Aubrey Beardsley @ Tate Britain

Aubrey Beardsley must be the most distinctive British artist. If you see any of his mature works, they are immediately recognisable and almost always deeply satisfying, their elegance of line and composition emphasised by the stylish use of huge areas of unmediated black or white, and the sophistication of his sensually charged portrayal of the human figure.

The Black Cape, illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1893) Photo © Tate

This exhibition is a feast of Beardsleiana, bringing together 200 spectacular works to make the largest display of his original drawings in over 50 years and the first exhibition of his work at Tate since 1923.

The wall labels to the fifteen or so sections the exhibition is divided into are available online:

And it contains a detailed timeline of his career. Rather than repeat all that, I’ll just single out what were, for me, the key learnings or best bits.

Key learnings

As he turned 18 and needed a job, Beardsley got a job working in an insurance office which, as you might imagine, he hated. What other early modern ‘great’ worked in an insurance office, created a distinctive body of work, and died of tuberculosis? Franz Kafka

Arts & Crafts It is interesting to see Beardsley’s tremendous indebtedness to Arts & Crafts ideas of total design, and the importance of intertwining flower and stem motifs. And considering he was only 19!

Withered Spring by Aubrey Beardsley (1891)

Beardsley began his career just as William Morris was producing his luxury designed books from the Kelmscott Press. The curators usefully summarise the elements of a Kelmscott production as:

  • elaborate decorated borders
  • decorated initial letters
  • full page illustration

The hair-line style The exhibition shows how Beardsley quickly moved from this relatively ‘heavy’ line to move to the extreme opposite, to complex compositions which are covered in a crazy network of super-fine lines. The curators call this his ‘hair line’ style.

How Arthur saw the Questing Beast by Aubrey Beardsley (1893) Victoria and Albert Museum

It is also an early example of Beardsley slipping surreptitious rudeness or irrelevancies into his pictures. At the bottom left of the ‘river bank’, right up against the frame, is the silhouette of an erect penis and scrotum. Towards the top right is a concealed treble clef.

Morte d’Arthur The picture above is one of the Morte d’Arthur series which made Beardsley’s reputation. He was commissioned to make a hefty 353 illustrations for a new edition of the Morte by publisher J.M. Dent, including full and double-page illustrations, elaborate border designs and numerous small-scale ornamental chapter headings.

However, Beardsley quickly became bored and irked by the subject limitations and began introducing extraneous elements and flights of fancy. Thus the picture above is supposed to be of a medieval knight and a dragon though you wouldn’t really think so. Most disruptive of all is the presence of a pan or satyr from Greek mythology, absolutely nothing to do with medieval legend.

Japanese influence The exhibition includes one print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a lovely coloured woodblock which exemplifies the kind of Japanese influence which impacted European art from the 1870s onwards, and influenced everyone with their:

  • abstract depiction of pictorial space
  • linear intricacy
  • emphasis on flat pattern

Kakemonokakemono is a Japanese hanging scroll used to display and exhibit paintings and calligraphy inscriptions and designs mounted usually with silk fabric edges on a flexible backing, so that it can be rolled for storage. It is a distinctly different shape from traditional Western portrait shape, and Beardsley was to incorporate it into many later works.

Mantegna Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) was a key influence for Beardsley. The Italian was famous for his frescos and murals showing parades and processions and groups of people, and Beardsley used ideas and figures and compositions from Mantegna throughout his career. Even in his last accommodation, a hotel room in the south of France, he had a set of photos of works by Mantegna pinned to his wall. Indeed Beardsley produced several Mantegna-style processions, notably The Procession of Joan of Arc which was included as a foldout supplement to the second edition of The Studio magazine in 1892.

Wagnerite Beardsley was a keen fan of Wagner, attending productions of his operas and illustrating scenes from them. He had ambitions as a writer as well as illustrator and in his last few years worked at a text which was a comic version of the legend of Tannhäuser which Wagner had made into an opera. Given the working title of the Story of Venus and Tannhäuser, excerpts were eventually published in The Savoy magazine under the title Under The Hill, an oddly Hobbit-like title for such a grand Wagnerian subject.

Photo Lineblock Just as important for the quick evolution of Beardsley’s style was the introduction in the 1890s of the new technology of photo lineblock printing, a photomechanical process. Beardsley was disappointed at the poor reproduction of his washes and shading using this new method, but quickly adapted and made a virtue of leaving large areas of a page completely untouched, others pure black, and ensuring the lines and patterns were crisp and clear. The result is startling.

How la Beale Isoud Wrote to Sir Tristram by Aubrey Beardsley (c.1893) Alessandra and Simon Wilson

In fact this picture is singled out by the curators as exemplifying another of Beardsley’s traits which was his extraordinary ability to assimilate influences and make them his own. Thus the curators point out in this image:

  • Isoud resembles Jane Morris, with the classic pre-Raphaelite jutting chin and mountain of frizzy hair
  • the Germanic form of the desk is borrowed from Albrecht Dürer’s engraving St Jerome in his Study
  • the flattened use of space recalls the influence of Japanese prints
  • whereas the elaborate border of intertwining flower motifs recalls Arts & Crafts designs

Salomé In 1892 Beardsley made a drawing in response to Salomé, Oscar Wilde’s play, originally written in French and based on the biblical story. Wilde admired the drawing and he and his publisher, John Lane, chose Beardsley to illustrate the English translation of the play. Beardsley produced eighteen designs in total, of which only ten appeared in the first printing of the play. Publisher John Lane suppressed or censored three of Beardsley’s illustrations for their overt sexual references, in particular when female characters’ hands are wandering towards their privates, as if about to masturbate, or unnecessary depictions of the male characters’ phalluses.

The Climax – illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1893) by Aubrey Beardsley. Photo © Tate

The Yellow Book The exhibition clarified the timeline around the Yellow Book, and has an entire room devoted to it. Beardsley was made its art editor at its inception in 1894 and contributed the front and back covers for the first five editions. But Beardsley was closely associated with Oscar Wilde (having contributed a suite of illustrations for Wilde’s ‘immoral’ play about Salome), and so soon after Wilde’s arrest in May 1895, Beardsley was fired from the Yellow Book.

On one of the days of his trial, Wilde was seen going into court holding a copy of the Yellow Book and that clinched it for the angry mobs and journalists outside. The offices of the Yellow Book’s publishers, Bodley Head, were attacked by a mob who smashed its windows. In order tonsure the survival of the firm, and its staff, and the continuity of publication of the magazine and all his other titles, publisher John Lane had little choice but to distance himself from Beardsley. The sixth volume, of July 1895, still had the cover and several illustrations by Beardsley but he no longer worked for it. (Later it transpired that Wilde hadn’t been holding a copy of the Yellow Book at all, but a French novel, which tended to be published with yellow covers.)

The Yellow Book Volume I (1894) bound volume. Photo © Tate

It looks as if you can examine every volume of the Yellow Book, all its literary and art contents, online

The room has an example of all five volumes of the Yellow Book that Beardsley was involved with. I’ve read about it ever since I was a teenager at school forty years ago, but I don’t think I’d ever seen a copy before and certainly not six. I’d always envisioned it as magazine-size, but it does indeed look like a hardback book, in size and shape and leather binding.

Beardsley’s work desk The exhibition includes the very table or desk which Beardsley used during his glory years. Standing a few feet from it, it is hard to imagine that the man produced all these pitch-perfect works without the aid of architects’ tools or computers – just him, a ruler and a pen.

Beardsley’s address With the money he made from the Salome illustrations and a small legacy Beardsley bought a house at 111 Cambridge Street, Pimlico with his mother and sister, Mabel, to both of whom he remained very close throughout his short life. Only a few hundred yards from Tate Britain where this exhibition is being held…

Oscar Wilde Wilde was an established writer when he saw the first of Beardsley’s drawings and immediately liked them. He approved the suggestion that Beardsley illustrate the original French version of Salomé and they socialised. So far, so well known. I hadn’t realised that Beardsley satirised Wilde quite so much. There are straightforward lampoons of the increasingly fat and pompous aesthete, but he also slyly slips Wilde’s epicene features into numerous other illustrations, in one giving the moon the eyes and nose of Wilde.

The Woman in the Moon by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

The Rape of The Lock is the title of Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic 18th century satire. I suppose it’s worth clarifying that ‘rape’ in the title doesn’t mean rape in our modern sense, but the older sense of ‘theft’ or stealing away. Thus Pope conceived an extended poem which uses all the devices and machinery of the classical epic to describe how one jaded aristocrat cuts a lock of hair from the head of another jaded aristocrat, and this leads to a feud between their families. Believe it or not this elaborate literary joke extends to five cantos with many extended scenes. Beardsley created nine photo-engravings for an 1896 republication of the poem, five of which are on display here for the first time.

Beardsley had been a fan of 18th century rococo prints, maybe because they – like him – are sophisticated, worldly, stylish and much more open about sexuality than the Victorians. The exhibition shows us some of the original 18th century prints which Beardsley bought at auction in Paris, and then goes on to show all the Pope pictures.

The Dream by Aubrey Beardsley (1896) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

What’s immediately obvious is the that the stark clarity of the Salome illustrations has been abandoned for a much more elaborate style, characterised above all by the stippling that creates a sort of lace doily effect on almost all the fabrics. And look at the patterning of the carpet. A long way from the stark black and white of the Salome illustrations. Many critics thought these his best works as an illustrator.

Posters the 1890s were the glory decade for poster design in Paris, led by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret. I didn’t realise Beardsley produced a number of posters which modified his own style to take on board the need for a) size b) colour.

There’s a room devoted to half a dozen of his posters, none of which match the quality of Lautre or Chéret, and most of which are advertiser’s promotions of new ranges of childrens books or books by women, alongside promotional posters for The Yellow Book and several plays and operas. The section contains the telling quote:

I have no great care for colour, but [in posters] colour is essential.

‘I have no great care for colour’. Worth pondering. And relevant to the one and only oil painting Beardsley is known to have made.

Oil painting There’s a rare outing for Beardsley’s only oil painting and you can see why – it’s rubbish. His entire style was built around absences, around huge areas of untouched whiteness. Trying to translate that into oil, which specialises in depth and shadow, was a hopeless task.

Porn After Beardsley was sacked from The Yellow Book, almost the only publisher who would use his drawings was Leonard Smithers. Smithers operated on the fringes of the rare book trade, issuing small, clandestine editions of risqué books with the boast: ‘I will publish the things the others are afraid to touch’. Smithers encouraged Beardsley’s already growing interest in risqué French, Latin and Greek texts and commissioned drawings to illustrate the Satires of the late Roman poet Juvenal and, most famously, Aristophanes’s bawdy satirical play Lysistrata.

In Lysistrata the women of Athens go on a sex strike, refusing to have sex with their menfolk until they stop the ridiculous war against Sparta. Beardsley made eight outrageously sexual illustrations for Smithers’ edition. Among other subjects, this is the set which includes start, beautifully made black and white line drawings of ancient Greeks with humongous erect penises. Maybe if you’re very young or innocent these are ‘shocking’ images, but to the modern viewer they are vaguely reassuring, certainly humorous. The two figures on the right are mildly realistic but it’s the guy on the left who gets the attention, not because of  his phallus as such but because the entire character is obviously created for grotesque comedy.

Illustration for Lysistrata by Aubrey Beardsley (1896)

The grotesque He knew he was attracted to ‘the grotesque’ and there is a wall label which usefully explains the origins of the grotesque in art. Grotesque originally referred to the decoration of grottos, and came to denote the depiction of deliberately hybrid and monstrous forms, which often combined body parts from different animals, like a centaur or mermaid. As the man himself said:

I see everything in a grotesque way. When I go to the theatre, for example, things shape themselves before my eyes just as I draw them. .. They all seem weird and strange to me. Things have always impressed me in this way.

Foetuses Nobody knows to this day why he drew so many foetuses, either as insets in frames or as characters in the more grotesque illustrations. Maybe it was simply because they are a kind of quintessence of the grotesque.

My favourite Venus framed by two statues of male gods in the form of herms (a sculpture with a head and perhaps a torso above a plain, usually squared lower section’). I like it because of its formal precision, its symmetry which is, however, broken by the asymmetric sway of Venus’s long dress. I like it because there is no indecency, boobs or penises in sight. Instead there is a sense of genuine menace from the devil eyes of the two herms. And I like it because it is a kind of reversion or revisiting of the Arts & Crafts theme of incredibly ornately interwoven bushes, stems and flowers of (I think) roses. But mostly because it is a pleasingly complete, formal, complex and rather threatening image.

Venus between Terminal Gods (1895) Drawing with india ink by Aubrey Beardsley. The Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford

Walter Sickert Almost the best thing in the exhibition is the full-length portrait painting of Beardsley made by the English painter Walter Sickert, after they’d both attended a commemoration ceremony for John Keats. Its sketchy unfinished quality makes it a haunting gesture to the memory of the dandy and artist who died aged just 25.

Aubrey Beardsley by Walter Sickert (1894)

Crucifix The exhibition includes the last photo of Beardsley, taken in the hotel room in the Hotel Cosmopolitain in Menton where he had gone in search of a warmer dryer climate which would be more favourable to his tuberculosis. The photo shows Beardsley looking tremendously smart in a suit and well-polished shoes opposite a wall on which are pinned reproductions of his beloved Mantegna, and a mantelpiece on which sits a crucifix.

Because although I’ve probably read it numerous times, I’d forgotten that in his last months Beardsley converted to Catholicism. He died holding a crucifix. Just a few days before he died he wrote a letter to Leonard Smithers asking him to destroy all of Beardsley’s risqué images, the Lysistrata illustrations etc. Smithers refused and so they were saved for generations of schoolboys to giggle over.

Who does a deathbed request to destroy his works which its address completely ignored remind you of? Franz Kafka.

Film There is a room with benches so you can watch Charles Bryant and Alla Nazimova’s 1923 silent movie version of Salomé immediately following the room of Beardsley’s illustrations. For some reason the gallery lights had been left on full power in this room which made it harder to see the image on the screen.

Legacy The exhibition closes with a sketchy overview of Beardsley’s legacy from his influence on the long sinuous lines of Art Nouveau via a string of now mostly forgotten book illustrators who copied his style (Harry Clarke, Hans Henning Voigt) through the revival of Beardley’s reputation and style which was sparked by a major retrospective of his work at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1966 which led to the incorporation of Beardsleyesque black and white swirling lines into lots of psychedelic posters and, most famously of all, into the portrait of the four Beatles in the cover art for their LP Revolver.

Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley 1893 by Frederick Evans. Photo-etching and platinum print on paper. Wilson Centre for Photography

This is a long, very thorough, exhaustive and informative exhibition about a truly world class and utterly distinctive English artist.

Curators

  • Caroline Corbeau-Parsons, Curator of British Art 1850 – 1915
  • Stephen Calloway
  • with Alice Insley, Assistant Curator of Historic British Art

Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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.

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)

%d bloggers like this: