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)

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