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.

No comments:

Post a Comment