture, fabrics, curtains and tapestries incorporating intricate designs from nature
  • marriage to Jane Burden and happy life at the Red House in Bexley from 1859
  • 1865 forced through his wife’s illness to move to Bloomsbury central London – Jane’s affair with Rossetti
  • 1868 publishes The Earthly Paradise
  • the romantic chivalric ideals of the Morte d’Arthur no longer sufficed and Morris was drawn to the hard, bleak courage of the Icelanders depicted in the sagas: in 1868 he published the first of what was to be a series of translations of the great sagas
  • 1871 took lease on Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire with Rossetti: fled abroad to Iceland leaving Rossetti and Jane to their adulterous affair
  • late 1870s and thru the 1880s host of lectures to art schools and workingmen’s institutes
  • 1878 moved to Kelmscott House, Hammersmith: continued experiments with colouring weaving and tapestries
  • 1881 Morris took over works at Merton Abbey on the river Wandle south of London to produce carpets, tapestries and cottons, a glass studio and dye-house
  • 1883 revolted by Gladstone’s Liberals’ imperialism, Morris committed himself to socialism and joined the Democratic Federation, which became the Social Democratic Federation in 1884, the first British socialist party. At the end of that year Morris leads a breakaway faction to found the Socialist League, and for the rest of the 80s threw himself into political agitation, making speeches up and down the land in all weathers
  • from 1885 writes and edits the Commonweal the journal of the Socialist League
  • 13 November 1887 ‘Bloody Sunday’, police break up a massive demonstration in favour of free speech in Trafalgar Square, killing 2 and injuring 200. On 18 December Morris was pall-bearer to Alfred Linnell, run down and killed by a police horse: at the grave Morris called for ‘a holy war’ to prevent London being turned into a vast prison
  • 1890 publishes News from Nowhere, a vision of post-revolutionary communist England, just as the Socialist League fell apart into those prepared to compromise with Parliament and diehard anarchists. Morris withdrew his support.
  • 1891 his daughter ill with epilepsy, Morris ill with gout, possibly diabetes, told to stop working so hard and diverted his energies into founding the Kelmscott Press to produce high quality books
  • 1892, upon Tennyson’s death Morris was offered the Poet Laureateship (!), being still best known to a wide public as a poet. He turned it down and it was eventually given to the Tory propagandist Alfred Austin in 1896.
  • 1896 the Kelmscott Chaucer published: over three years in the typesetting and over a year in the printing & binding, it was put into Morris’s hands only months before he died.

But the joy of this book and the reason I borrowed it from the library is the liberal use of full-page, full-colour illustrations – of paintings by the pre-Raphaelites, homes and houses, friends and lovers, furniture, tiles and stained glass etc – and above all the large double-page spreads of Morris’s wonderful fabrics and designs, such as these:

Related links

Strawberry thief, design for printed cotton by William Morris (1883)

Strawberry thief, a design for printed cotton by William Morris (1883)

The Beauty of Life by William Morris (1880)

HAVE NOTHING IN YOUR HOUSES WHICH YOU DO NOT KNOW TO BE USEFUL OR BELIEVE TO BE BEAUTIFUL.

A lecture delivered to the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design, February 19, 1880. Reading around the subject I discover that the Birmingham school was in fact the first municipal school of art in the country and that Birmingham, through Burne-Jones and his circle, played a leading role in the Arts & Crafts movement.

Repetition

Morris apologises for repeating himself and this is, indeed, the most obvious feature of this lecture, that it is made up of the same ideas as the previous lectures:

  • current civilisation in the Century of Commerce is degraded
  • the arts have become split between a high art of demoralised artists working only for the super-rich or just for their own small coterie (art for art’s sake)…
  • …while the popular arts, the decoration and ornamentation of the everyday objects most people see most of their lives, have become crude and cheap
  • this reflects the unfair nature of Victorian class society ie a small number of parasite rich leading a life of luxury paid for by the wealth extracted from a vast class of slave labourers condemned to lives of servitude and ugliness
  • whereas everything we know about history and prehistory suggests that decorating and ornamenting everyday objects is a central element of human nature; preventing men doing that is cruel and stupid
  • thus, an ideal society would remove the parasite rich and, by doing so, liberate workers to work shorter hours and take more care over what they make – the pleasure of and pride in their work would be restored to everyone who works
  • it may seem a long way off but we handicraftsmen must set the tone and aim for this goal and have hope of better things to come

To be fair there are new sections here: the recap of the history of civilisation which takes in the Romans and Greeks and noticably downplays the Renaissance; a short passage about how his friends the pre-Raphaelites have saved English art; a section on the Environment and a plea not to litter, not to cut down trees; a section on the contents of the Ideal Home.

Sermon

I read that Morris and Burne-Jones at Oxford earnestly wanted to become priests, ambitions that took some time to die, and only when they transferred their zeal and passion to Art, as practised by the new pre-Raphaelites and expounded by John ‘the Baptist’ Ruskin. These Morris lectures, in their high-minded but vague phraseology, their uplifting vision of the New Jerusalem, and their call for moral reform, are much more like sermons than any factual and informative lecture I’ve ever heard.

A young socialist, Bruce Glasier, has left his impression of hearing Morris lecture in 1884:

On the lecture itself I only remember that it seemed to me something more than a lecture, a kind of parable or prediction, in which art and labour were held forth, not as mere circumstances or incidents to life, but as life or the act of living itself.

Quotes

I must once again call the faithful of art to a battle wider and more distracting than that kindly struggle with nature, to which all true craftsmen are born…

Most people live as if the beauty of life were irrelevant or an unaffordable luxury, whereas art and beauty in the widest sense, are vital elements in the life Nature intended us to lead.

The lack of art, or rather the murder of art, that curses our streets from the sordidness of the surroundings of the lower classes, has its exact counterpart in the dulness and vulgarity of those of the middle classes, and the double-distilled dulness, and scarcely less vulgarity of those of the upper classes.

Once more I say that the greatest foe to art is luxury, art cannot live in its atmosphere.

The danger is that the present course of civilisation will destroy the beauty of life…

My message is, in short, to call on you to face the latest danger which civilisation is threatened with, a danger of her own breeding: that men in struggling towards the complete attainment of all the luxuries of life for the strongest portion of their race should deprive their whole race of all the beauty of life: a danger that the strongest and wisest of mankind, in striving to attain to a complete mastery over nature, should destroy her simplest and widest-spread gifts, and thereby enslave simple people to them, and themselves to themselves, and so at last drag the world into a second barbarism more ignoble, and a thousandfold more hopeless, than the first.

So much is now known of the periods of art that have left abundant examples of their work behind them, that we can judge of the art of all periods by comparing these with the remains of times of which less has been left us; and we cannot fail to come to the conclusion that down to very recent days everything that the hand of man touched was more or less beautiful: so that in those days all people who made anything shared in art, as well as all people who used the things so made: that is, ALL people shared in art.

It is strange and perplexing that from those days forward the lapse of time, which, through plenteous confusion and failure, has on the whole been steadily destroying privilege and exclusiveness in other matters, has delivered up art to be the exclusive privilege of a few, and has taken from the people their birthright; while both wronged and wrongers have been wholly unconscious of what they were doing.

I believe that art made by the people and for the people as a joy both to the maker and the user would further progress in other matters rather than hinder it, so also I firmly believe that that higher art produced only by great brains and miraculously gifted hands cannot exist without it.

We must work towards an art MADE BY THE PEOPLE FOR THE PEOPLE AS A JOY FOR THE MAKER AND THE USER.

To be a man is to understand and create and appreciate art. Men in these degraded times have shut down that feeling in themselves, and so acquiesce in the squalor of the times. If men were whole again, it would inspire them to want to reform and change society. A feeling for art would prompt feelings for reform if not revolution!

Well, people will not take the trouble or spend the money necessary to beginning this sort of reforms, because they do not feel the evils they live amongst, because they have degraded themselves into something less than men; they are unmanly because they have ceased to have their due share of art.

You cannot educate, you cannot civilise men, unless you can give them a share in art.

He has a good passage describing the subtlety of the influences by which the system has ensnared us, by making the lives of so many people so much more comfortable in so many ways – but at the price of new forms of slavery for the oppressed.

If civilisation is to go no further than this, it had better not have gone so far: if it does not aim at getting rid of this misery and giving some share in the happiness and dignity of life to ALL the people that it has created, and which it spends such unwearying energy in creating, it is simply an organised injustice, a mere instrument for oppression, so much the worse than that which has gone before it, as its pretensions are higher, its slavery subtler, its mastery harder to overthrow, because supported by such a dense mass of commonplace well-being and comfort.

And Art, far from being the irrelevant luxury that the people in power believe it to be, can play a vital role in restoring to slaves their humanity.

… that evil of the greater part of the population being engaged for by far the most part of their lives in work, which at the best cannot interest them, or develop their best faculties, and at the worst (and that is the commonest, too) is mere unmitigated slavish toil, only to be wrung out of them by the sternest compulsion, a toil which they shirk all they can– small blame to them. And this toil degrades them into less than men: and they will some day come to know it, and cry out to be made men again, and art only can do it, and redeem them from this slavery; and I say once more that this is her highest and most glorious end and aim; and it is in her struggle to attain to it that she will most surely purify herself, and quicken her own aspirations towards perfection.

This is what we should set ourselves to aim for, a true and noble goal of creating a free, just society, not the continuation of our crass materialistic culture.

I had thought that civilisation meant the attainment of peace and order and freedom, of goodwill between man and man, of the love of truth and the hatred of injustice, and by consequence the attainment of the good life which these things breed, a life free from craven fear, but full of incident: that was what I thought it meant, not more stuffed chairs and more cushions, and more carpets and gas, and more dainty meat and drink–and therewithal more and sharper differences between class and class.

What I want to do to-night is to put definitely before you a cause for which to strive. That cause is the Democracy of Art, the ennobling of daily and common work, which will one day put hope and pleasure in the place of fear and pain, as the forces which move men to labour and keep the world a-going.

The pre-Raphaelites

There is an unblushing passage about the role of his friends (and himself) in restoring art to England.

You know well that one of the master-arts, the art of painting, has been revolutionised. I have a genuine difficulty in speaking to you of men who are my own personal friends, nay my masters: still, since I cannot quite say nothing of them I must say the plain truth, which is this; never in the whole history of art did any set of men come nearer to the feat of making something out of nothing than that little knot of painters who have raised English art from what it was, when as a boy I used to go to the Royal Academy Exhibition, to what it is now.

It is amusingly revealing that later in the lecture, in his brief historical overview of western history, he uses the same phraseology to describe the founders of Christianity.

Therefore no tyrant was too base, no pretext too hollow, for enslaving the grandsons of the men of Salamis and Thermopylae: therefore did the descendants of those stern and self-restrained Romans, who were ready to give up everything, and life as the least of things, to the glory of their commonweal, produce monsters of license and reckless folly. Therefore did a little knot of Galilean peasants overthrow the Roman Empire.

The pre-Raphaelite mindset of a small group of high-minded men determined to change the world morphs seamlessly into Morris’s vision of a small group of artists who can bring about a transformation of society, a vision still in the loose and open phase in these early lectures but which crystallises into the notion of a vanguard political party in his later political phase.

Related links

Detail of Woodpecker tapestry designed by William Morris (1885)

Detail of Woodpecker tapestry designed by William Morris (1885)

The Art of the People by William Morris (1879)

 History (so called) has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; Art has remembered the people, because they created.

Morris delivered this lecture to the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design, of which he was President, on February 19, 1879.

Art is despised

Morris laments that in their day Art is despised by the rich and powerful.

There are some of us who love Art most, and I may say most faithfully, who see for certain that such love is rare nowadays. We cannot help seeing, that besides a vast number of people, who (poor souls!) are sordid and brutal of mind and habits, and have had no chance or choice in the matter, there are many high-minded, thoughtful, and cultivated men who inwardly think the arts to be a foolish accident of civilisation–nay, worse perhaps, a nuisance, a disease, a hindrance to human progress.

But he and his audience are certain Art is not only valuable but vital to human nature and to society.

The arts we have met together to further are necessary to the life of man, if the progress of civilisation is not to be as causeless as the turning of a wheel that makes nothing.

Art for Art’s sake is a dead end

One of the obvious corruptions of the time is the immense amount of badly paid work and poor craftsmanship which goes into making pointlessly showy objects for the philistine rich:

I have never been in any rich man’s house which would not have looked the better for having a bonfire made outside of it of nine-tenths of all that it held.

Alongside it has gone the production of genuinely marvellous artefacts by a smaller and smaller coterie of genuine artists who, due to their complete rejection by wider Society, have turned in on themselves and work only for themselves and have finally come to believe that Art has no relationship with wider society or moralit, but can and should be made for this tiny elite alone.

I believe that if other things were but to stand still in the world, this improvement before mentioned would lead to a kind of art … cultivated professedly by a few, and for a few, who would consider it necessary–a duty, if they could admit duties–to despise the common herd, to hold themselves aloof from all that the world has been struggling for from the first, to guard carefully every approach to their palace of art. It would be a pity to waste many words on the prospect of such a school of art as this, which does in a way, theoretically at least, exist at present, and has for its watchword a piece of slang that does not mean the harmless thing it seems to mean–art for art’s sake. Its fore- doomed end must be, that art at last will seem too delicate a thing for even the hands of the initiated to touch; and the initiated must at last sit still and do nothing–to the grief of no one.

It is not that Art for Art’s sake is wrong in itself; it is that society is in danger of coming to believe that this incredibly restricted definition is what art is when Morris passionately takes the diametrically opposed view.

I know that those honest and intelligent people, who are eager for human progress, and yet lack part of the human senses, and are anti-artistic, suppose that such men are artists, and that this is what art means, and what it does for people, and that such a narrow, cowardly life is what we, fellow-handicraftsmen, aim at. I see this taken for granted continually, even by many who, to say truth, ought to know better, and I long to put the slur from off us; to make people understand that we, least of all men, wish to widen the gulf between the classes, nay, worse still, to make new classes of elevation, and new classes of degradation–new lords and new slaves; that we, least of all men, want to cultivate the ‘plant called man’ in different ways–here stingily, there wastefully: I wish people to understand that the art we are striving for is a good thing which all can share, which will elevate all; in good sooth, if all people do not soon share it there will soon be none to share; if all are not elevated by it, mankind will lose the elevation it has gained. Nor is such an art as we long for a vain dream; such an art once was in times that were worse than these, when there was less courage, kindness, and truth in the world than there is now; such an art there will be hereafter, when there will be more courage, kindness, and truth than there is now in the world.

The people’s art

Art for art’s sake is a dead end because the best art in all ages has come from popular craftsmen. Of course there are great cathedrals and mansions (though almost always the craftsmen who actually built them are anonymous, of the people) but the great life of the people of the past involved creative labour, work which produced beautiful ornamentation to even the most practical objects, and whose work can be seen in lovely village churches and in the best village cottages.

History (so-called) is the annals of tyrants and psychopaths. But between the endless wars, ordinary life went on and Morris wants us to celebrate everyday creativity in all its forms:

Not every day, you may be sure, was a day of slaughter and tumult, though the histories read almost as if it were so; but every day the hammer chinked on the anvil, and the chisel played about the oak beam, and never without some beauty and invention being born of it, and consequently some human happiness.

The core of  his message is that work should and could be pleasurable, not the downtrodden slave-labour it has become for so many Victorians.

That thing which I understand by real art is the expression by man of his pleasure in labour. I do not believe he can be happy in his labour without expressing that happiness; and especially is this so when he is at work at anything in which he specially excels. A most kind gift is this of nature, since all men, nay, it seems all things too, must labour; so that not only does the dog take pleasure in hunting, and the horse in running, and the bird in flying, but so natural does the idea seem to us, that we imagine to ourselves that the earth and the very elements rejoice in doing their appointed work; and the poets have told us of the spring meadows smiling, of the exultation of the fire, of the countless laughter of the sea.

If a man has work to do which he despises, which does not satisfy his natural and rightful desire for pleasure, the greater part of his life must pass unhappily and without self-respect… If I could only persuade you of this, that the chief duty of the civilised world to-day is to set about making labour happy for all, to do its utmost to minimise the amount of unhappy labour…

The Victorian age has perfected two kinds of machinery, those for making money and weapons, both a type of war-machine, the war of commerce and the war of imperial conquest.

But, on the other hand, matters for the carrying on of a dignified daily life, that life of mutual trust, forbearance, and help, which is the only real life of thinking men–these things the civilised world makes ill, and even increasingly worse and worse.

In contrast to the miserable slave labour which is carried out to create shoddy goods which can only be sold by huckstering salesmen (‘the toil which makes the thousand and one things which nobody wants, which are used merely as the counters for the competitive buying and selling, falsely called commerce’) or weapons which are only good for killing people in foreign countries, Morris’s vision is of a country at peace with itself and an economy built on fulfilling work.

It is necessary to the further progress of civilisation that men should turn their thoughts to some means of limiting, and in the end of doing away with, degrading labour.

Come the Revolution…

Morris is adept at listing all the ills of his age: poverty and squalor; terrible architecture of Victorian terraces knocked up to house slave labourers; complete disregard for art or ornamentation anywhere in life; the wealth generated by this slave labour frittered away by the rich who go out of their way to display their disgusting philistinism. But he can’t quite see a clear way to the improvement of this sorry state unless it is in a magical Transformation:

The present time of strife and doubt and change is preparing for the better time, when the change shall have come, the strife be lulled, and the doubt cleared…

That great change which we are working for, each in his own way, will come like other changes, as a thief in the night, and will be with us before we know it…

What shall we do then? what shall our necessary hours of labour bring forth? That will be a question for all men in that day when many wrongs are righted, and when there will be no classes of degradation on whom the dirty work of the world can be shovelled…

Hope

But the mechanism by which this change comes about remains a mystery. This is why the word HOPE is so prevalent in his writings. Without a clear roadmap for the future, he urges himself and his audience to work and educate and create IN HOPE of a better time to come.

if we were only come to our right minds, and could see the necessity for making labour sweet to all men, as it is now to very few–the necessity, I repeat; lest discontent, unrest, and despair should at last swallow up all society–If we, then, with our eyes cleared, could but make some sacrifice of things which do us no good, since we unjustly and uneasily possess them, then indeed I believe we should sow the seeds of a happiness which the world has not yet known, of a rest and content which would make it what I cannot help thinking it was meant to be: and with that seed would be sown also the seed of real art, the expression of man’s happiness in his labour,–an art made by the people, and for the people, as a happiness to the maker and the user.

I am, indeed, hopeful, but can I give a date to the accomplishment of my hope, and say that it will happen in my life or yours?

Meanwhile, if these hours be dark, as, indeed, in many ways they are, at least do not let us sit deedless, like fools and fine gentlemen, thinking the common toil not good enough for us, and beaten by the muddle; but rather let us work like good fellows trying by some dim candle-light to set our workshop ready against to-morrow’s daylight–that to-morrow, when the civilised world, no longer greedy, strifeful, and destructive, shall have a new art, a glorious art, made by the people and for the people, as a happiness to the maker and the user.

Related links

The Lesser Arts by William Morris (1877)

Morris’s few forays into painting weren’t a success and he quickly realised he had a gift for the other, practical or decorative arts. In 1861 he set up ‘the Firm’ – Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. ‘Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and the Metals’ – which became a thriving concern and undertook major commissions for the next 30 years and beyond his death. Morris was a lifelong champion of the practical arts and, when he became interested in a new one, he taught himself from scratch, often using medieval handbooks. Thus, in his final years, he taught himself bookbinding in order to set up the Kelmscott Press.

This lecture on the Decorative arts, delivered in 1877 (Morris aged 44) was thus given by a man with lifetime’s interest in and commitment to the subject. In his excellent introduction to the Penguin edition of News from Nowhere, Clive Wilmer says he thinks Morris’s factual prose is stronger than his imaginative: this reminds me a little of George Orwell who said that when he wrote well it was because he had something to say.

Morris really passionately means what he says and so his prose reduces to a minimum the Victorian phraseology, abandons the medievalisms and cuteness which mar News from Nowhere and his prose romances, and says what he means as plainly as he can. The result is page after page which you want to quote in their entirety because his meaning is conveyed as much by the rolling rhythm of his sentences as the content of his argument.

The decorative arts?

Our subject is that great body of art, by means of which men have at all times more or less striven to beautify the familiar matters of everyday life… A very great industry indeed, comprising the crafts of house-building, painting, joinery and carpentry, smiths’ work, pottery and glass-making, weaving, and many others: a body of art most important to the public in general, but still more so to us handicraftsmen; since there is scarce anything that they use, and that we fashion, but it has always been thought to be unfinished till it has had some touch or other of decoration about it.

These arts, I have said, are part of a great system invented for the expression of a man’s delight in beauty: all peoples and times have used them; they have been the joy of free nations, and the solace of oppressed nations; religion has used and elevated them, has abused and degraded them; they are connected with all history, and are clear teachers of it; and, best of all, they are the sweeteners of human labour, both to the handicraftsman, whose life is spent in working in them, and to people in general who are influenced by the sight of them at every turn of the day’s work: they make our toil happy, our rest fruitful.

The arts have split

As man’s thought has become more intricate, more thorough, the two branches of art – the Greater and Lesser arts – once united, have become separated to the detriment of both: serious art has become heavy, earnest, doomy, the decorative arts vulgar, mass-produced tat.

…the great art of Architecture, and less still with the great arts commonly called Sculpture and Painting, yet I cannot in my own mind quite sever them from those lesser so-called Decorative Arts, which I have to speak about: it is only in latter times, and under the most intricate conditions of life, that they have fallen apart from one another; and I hold that, when they are so parted, it is ill for the Arts altogether: the lesser ones become trivial, mechanical, unintelligent, incapable of resisting the changes pressed upon them by fashion or dishonesty; while the greater, however they may be practised for a while by men of great minds and wonder-working hands, unhelped by the lesser, unhelped by each other, are sure to lose their dignity of popular arts, and become nothing but dull adjuncts to unmeaning pomp, or ingenious toys for a few rich and idle men.

The Decorative arts are intrinsic to human nature

It is one of the chief uses of decoration, the chief part of its alliance with nature, that it has to sharpen our dulled senses in this matter: for this end are those wonders of intricate patterns interwoven, those strange forms invented, which men have so long delighted in: forms and intricacies that do not necessarily imitate nature, but in which the hand of the craftsman is guided to work in the way that she does, till the web, the cup, or the knife, look as natural, nay as lovely, as the green field, the river bank, or the mountain flint.

…the art of unconscious intelligence, as one should call it, which began without a date, at least so long ago as those strange and masterly scratchings on mammoth-bones and the like found but the other day in the drift…

(This last phrase reminded me of all the artefacts I saw at the wonderful Ice Age exhibition at the British Museum, tiny fragments of bone or wood or antler which had been intricately carved and decorated.) As such, as an intrinsic part of human nature and human activity, decoration and ornament should be part of our everyday work, part of our working hours to make our work rewarding and fulfilling and to create a world full of beautifully decorated objects which brighten our rest time.

I say that without these arts, our rest would be vacant and uninteresting, our labour mere endurance, mere wearing away of body and mind… only let the arts which we are talking of beautify our labour, and be widely spread, intelligent, well understood both by the maker and the user, let them grow in one word POPULAR, and there will be pretty much an end of dull work and its wearing slavery.

The death of Art in our current capitalist society

Morris paints a dismal picture of the low state to which the arts have sunk in his time and, in a typically extreme section, foresees the eventual complete death of Art.

Even now amid the squalor of London it is hard to imagine what it will be. Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, with the crowd of lesser arts that belong to them, these, together with Music and Poetry, will be dead and forgotten, will no longer excite or amuse people in the least: for, once more, we must not deceive ourselves; the death of one art means the death of all; the only difference in their fate will be that the luckiest will be eaten the last–the luckiest, or the unluckiest: in all that has to do with beauty the invention and ingenuity of man will have come to a dead stop.

The solution is for craftsmen to set an example

You whose hands make those things that should be works of art, you must be all artists, and good artists too, before the public at large can take real interest in such things; and when you have become so, I promise you that you shall lead the fashion; fashion shall follow your hands obediently enough.

The remedy, I repeat, is plain if it can be applied; the handicraftsman, left behind by the artist when the arts sundered, must come up with him, must work side by side with him: apart from the difference between a great master and a scholar, apart from the differences of the natural bent of men’s minds, which would make one man an imitative, and another an architectural or decorative artist, there should be no difference between those employed on strictly ornamental work; and the body of artists dealing with this should quicken with their art all makers of things into artists also, in proportion to the necessities and uses of the things they would make.

True that we live amid the disgusting squalor, poverty and hideousness of Victorian London, but we can decide to rise above it:

If you can really fill your minds with memories of great works of art, and great times of art, you will, I think, be able to a certain extent to look through the aforesaid ugly surroundings, and will be moved to discontent of what is careless and brutal now, and will, I hope, at last be so much discontented with what is bad, that you will determine to bear no longer that short-sighted, reckless brutality of squalor that so disgraces our intricate civilisation.

The loveliness of English folk art

Having recently visited the Folk Art exhibition at Tate Britain, and looked at shop signs and quilts and primitive paintings and pub signs and carved fireplaces and pin cushions I have a better sense of the unstoppability with which people will decorate and adorn everything in their lives. Morris hymns the modesty of this English folk art, shaped by the modesty of the English landscape:

For as was the land, such was the art of it while folk yet troubled themselves about such things; it strove little to impress people either by pomp or ingenuity: not unseldom it fell into commonplace, rarely it rose into majesty; yet was it never oppressive, never a slave’s nightmare nor an insolent boast: and at its best it had an inventiveness, an individuality that grander styles have never overpassed: its best too, and that was in its very heart, was given as freely to the yeoman’s house, and the humble village church, as to the lord’s palace or the mighty cathedral: never coarse, though often rude enough, sweet, natural and unaffected, an art of peasants rather than of merchant-princes or courtiers, it must be a hard heart, I think, that does not love it: whether a man has been born among it like ourselves, or has come wonderingly on its simplicity from all the grandeur over-seas. A peasant art, I say, and it clung fast to the life of the people, and still lived among the cottagers and yeomen in many parts of the country while the big houses were being built ‘French and fine’: still lived also in many a quaint pattern of loom and printing-block, and embroiderer’s needle, while over-seas stupid pomp had extinguished all nature and freedom, and art was become, in France especially, the mere expression of that successful and exultant rascality, which in the flesh no long time afterwards went down into the pit for ever.

Art is labour beautifed, pleasurable labour is art

What is an artist but a workman who is determined that, whatever else happens, his work shall be excellent? or, to put it in another way: the decoration of workmanship, what is it but the expression of man’s pleasure in successful labour?

Nothing can be a work of art which is not useful; that is to say, which does not minister to the body when well under command of the mind, or which does not amuse, soothe, or elevate the mind in a healthy state. What tons upon tons of unutterable rubbish pretending to be works of art in some degree would this maxim clear out of our London houses, if it were understood and acted upon! To my mind it is only here and there (out of the kitchen) that you can find in a well-to-do house things that are of any use at all: as a rule all the decoration (so called) that has got there is there for the sake of show, not because anybody likes it. I repeat, this stupidity goes through all classes of society: the silk curtains in my Lord’s drawing-room are no more a matter of art to him than the powder in his footman’s hair; the kitchen in a country farmhouse is most commonly a pleasant and homelike place, the parlour dreary and useless.

Environmentalism ie creating an environment fit for humans to live in

Science–we have loved her well, and followed her diligently, what will she do? I fear she is so much in the pay of the counting- house, the counting-house and the drill-sergeant, that she is too busy, and will for the present do nothing. Yet there are matters which I should have thought easy for her; say for example teaching Manchester how to consume its own smoke, or Leeds how to get rid of its superfluous black dye without turning it into the river, which would be as much worth her attention as the production of the heaviest of heavy black silks, or the biggest of useless guns. Anyhow, however it be done, unless people care about carrying on their business without making the world hideous, how can they care about Art? I know it will cost much both of time and money to better these things even a little; but I do not see how these can be better spent than in making life cheerful and honourable for others and for ourselves; and the gain of good life to the country at large that would result from men seriously setting about the bettering of the decency of our big towns would be priceless, even if nothing specially good befell the arts in consequence.

Against the elitism of Art for Art’s sake

Unless something or other is done to give all men some pleasure for the eyes and rest for the mind in the aspect of their own and their neighbours’ houses, until the contrast is less disgraceful between the fields where beasts live and the streets where men live, I suppose that the practice of the arts must be mainly kept in the hands of a few highly cultivated men, who can go often to beautiful places, whose education enables them, in the contemplation of the past glories of the world, to shut out from their view the everyday squalors that the most of men move in. Sirs, I believe that art has such sympathy with cheerful freedom, open-heartedness and reality, so much she sickens under selfishness and luxury, that she will not live thus isolated and exclusive. I will go further than this and say that on such terms I do not wish her to live. I protest that it would be a shame to an honest artist to enjoy what he had huddled up to himself of such art, as it would be for a rich man to sit and eat dainty food amongst starving soldiers in a beleaguered fort.

I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.

His vision for the future

I have a sort of faith, though, that this clearing away of all art will not happen, that men will get wiser, as well as more learned; that many of the intricacies of life, on which we now pride ourselves more than enough, partly because they are new, partly because they have come with the gain of better things, will be cast aside as having played their part, and being useful no longer. I hope that we shall have leisure from war,–war commercial, as well as war of the bullet and the bayonet; leisure from the knowledge that darkens counsel; leisure above all from the greed of money, and the craving for that overwhelming distinction that money now brings: I believe that as we have even now partly achieved LIBERTY, so we shall one day achieve EQUALITY, which, and which only, means FRATERNITY, and so have leisure from poverty and all its griping, sordid cares.

Then having leisure from all these things, amidst renewed simplicity of life we shall have leisure to think about our work, that faithful daily companion, which no man any longer will venture to call the Curse of labour: for surely then we shall be happy in it, each in his place, no man grudging at another; no one bidden to be any man’s SERVANT, every one scorning to be any man’s MASTER: men will then assuredly be happy in their work, and that happiness will assuredly bring forth decorative, noble, POPULAR art.

That art will make our streets as beautiful as the woods, as elevating as the mountain-sides: it will be a pleasure and a rest, and not a weight upon the spirits to come from the open country into a town; every man’s house will be fair and decent, soothing to his mind and helpful to his work: all the works of man that we live amongst and handle will be in harmony with nature, will be reasonable and beautiful: yet all will be simple and inspiriting, not childish nor enervating; for as nothing of beauty and splendour that man’s mind and hand may compass shall be wanting from our public buildings, so in no private dwelling will there be any signs of waste, pomp, or insolence, and every man will have his share of the BEST.

Hope and Fears for Art

This 1877 lecture was collected with four others in the 1882 volume Hopes and Fears for Art, and a further set of lectures, all broadly socialist in nature, were collected in the 1888 volume Signs of Change. Clive Wilmers writes of them: ‘These two books, central to Morris’s work, must count among the finest of his achievements.’ Hmm. Better read them, then…

Related links

William Morris (Wikimedia Commons)

William Morris (Wikimedia Commons)

News from Nowhere by William Morris (1890)

Reading William Morris’s fiction is difficult for two reasons:

  • his prose is poor, his characterisation and plotting non-existent
  • every cause he believed in and hoped for, and which his prose exists to champion, has been defeated

Morris’s life

Clive Wilmer’s introduction to this Penguin edition paints a handy overview of Morris’s life. Number one, he was rich. He inherited money from his father, who was a successful financier. He inherited an interest in a copper company, becoming familiar with then practicalities of business, at the young age of 21. Hence his later business ventures, namely William Morris and Co., unlike most artists’ ventures into business, were efficiently run and profitable. He died leaving some £60,000, which Wilmer calculates to be £12 million in 1990s money, even more today.

The trajectory of his life is clear enough:

  • involvement at Oxford with the pre-Raphaelite group round the charismatic Dante Gabriel Rossetti with their obsessive interest in medieval life, architecture, poetry, art
  • the powerful impact of John Ruskin with his belief that Art should be incorporated into everyday life, that Work should be made useful and rewarding instead of the slave labour of the factory
  • unsatisfactory attempts at painting which quickly gave way to interests in the decorative arts which came to include fabrics, wallpaper, furniture, stained glass window and book-making
  • as a young man he married the ‘stunner’ Jane Burden, a working class girl who married to escape her poverty but the marriage was unhappy and eventually Jane became mistress of Rossetti, plunging Morris into decades of personal unhappiness

Communism

As his arts & crafts business thrived, Morris worried that the works his company were making were only affordable by the rich. It was his lifelong concern to make beautifully-made things more accessible to everyone. Alongside this the growing conviction that society as a whole needed a wholescale revolution to abolish the crushing poverty of the Victorian age, to liberate the great mass of the labouring poor, to remove the ugliness of Victorian industrialism, to make work rewarding, the people free of the capitalist cash-nexus, and Nature restored to pristine beauty unspoilt by factories and pollution.

  • In 1883 Morris joined the Democratic Foundation, a socialist group, but left the following year to found the Socialist League (SL), disagreeing with DF support for Britain’s Imperalist foreign policy and readiness to accept a Parliamentary route to reform. Morris thought Parliament hopelessly corrupt. What was needed was a Revolution.
  • For the remainder of his life Morris poured immense energy into giving speeches, organising meetings, writing socialist poems and chants and songs, promoting his uncompromising Marxist beliefs in the necessity of an international communist revolution. He was introduced to Friedrich Engels and worked with Marx’s daughter, Eleanor. He was arrested a number of times when police broke up meetings and marches led to scuffles, but escaped prison due to his impeccable middle class credentials.
  • Morris edited, wrote and subsidised the Socialist League’s newspaper, Commonweal. From November 1886 to January 1887 Morris’s novel, A Dream of John Ball, was serialised in it. From  January to October 1890, Morris serialised another novel, News from Nowhere.

News from Nowhere

The authors of utopias tend to adopt the form in order to make polemical points, resulting in many utopias being strangely monotonous books which unravel into shopping lists of the author’s obsessions. Compare and contrast the success and popularity of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) a fully dramatised vision of future worlds, with his much more preachy A Modern Utopia (1905), which no-one reads. This, Morris’s most famous book, is no exception to the rule.

‘Plot’

In News from Nowhere a man in his fifites like Morris wakes up in Morris’s house in Hammersmith to find it is a hundred years in the future, England has gone through a Revolution and become an earthly paradise in which there is no private property, no big cities, no authority, no money, no divorce, no courts, no prisons and no class systems. People work freely for the joy of it. Everything they do, because it is freely done with joy, results in objects which are beautiful.

The plot, if it can be called that, makes Morris – here renamed William Guest – meet the people outside his Hammersmith home, no longer crammed in next to busy factories, iron bridges and bustling Londoners and now just one of a handful of cottages standing in open fields next to a magically unpolluted river Thames. Perceiving his bewilderment these friendly strangers take Morris in a horse and cart across what was once London and is now a series of beautiful villages thinly populated with beautiful, healthy, artistically-dressed men and women, to meet an old man living next to what was once the British Museum who – in a loooong chapter – retells in detail the leadup to the Great Change ie the Revolution which brought about this communist paradise.

Then they go back to Hammersmith and get in a boat and row up the Thames, now pure and clean and sparking, denuded of horrible factories and the vulgar houses of Victorian nouveaux riches, until they reach Morris’s country house, Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire. Along the way they pick up a laughing young woman Ellen, who falls in love with Guest. Then he wakes up and it was all a dream.

Psychological power

The journey up the Thames represents a journey through an idyllic, prelapsarian world to Home, which is also a journey back to Morris’s boyhood memories of a happier, simpler world and a journey towards the mutual, loving fulfilment he so miserably failed to have with his wife, Jane.

As I stood there Ellen detached herself from our happy friends who still stood on the little strand and came up to me. She took me by the hand, and said softly, ‘Take me on to the house at once; we need not wait for the others: I had rather not.’ (Ch XXXI)

It is a basket of deeply personal wishes expressed as a fable and I think what power it has comes from these psychological sources. It is an adult’s powerful dream of returning to the golden summers of his boyhood.

…the garden between the wall and the house was redolent of the June flowers, and the roses were rolling over one another with that delicious superabundance of small well-tended gardens which at first sight takes away all thought from the beholder save that of beauty. The blackbirds were singing their loudest, the doves were cooing on the roof-ridge, the rooks in the high elm-trees beyond were garrulous among the young leaves, and the swifts wheeled whining about the gables. And the house itself was a fit guardian for all the beauty of this heart of summer. (XXXI)

Issues

For the serious-minded, News from Nowhere also contains a shopping list of the usual issues which crop up in utopias and, presumably, it was the touching on these hot topics which helped the book become a classic not only here but among socialists and communists across Europe. In Morris’s post-revolutionary, communist paradise:

  • work – is Art because it is free and unforced, done for its own joy and benefit
  • economics – there aren’t any because there is no money, no buying and selling, no capitalism
  • education – is not compulsory, children are left to find their own way to express themselves, not force fed in ‘boy-farms’
  • women – are free equals of men, not given or ‘owned’ in marriage
  • government – there is none – the Houses of Parliament have been converted into a large communal Dung store 🙂
  • Nature – has been liberated from factories, steam engines and all the dirt and stink of industralism, reverting to pristine beauty – ‘As we went, the folk on the bank talked indeed, mingling their kind voices with the cuckoo’s song, the sweet strong whistle of the blackbirds, and the ceaseless note of the corn-crake as he crept through the long grass of the mowing-field; whence came waves of fragrance from the flowering clover amidst of the ripe grass.’ (Ch XXXI)
  • technology – there doesn’t seem to be any at all, no steam engines or factories, let alone electric lights or telephones or motor cars, ‘so that the most obviously useful works looked beautiful and natural also.’ (Ch XXX)
  • communism – is the name given to this ideal unspoilt world of equality and freedom

…almost none of which seem worthy of serious consideration. No-one would disagree that work for many is a grinding drudgery, that soul-less economics is the ruling ideology of our time, that education has become more regimented than ever and yet still seems to fail millions of children, that woman are still not equal or free, that the government is inept and political parties are just different flavours of yes-men fronting for banks and big business, that Nature has been ruined and despoiled, that a lot of technology is poisonous and destructive – and that it would be lovely if all this could be swept away and replaced by an eternal summer of beautiful men and women living lives of leisure.

By framing the issues in such a strong vision of a world born again, Morris certainly in his own day, and maybe still in ours, can give raise awareness of these issues and the way they are all connected in one bad ‘system’. But this awareness won’t find any solutions in the book because Morris has no solutions except a sweeping change of human nature.

Style

Beguiling as this vision may be, and long into the night though the arguments about any of these perennial topics of conversation could last, a novel is made out of words and Morris, although he has the fluency and confidence of a man of his age and class (Marlborough public school, Oxford) seems to be incapable of writing an interesting sentence. Bland and energyless and utterly predictable is every sentence in this long book.

So on we went, Dick rowing in an easy tireless way, and Clara sitting by my side admiring his manly beauty and heartily good-natured face, and thinking, I fancy, of nothing else. As we went higher up the river, there was less difference between the Thames of that day and Thames as I remembered it; for setting aside the hideous vulgarity of the cockney villas of the well-to-do, stockbrokers and other such, which in older time marred the beauty of the bough-hung banks, even this beginning of the country Thames was always beautiful; and as we slipped between the lovely summer greenery, I almost felt my youth come back to me, and as if I were on one of those water excursions which I used to enjoy so much in days when I was too happy to think that there could be much amiss anywhere. (Chapter XXII)

Old-fashioned diction

Morris thought returning to the decorative motifs and subjects of medieval tapestries would result in better design and this may well be true of his famous and successful wallpapers, curtains, furniture coverings and so on. However, it was not a successful strategy for his prose. Merely putting in ‘quoth’ and ‘said I’ and ‘methinks’ and a few archaisms like ‘sele’ and ‘mamelon’ does not medievalise or beautify his style. It simply becomes standard Victorian with some anachronistic phraseology and vocabulary.

Around the time of the Great War English prose underwent a revolution which had many streams, many authors and styles, but nearly all of them led towards a Modernist rejection of all old-fashioned diction and an emphasis on modern words assembled in shorter, stripped-down sentences, reflecting, say, the move towards Art Deco in the decorative arts or neo-classicism in music. In one short generation, by, say, the mid-twenties, Morris’s entire style and the endeavours of everyone like him who hoped to recapture and restore something of medieval beauty by using medieval words, looked ludicrous. In the 1900s Wells and Bennett and Galsworthy had created a kind of suburban English style; by the end of the War Aldous Huxley or Evelyn Waugh were creating a slick, spiffy style to reflect the Roaring Twenties. And then, of course, there were the Americans.

A short generation after his death, Morris’s prose, like his dark fussy wallpapers and fabrics, looked unbearably stuffy, a relic from a prehistoric age, tired faded books from an era become completely irrelevant to the permanent crises of the twentieth century. Why dream about lazy boating trips down the Thames when the Bolshevik army was invading Poland, or the Italian fascists were marching on Rome?

Today, a hundred and twenty-four years later, in a society and a world completely dominated by the triumph of Finance Capitalism, throwaway consumerism and environmental destruction, it is hard to read News from Nowhere because its vision seems too naive and personal, because all the causes Morris fought for have been comprehensively defeated, and because it is written in a prose which offers almost no rewards, apart from the lulling, drowsy soporific of a lazy summer afternoon.

We came just here on a gang of men road-mending which delayed us a little; but I was not sorry for it; for all I had seen hitherto seemed a mere part of a summer holiday; and I wanted to see how this folk would set to on a piece of real necessary work. They had been resting, and had only just begun work again as we came up; so that the rattle of the picks was what woke me from my musing. There were about a dozen of them, strong young men, looking much like a boating party at Oxford would have looked in the days I remembered, and not more troubled with their work: their outer raiment lay on the road-side in an orderly pile under the guardianship of a six-year-old boy, who had his arm thrown over the neck of a big mastiff, who was as happily lazy as if the summer-day had been made for him alone. (Chapter VII)

The whole book is like the lapping of small waves against the sides of a punt on his beloved river Thames, pleasant, relaxing, utterly without impact.

History

News from Nowhere was published in book form in 1891. One hundred years later, in 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed. For that hundred years the book was part of the continuum of socialist or communist texts which helped to support and justify communist regimes around the world. Now it has lived on into the ideological vacuum of the post-communist era. Much of what it says about the misery and exploitation of the capitalist system, about the importance of fulfilling work and well-designed surroundings and the despoliation of nature, remain true today. The difference is no-one believes anything can be done. Most people have abandoned any engagement with politics and live as atomised units connected by their smartphones and Facebook.

Seems to me what impact News from Nowhere possesses comes from two sources:

  • the psychological or imaginative power of its sustained dream of the long lazy summers of childhood
  • and a nostalgia for a time when people gave a damn about politics and believed they really could change the world

These two strands, I think, overlap and combine to give the book a sad nostalgic feeling.

Related links

News from Nowhere, Kelmscott edition frontispiece

News from Nowhere, Kelmscott edition frontispiece

Frank Brangwyn and the First World War @ William Morris Gallery

Frank Brangwyn

Frank Brangwyn was born of English parents in 1867 in Bruges, where he grew up and acquired a strong feel for the local people and culture, before his parents moved back to England in 1874.

Brangwyn had no formal training as an artist, though his father, an architect, encouraged his artistic leanings. When he was still in his teens he was ‘discovered’ by the artist Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo, who recommended him to the William Morris workshops. Here he proved a keen student and absorbed Morris’s gospel that an artist should seek to beautify all aspects of life.

Brangwyn was a prodigiously talented jack-of-all-trades and began winning competitions and exhibiting as young as 17, going on to build a reputation as not only a painter but the creator and decorator of stained glass, furniture, ceramics, table glassware, buildings and interiors, as a lithographer and book illustrator.

The Great War

At the start of the First World War, more than a million Belgian refugees fled the advancing German armies and some 250,000 came to England – one of the largest groups of refugees this country has ever received. Local relief committees formed all over the country, raising funds for the exiles.

‘Britain’s Call to Arms’ by Frank Branwyn

War posters

Brangwyn almost immediately joined in this relief effort by designing posters aimed at publicising the plight of the refugees and raising money for them. This small exhibition at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, north London, takes its title from a poster he made for the Belgian & Allies Aid League titled, ‘Will you help these sufferers from the war to start a new home: Help is better than sympathy’.

'The Retreat from Antwerp' poster by Frank Brangwyn, lithograph 1915-1916: copyright David Brangwyn

‘The Retreat from Antwerp’ poster by Frank Brangwyn, lithograph 1915-1916: copyright David Brangwyn

Civilian suffering

Brangwyn was so prolific that the style and design of his posters became virtually synonymous with First World War propaganda. Though patriotic in tone they aren’t as sanitised or simplistic as many other WWI posters. The figures aren’t heroic, if anything they are often rather grotesque and gargoyle-like.

As with much popular art of the period the images are made of strong, thick lines, confidently sketched in a bold extrovert style but with an unusual intensity of light and shade, of chiaroscuro, which gives them a tremendous dramatic immediacy.

Brangwyn didn’t become an official War Artist when that scheme was set up, and so never actually visited the Front; his subject was the destruction war wreaked on Belgium’s historic buildings and the suffering of innocent civilians.

The zeppelin raids: the vow of vengeance’, drawn for The Daily Chronicle by Frank Brangwyn

The final blow

Wars tend to get more violent and more pitiless the longer they go on and the longer your enemy stubbornly refuses to give in and surrender. Who, at the start of World War II, would have believed the virtuous Allies capable of firebombing Hamburg or dropping atom bombs on Hiroshima? The Great War is one of the horrible proofs of this rule – by the fourth and final year the mood on both sides was bitter and unforgiving.

This is the background to the most notorious poster, Put strength into the final blow, which depicts an Allied soldier bayoneting a German in the neck. Legend has it that the image was so incendiary that the German Kaiser put a price on Brangwyn’s head – but it was also criticised here in Blighty for its bloodthirstiness.

‘Put strength in the final blow’ by Frank Brangwyn (1918)

Frank Brangwyn at the William Morris Gallery

The exhibition is being held here at the William Morris Gallery because Brangwyn never forgot his debt to the Morris workshop for starting his career. He sympathised with Morris’s visionary aims, that the artist should be a craftsman capable in multiple mediums and should make art to beautify all aspects of life. Thus, when Brangwyn heard that the museum was being set up to promote Morris’s life and work, he donated a number of works to help it get started. As a result the WMG holds the second largest collection of Brangwyn’s work in England, after the British Museum. This explains why numerous other, non-war-related works of his, are hung in other rooms and corridors around the museum, including the wonderful Swans (1921).

Related links

Reviews of William Morris

Playback by Raymond Chandler (1958)

He stuck a pill in his kisser and lit it with a Ronson.

After purging himself by writing at great length about alcoholics with a grudge against the modern world in The Long Goodbye, Chandler’s final novel is his shortest and most focused. I’d read that it was his weakest and nearly didn’t read it, but I’m glad I did.

Plot

The events take place over just a few days in the small Californian coastal resort of Esmeralda, based on La Jolla where Chandler spent his final years (the only one of the novels set outside Los Angeles). Marlowe is hired by a big-time LA lawyer to tail a woman arriving on a train from out East. He doesn’t know why and has to find out what the job is as he’s doing it, with the usual interruptions from blackmailers, local hoods, small-time crooks, a rival PI and, as always, the cops. (‘Perhaps if I had a rest and my brain cleared, I might have some faint idea of what I was doing.’ Ch 17)

The attitude is the same abrasive tough guy – given a choice Marlowe will always insult and antagonise whoever he’s talking to – everyone is crooked and two-faced, especially the broads, the cops are brutal and the crooks are brutaller.

I guess what critics mean when they disparage the book is that a lot of the verbal fireworks of the earlier books have gone – there are almost none of the smart-ass similes which set The Big Sleep alight – but that is symptomatic of the way the style is briefer, more pragmatic and focused. It is a lean novel, and this has its own enjoyment, although a lot of the energy missing from the narration has gone into the dialogue, which is as tight and edgy as ever.

And – despite all the guns and fights and blackmail and corruption – what I see as the essentially comic nature of Chandler’s work is close to the surface.

Tough guy

  • I caught Mitchell on the side of the neck. His mouth yapped. He hit me somewhere, but it wasn’t important. Mine was the better punch, but it didn’t win the wrist watch because at that moment an army mule kicked me square in the back of the brain. (Ch 5)
  • He looked durable. Most fat men do. (Ch 6)
  • The men wore white tuxedos and the girls wore bright eyes, ruby lips, and tennis muscles. (Ch 8)
  • He looked tough asking that. I tried to look tough not answering it. (Ch 17)

Almost all the characters call each other tough (‘Tough guy, huh?’, ‘So Mr Tough Guy’, He wasn’t as tough as he looked, ‘Don’t get so goddam tough’, I was a real tough boy tonight, etc etc). In fact most of them aren’t and Marlowe, above all, exists in this contradictory space where he tells us he’s tough, he talks ironic wisecracking tough, he’s rude and aggressive, especially to the cops when he really doesn’t need to be. And yet we know he is Sir Galahad, an essentially pure man with a clean conscience.

‘How can such a hard man be so gentle?’ she asked wonderingly. (Ch 25)

That’s the paradoxical effect of reading all Chandler’s novels. they seem like they’re dealing with human corruption, violence, evil – and yet the vibrancy of the style and the supreme confidence of the manner leave you feeling invigorated and clean.

Eyes

In earlier posts I’ve written in detail about Chandler’s awareness of eyes, as the characters constantly probe and size each other up, and about the wonderful phrases he creates for even the simplest looks. In this last novel his ‘eye-awareness’ is still prominent – eyes and looks and stares and glances are described on every page – but the astonishing verbal inventiveness of the earliest novels has vanished like morning mist:

  • She leaned back and relaxed. Her eyes stayed watchful. (Ch 5)
  • His colour was high and his eyes too bright. (Ch 5)
  • He looked at her. He looked at Mitchell. He took his cigarette holder out of his mouth and looked at that. (Ch 8)
  • She looked at him. He looked at her. (Ch 8)
  • We stared hard into each other’s eyes. It didn’t mean a thing. (Ch 9)
  • I didn’t say anything. I watched her eyes. (Ch 10)
  • He looked me over. His eyes were wise eyes. (Ch 15)
  • He wore glasses, had a skin the colour of cold oatmeal and hollow, tired eyes. (Ch 17)
  • I stood up. We gave each other those looks. I went out. (Ch 24)
  • He stared at me with cool, blank eyes. (Ch 26)

Locations

The same precision of observation that I’ve pointed out in an earlier post on Chandler’s descriptions of rooms and interiors, just used less often.

  • There are almost too many offices like Clyde Umney’s office. It was panelled in squares of combed plywood set at right angles one to the other to make a checker-board effect. The lighting was indirect, the carpeting wall to wall, the furniture blonde, the chairs comfortable, and the fees probably exorbitant. (Ch 11)

For me that ‘probably’ weakens the whole sentence. One way to describe it is that in his last few novels Chandler becomes more measure and reasonable, balancing or questioning his own judgement. But it was the absence of doubt, the complete confidence in his own perceptions, which made the earlier novels so thrilling.

Similes

The smart-ass similes, the single most striking element of his style which dominated the first few books, have almost completely disappeared by this last one. These are pretty much the only ones in the book.

  • There was nothing to it. The [train] was on time, as it almost always is, and the subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket. (Ch 2)
  • ‘The walls here as as thin as a hoofer’s wallet.’ (Ch 5)
  • I wouldn’t say she looked exactly wistful, but neither did she look as hard to get as a controlling interest in General Motors. (Ch 11)

Comedy

On the other hand, a couple of sequences or lines in this novel made me laugh out loud, something none of the others had done, hence my suggestion that, despite serious or even tragic incidents elsewhere in the book, on the whole this seemed to me to bring out Chandler’s essentially comic nature.

When I entered Miss Vermilyea was just fixing herself for a hard day’s work by touching up her platinum blonde coiffure. I thought she looked a little the worse for wear. She put away her hand mirror and fed herself a cigarette.
‘Well, well, Mr Hard Guy in person. To what may we attribute this honour?’
‘Umney’s expecting me.’
‘Mister Umney to you, buster.’
‘Boydie-boy to you, sister.’
She got raging in an instant. ‘Don’t call me “sister”, you cheap gumshoe!’
‘Then don’t call me buster, you very expensive secretary. What are you doing tonight? And don’t tell me you’re going out with four sailors again.’
The skin around her eyes turned whiter. Her hand crisped into a claw around a paperweight. She just didn’t heave it at me. ‘You son of a bitch!’ she said somewhat pointedly. Then she flipped a switch on her talk box and said to the voice: ‘Mr Marlowe is here, Mr Umney.’
Then she leaned back and gave me the look. ‘I’ve got friends who could cut you down so small you’d need a step-ladder to put your shoes on.’
‘Somebody did a lot of hard work on that one,’ I said. ‘But hard work’s no substitute for talent.’
Suddenly we both burst out laughing. (Ch 11)

Happy Ending

And, astonishingly, there is a happy ending! Chandler sets us up to expect the opposite with some ‘down these mean streets a man must go’, 1950s existentialism, as our hero returns, exhausted and jaded to his poor man’s apartment:

 I climbed the long flight of redwood steps and unlocked my door. Everything was the same. The room was stuffy and dull and impersonal as it always was. I opened a couple of windows and mixed a drink in the kitchen. I sat down on the couch and stared at the wall. Wherever I went, whatever I did, this is what I would come back to. A blank wall in a meaningless room in a meaningless house. (Ch 28)

When, to my absolute amazement, the phone rings and it is Linda Loring from the previous novel, The Long Goodbye, a millionaire’s daughter who he had a thing for but who left him to go to Paris. And here she is, phoning from Paris and saying she loves him and can’t live without him, and she agrees to catch the next flight to LA to be with him. Marlowe is going to live happily ever after!!

I reached for my drink. I looked around the empty room – which was no longer empty. There was a voice in it, and a tall, slim, lovely woman. There was a dark head on the pillow in the bedroom. There was that soft, gentle perfume of a woman who presses herself tight against you, whose lips are soft and yielding, whose eyes are half-blind… The telephone started to ring again. I hardly heard it.

The air was full of music.

 Who’d have guessed! At its most basic a tragedy has a happy ending and a comedy has a happy ending, no matter what’s gone before, and this astonishing turnup on the last few pages of Playback not only ends the book on a comedic and positive note, it sheds its light back over the whole series, highlighting the ironic, witty humour and confirming my sense that Chandler was a kind of mid-century, American Oscar Wilde.

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Pulp book cover for Playback

Pulp book cover for Playback

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