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William Morris and Ideological Convictions

Hello chums (oh good lord never let me say that again), I have just returned from a jaunt to Walthamstow, better known to fans of early 90s pop music as E17. My purpose in that neck of the woods was to investigate the William Morris Gallery, which has recently reopened after an extended period of renovation. Much to my annoyance I’d apparently failed to discover that Michael Rosen was doing a reading there, and therefore to buy tickets before they sold out.

This isn’t a museum review, so I shall say little except that it was rather lovely and that the chance to have a go at weaving was hugely appreciated. William Morris seems to have been largely what I expected him to be, but with an unexpected sense of humour:

Which made him all the more palatable, as did his later-life commentary on his earlier antics, deeming himself “arrogant” but clearly amused by them. He put a lifetime of work into pursuing his passions and making them profitable enough to raise his family on (which of course he would have been unable to do without the background he had etc.), and had a keen and long-lasting obsession with beauty which I find is mirrored in my current object of obsession and admirer of Morris, Lawrence. Other similarities stand out, and it’s them I was moved to talk about.

  1. They are both men of conviction, and I envy them wildly for this. No doubt it was a combination of the era and their position in life, tempered with the fact that both were very intelligent polymaths inspired by the same period of history to invent their own personal notions of chivalry. But beyond Morris’s youthful ideals he continued to believe in his old convictions: beautiful things were important, the world could be changed, consigning people to the hell-hole of industrialised London was wrong, and the old skills of medieval craftsmanship could be brought into his modern era. He remained faithful to and energetic about his ideals and his visions without, as one of the VTs in the museum said, “being ugly and preachy”. He combined beautiful artefacts with his politics and allowed his rigorous belief in the worth of the aesthetic to breed with his later-life rigorous belief in the value of socialism. This made the trip to learn about him a little sad for me, as I’ve long since given up the majority of my ideals and while my beliefs remain my convictions and optimism do not. Morris’s fierce later-life optimism is untenable to me, as it was untenable to the Lawrence broken by the peace talks of Paris and subsequent media nonsense. What caused Morris not to succumb to the cynicism of later adulthood?
  2. In an odd way the exhibition demonstrated how despite both being inspired by the past – the age of chivalry and the legends of Arthur – Lawrence and Morris were each very much men created by their time. Just as Blake would not have been inspired to visions of a glittering and utopian London had the London he dwelt in not been so abhorrent and grim, so Morris and his philosophy of beautiful things and the need for pastoral skills and the later-life embrace of socialism could not have come to pass without the repellent working conditions of Victorian London and the changes to society and technology that lead to his reactive position. Lawrence, likewise, would have no grounding for his passionate beliefs about assisting the united Arab peoples out from imperial rule by the Turks if he did not live in a culture in which the Imperial was so favoured and his hunger for the freedom of empty places and the comparative classlessness of Bedouin society must surely have been fuelled to a degree by the very restrictive moral codes and class practices of the society in which he had grown up, especially as his family specifically suffered from it (cross-class relationship and absence of legal marriage).

For an exhibition chronicling the life and work of a craftsman and political agitator it did a great deal of service in providing me with something to chew over in terms of introspection (how does one refrain from becoming excessively cynical and losing all hope/sense of worth in one’s own convictions?) and also to once more create a sense of historical context not only to the past but to present events as well: what I believe and what other people around me believe are also products of our time, and we can only be as good or as bad as the era we are in will permit. We can’t know what is going to happen next, we can only guess at it.

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