Wednesday, April 25, 2018

William Morris: A Life for Our Time II

Apparently, Fiona MacCarthy has a deep love for her subject, and it is not one that I share. However, I still find the life and times of Morris interesting, if perhaps for different reasons than MacCarthy. As far as I've read, Morris has spent his high school years at Marlborough College and his university years at Exeter College, Oxford. Shortly before he died, Morris's father had bought him a position at Marlborough. Morris's experience there was almost exclusively negative. The students were unruly and violent, the college was poorly administered, and Morris had no friends. There was a connection between Marlborough and Exeter, and Morris entered Exeter after studying for its entrance exam with a private tutor.

Prior to Oxford, Morris had been solitary and socially awkward, spending much of his time outdoors in nature. When he arrived in Oxford, he immediately fell in with Edward Burne-Jones, the future artist. They belonged to a set of students whose presumed profession would be the clergy. However, they took little interest in Latin or religious training and preferred the arts, specifically painting, architecture, poetry and the fantasy world of Arthurian legend. Morris was attracted to the Gothic cathedrals of northern France, their stained glass in particular. In poetry they admired Tennyson, and in prose they admired John Ruskin. Intellectually, they seem to have belonged to late Romanticism, living well after Byron, Shelley and Keats. Temperamentally, Morris was given to sudden rages, which sometimes scared people and may have been related to an unidentified disorder similar to epilepsy. He seems to have had little patience with ideas and tended to emphasize physical details. Although his group at Oxford was all-male, with some homosexual undertones, they were committed to chastity, and there were no suitable females around.

I think what is interesting me is the social structure of Morris's environment. Although he went to Oxford in 1852, it reminds me of going to an American liberal arts college in 1968. At the time I went to college, I was not as aware as I am now of the link between the church and the college. In Morris's day, forty percent of the students at Oxford went into the clergy, and the connection between the university and the church was more palpable. My college had been founded by Methodists, and it struck me as odd that there was a Department of Philosophy and Religion, because the two areas seemed incompatible to me. In fact, many of the faculty in that department had divinity degrees, and they were not philosophers in the sense that I think of them. There has been a slow transition from the time when colleges and universities concentrated on theology to the current inclusion of all of the modern academic disciplines. This has occurred inconspicuously in part because a college degree has always been a social marker that exists independently from any particular discipline. While being a graduate may once have meant that one had a better understanding of God, that was slowly replaced with the idea that college graduates belong to the ruling class. Recently, with suitable employment becoming increasingly scarce, college has become more closely associated with vocational training, though a four-year degree still retains the aura of higher social standing.

In Morris's case, he was better off than most of his friends at Oxford and could even afford to publish his own magazine while there. He reminds me of people I've known who arrived at college not really knowing why they were there, but who nevertheless benefited from it in one way or another. This now strikes me as a rather poorly conceived process, but the colleges themselves spin it as part of their allure. Vocational training is lower-class, whereas four years of dilettantish study is upper-class. The trick, apparently, if you're not born wealthy, is to choose postgraduate training in a lucrative field such as medicine or law, or perhaps dentistry. Really, this whole process seems farcical to me, and now one might enroll in a liberal arts college and be trained in environmental studies, which conveys the same kind of social status that was once associated with training for the clergy: you are wealthy enough to pursue a field in which you represent a higher purpose of some sort. College seems always to have been an institution that reckons with social standing, and, as such, it has never been quite as practical as one might hope.

I am in sympathy with some of Morris's ideas regarding the selection of a vocation. He disliked the thought of making money through business or finance, because he didn't consider that real work. He identified with artisans who made beautiful objects. I felt the same way after I had given up the idea of pursuing a career in philosophy. I didn't want to work in an office and would have liked to have had a real skill, such as a craft. Thus, I haphazardly entered the field of printing, and though I did initially operate a press, I was over-educated for trade work, and, in any case, there is almost no market for aesthetically superior products in the U.S. I found that high-quality work is typically not considered commercially viable. Thus, art books are not usually printed in the U.S., and that role is often taken by specialists in Italy or China. With some exceptions, the U.S. is not known for craftsmanship or style. When I worked for large printing companies, I learned that the emphasis was on volume, not quality. The measure of success is how many impressions per hour you can get on the cheapest possible paper. The fact is that American consumers are not discerning, and the preference for low cost usually kills high-quality products as an available option. Like me, William Morris would be disgusted by modern capitalism.

When Morris finished at Oxford in 1855, he did not join the clergy as his mother had hoped, and he became an apprentice at a small architectural firm in Oxford.

Thursday, April 19, 2018


I seem to have got out of the habit of writing on this blog. That has partly to do with the arrival of early spring, when I usually have some sort of allergic reaction. One year I couldn't hear properly for some time, and this year I had a long headache. I'm not sure what to make of this, because throughout my life I have had few allergic reactions. When I lived in Oregon in 1975, I reacted to grass pollen, which was at high levels due to local grass seed production. At my current location, which is far more rural, I seem to be reacting to allergens that enter the air when the ground thaws. Not much is growing yet, because the temperatures are still low. Another factor could be that the house has had no warm spot in recent days. We only bought two cords of firewood last fall and ran out in March. Other years we have had four cords, and we would have had plenty left by now. This was partly an experiment regarding heating costs. Technically, kiln dried firewood offers as many BTU's per dollar as heating oil, but the wood stove is actually quite inefficient compared to the oil boiler and heating system. The boiler doesn't let as much heat out through the chimney and it is distributed within the house. The wood stove, on the other hand, loses much of its heat through the chimney, and it heats up the entire chimney. The chimney gets hot and so does the room above the stove on the second floor. The chimney section that runs through the attic also heats that unused area. This winter, the temperature level within the house was higher on average than in previous years, with less firewood burnt, but we will still save about $400. Burning firewood at the current price doesn't save money. However, the disadvantage is that there is no warm place to sit once the firewood has run out, and that may have contributed to my malaise. At any rate, I seem to be recovering and hope to resume more regular posts soon.

In other news, we recently checked local property maps and got permission from our neighbors to walk along Muddy Branch, a creek near our house. It runs out of the Green Mountains and heads north before emptying into the New Haven River on the way to the Atlantic Ocean. At this time of year it overflows onto the hay fields surrounding it and can be a little boggy. There were signs of wildlife, including ducks and beavers. I've planted seeds to grow in our garden and hope that 2018 will be better than 2017. Last year we had a cool August, and the tomatoes never really took off. I'm also looking forward to some more stargazing. We haven't had any clear nights so far this spring, but that may change. On the rear deck, where my 130mm refractor usually sits, there is now a better view because we had a dying maple tree removed. It had been blocking the view of Polaris during the summer, making a polar alignment impossible.

I have also been doing more genealogical research. Since I have few close relatives with accessible records, I have been looking into the families of people I know. I have been getting to the bottom of a mystery within my ex-wife's family. Her mother's mother, Blossom Ellis, was raised by an aunt, and I knew that something untoward must have occurred. I have found that her mother's mother's mother, Mary Kelley, got pregnant at the age of twenty in 1895 and married two months before Blossom's birth. Mary went on to have three more children with her husband. They were living with her parents, and Mary's father, Jacob Kelley, got drunk and shot himself in 1904. Mary and her husband divorced around that time, and the children were split up. Blossom, the eldest, stayed with an aunt, her sister was soon adopted, and two brothers grew up in an orphanage. This scenario makes the present look quite good in comparison.

Regarding William Morris, I haven't been reading the book but hope to return to it soon. Morris isn't the most exciting subject for study, but I am enjoying the biography and finding it informative. Once I've made a little more progress I'll resume commenting on it.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

William Morris: A Life for Our Time I

I'm reading this long biography by Fiona MacCarthy for reasons somewhat different from my usual ones. William Morris was not a major thinker, writer or artist, but he combines a number of characteristics that are of interest to me. Though he did write poems and fiction and was an early proponent of socialism, he is best known for his interior designs, his wallpaper in particular. I am interested in him because he lived during the high Victorian period in England, when the country was at a cultural peak, and, having been born in England myself, I have always wanted to extract what it is about it that I like and to trace its now almost invisible effect on my aesthetic tastes. My English grandfather, who was born in 1893, worked at Liberty & Co., which once competed with Morris & Co., and there were similarities in their product lines. I should also add that the U.S. is a country without deep roots, and, like many who live here, I am drawn to places that have more substantial pasts. However, I am not generally interested in English artists, particularly Morris's friends, the Pre-Raphaelites, who have always seemed slightly ridiculous to me. For the most part, I have found the paintings of Continental Europe far more interesting than those of England, the latter seeming more derivative and less original.

I'm not exactly racing through the book and have only finished the first chapter. Morris was born in 1834 into a nouveau riche family. His father was a fabulously successful businessman, and his mother had a respectable pedigree but had not previously been wealthy. Thematically, Morris's life is reminiscent of Simone de Beauvoir's: they both detested the boring bourgeois lifestyle that was imposed on them during their childhoods and spent the remainder of their lives rebelling against it. Of course, this phenomenon isn't much different from that of the Baby Boomers, many of whom came from modest prewar American families which suddenly became wealthy after 1945. In each case there was the rejection of a constricting lifestyle, a search for authenticity and a defense of the workers who had been abused by capitalism. Already, in the case of Morris, there is a love-hate theme developing in his conflicting perceptions of his father: on the one hand, he detested his father's shallow, showy lifestyle, which rested on the exploitation of the underclass, but on the other hand he admired his father's energy and achievement. His father died suddenly at the age of 50, when Morris was 13, and this seems to have locked in a conflict that could never be resolved by means of a developing relationship into adulthood.

Fiona MacCarthy seems to have researched her topic thoroughly. She writes very well, and this must be the best biography on the subject. I feel no urgency in reading it and am proceeding at a very leisurely pace at the moment. I'm not sure how much I'll have to say about it, so this could lead to longer gaps than usual between my posts.