Friday, May 25, 2018

William Morris: A Life for Our Time V

I apologize to those of you who have little or no interest in William Morris and can only say that I should be finished in my commentary within a post or two after this. Despite the fact that he is not the most interesting subject that I could think of, the degree of detail provided by MacCarthy is of value in itself, and, to her credit, I am coming to appreciate Morris in ways that would have been impossible without reading this book. People didn't live very long in those days, and I'm up to 1881, when he was forty-seven, getting old, and had only fifteen years left to live.

In 1879, Morris leased a house in Hammersmith, London, and renamed it Kelmscott House, after his country house. He resided there until his death. By this time, his professional success was significant. He had spent the 1870's learning dyeing and weaving and had gained sufficient skills and enough employees to divest himself of subcontractors to some extent. His production facility in Queen Square, London expanded, and he leased space for a retail shop on Oxford Street (where my great-great-grandfather had a fur shop). By 1881, business was so brisk that he moved production to a larger facility, Merton Abbey, outside London. His goods included painted glass, embroidery, tapestries, carpets, wall-hangings, curtains, furniture and wallpaper. Over the years, his clientele expanded from Pre-Raphaelite artists to English aristocrats and wealthy English people to upper-middle-class Americans. However, he didn't like "ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich," though he lived in much the same way that they did.

In 1875, Morris had become honorary secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and through this organization he began to speak publicly. This did not come easily to him, but he gradually built up his self-confidence. His family life remained stable, though Jane continued to see Rossetti, who became less appealing to her because of his excessive use of alcohol and chloral for his ailments. Jane herself was often ill and spent time at well-known spas; to some extent this was the fashion of the time, but her health was far from perfect. When Jane was away, Morris took care of his daughters, quite effectively it seems, and he was even a good cook. He was closest to his eldest daughter, Jenny, who excelled at school and seemed headed for Girton College, Cambridge, which was founded by Morris's acquaintance (and George Eliot's friend), Barbara Bodichon. However, in her teenage years, Jenny began to exhibit the symptoms of severe epilepsy, which was untreatable at the time, and this rendered her an invalid for the remainder of her life. Morris was also close to his younger daughter, May.

Through MacCarthy's descriptions, Morris is growing on me. He had an unusual personality, with his friends calling him by his college nickname, "Topsy," referring to his unruly dark hair, throughout his adulthood. He had an obsessive personality and tried new things with great intensity. While he didn't always succeed, his breadth of knowledge in the decorative arts eventually became impressive. So far, MacCarthy hasn't analyzed this energy, and it seems to me to have originated in an unusual nervous condition combined with an idiosyncratic drive for mastery in a field. Probably he would have liked to have been a major artist but recognized that he did not have the right talent. His success as a poet seems almost a fluke. Inexplicably, he also tried translating and produced a new translation of Virgil's Aeneid, even though there were already good ones available. In most cases he self-assessed his work realistically and held high standards, and this can be a disadvantage in the arts, when you are competing with people like Rossetti, who are better at self-promotion and more aggressive. Thus, Morris resembles a bottom-feeder who lacked the chutzpah to pull off the major artist act, but in the course of many years of hard work he gained formidable skills in interior decoration, which made his style dominant in England and elsewhere for several decades. To me, this is most apparent in his wallpaper designs, which I find quite appealing.

Where I would be critical of MacCarthy is in her failure to place Morris and his friends in the broader historical context of decorative arts, painting, poetry and fiction. I think that beyond, for example, Morris's wallpaper, the group is not particularly notable in its productions. It is also worth mentioning that, in today's cultural environment, people like Rossetti would be seen as sexual predators, hiring lower-class women as models and then having sex with them. Though Morris himself was hardly a sexual predator on the scale of Rossetti, he still followed the same general pattern, in which socially inferior women are at the beck and call of wealthy males. In Morris's case, there was a simmering sense of social injustice, and I think that comes out more at the end of his life.

I am finding Morris interesting chiefly because he demonstrates the difficulties that one encounters when one tries to balance artistic goals with commercial success. Although Morris's talents were limited, he had high standards and tried to abide by them. What is unusual about him is that he had the drive and the resources to pursue whatever artistic field he chose, and, unlike most people, he was under no pressure to specialize immediately. When he became an employer, he was shocked by the lack of versatility in ordinary workers, who typically could only do one thing well. There is a child-like naïveté in Morris's failure to recognize how charmed his life became as a result of family wealth. He instinctively disliked capitalism without fully understanding how it led to a narrowing of options that he had managed to escape.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

William Morris: A Life for Our Time IV

I have better reading conditions at the moment and hope to advance rapidly through the remainder of the book, though I'm only halfway through at this point. This is an unusual book for me, because I like the thoroughness of the author more than the subject matter. Morris and his friends are of marginal interest to me, because they are neither major artists nor major thinkers. I'm up to 1874, when Morris reached the age of forty, and they seem as if they have had a prolonged adolescence and are finally starting to grow up. Even so, I think that any good biographer will reveal errors and limitations in the person who is their focus, and that biographies that portray their subject exclusively in heroic or exalted terms are consequently hagiographic or mythopoeic. Every life, no matter how successful, has elements of stupidity and dumb luck, and these are evident in MacCarthy's telling.

Morris continues to learn new crafts, such as gilding, calligraphy and manuscript illumination, with the Firm not occupying much of his time under the partnership arrangement. Various intrigues crop up between the men and women in the group. In 1861, Rossetti's wife, Lizzie Siddal, had a stillborn baby, and she became emotionally unstable, committing suicide with drugs the following year. Thereafter, Rossetti pursued a relationship with Morris's wife, Jane. After Morris leased Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire as a country home in 1871, Rossetti took up residence there and continued cuckolding Morris, apparently with Morris's approval. Rossetti, who was the son of an Italian-born professor, seems to me to have had a rather unpleasant personality. He was flamboyant, collecting exotic animals such as wombats and kangaroos, but also seems to have had a sadistic streak, and he liked to pick on Morris, who accepted it passively. My interpretation is that Morris lacked self-confidence and had a dose of English timidity. He seems to have had especially low self-confidence with regard to women, perhaps because he was socially awkward, five-foot-six, unkempt and fat. He remained on good terms with Jane, but apparently was attracted to Burne-Jones's wife, Georgiana. Burne-Jones began an affair with another woman, and Morris began to attract female admirers through his success as a poet. There is no evidence yet that he had any affairs.

In 1871, Morris went on a trip to Iceland and became fascinated with Norse sagas, translating them into English. In 1873 he went to Italy for the first time but did not like Renaissance art. Where I left off, he decided in 1874 to take full control of the Firm by buying out the other partners, because he felt that it was insufficiently profitable due to their lack of attention to it. This resulted in some acrimonious negotiations – people's true feelings come out when money is involved – but friends such as Burne-Jones were supportive. The new firm was named Morris & Co., and it later became a centerpiece of the Arts and Crafts movement, which is Morris's most significant legacy.

As Morris matures, I am hoping to find more value in his work. In the context of the history of art, fiction and poetry, his group seems amateurish and backward-looking. The paintings of Burne-Jones and Rossetti, which represent a small branch of the academic art that was also popular in France at the time, are both qualitatively and thematically inferior to many of the French paintings. Compared to Jean-Léon Gérôme, for example, they seem like rank amateurs, yet there is no mention of this or any French contemporaries in the book. Significantly, Morris was born in the same year as Edgar Degas, and in 1874 the Impressionists launched their first exhibition while Morris and his friends were just beginning to lose interest in medievalism. As a realist, I find it appalling that artists in England were engaging in Lord of the Rings-like fantasies and idealizing women to absurd lengths just as modern realism was emerging in French art and literature. They completely ignored J.M.W. Turner, the English painter who influenced Monet. While they carried on in their fantasy world, Manet painted the first great modern realist paintings and Flaubert wrote the first great modern realist novel. I don't think Morris's poems compare favorably to those of Shelley, but then I prefer modern poetry anyway. In many respects, English arts have always seemed provincial to me. I have noticed that George Eliot's first novel, Adam Bede, which was published in 1859, has similarities to Madame Bovary, which was published in 1856. Having studied George Eliot closely, it does not seem far-fetched to me to speculate that Adam Bede started out with the code name "Madame B." Though Hetty Sorrel is hardly the English equivalent of Emma Bovary, both novels are realistic depictions of the downfalls of women, and I feel confident that George Eliot read Madame Bovary. From tapestries to cathedrals, many of the arts in England have French origins. Even good food seems not to have reached England until the late twentieth century.

Sunday, May 13, 2018


The book I'm reading is long, and my reading has been curtailed further by another round of renovation in the house, which makes it too noisy for me to do anything that requires concentration. That should be over soon, and I hope to progress through the book I'm reading at a faster pace and then move on to a different book which I may prefer. We have transitioned into a true spring environment, similar to May of 2011, in which we visited Middlebury for the first time, loved it, and bought the house. After October, May is probably the best month here. Then, if you like snow and cold weather, January and February are pretty good. However, with climate change, we seem to be getting the most snow in March now.

William is mellowing with age, but still can be demanding for a pet. He likes to go out every day, no matter what the weather is, and is primarily nocturnal. When it was twenty below outside, one of his ears must have frozen, and it remained bent for a few months, but it seems to have straightened out now. I bought him a water heater designed for rabbit hutches so that his outside bowl of water won't freeze. During the warmer months he stays out almost all night; I let him in for a snack at 2:00 or 3:00 A.M. and then he goes back out again. He catches mice and brings them unharmed through his cat door onto the porch so that he can play with them. Then, in the morning, if we're not careful, they can run into the house when we open the door. He is friendlier toward us than he used to be but is still violent on occasion. Loud noises scare him, and he hides in the basement when he hears a truck coming.

I would like to take up new topics but am not finding much inspiration at the moment. Some of the ideas that I've written about on this blog seem to be confirmed repeatedly by current events, and, since it is impossible for me to change anything, the news is more depressing than encouraging. Specifically, the Trump presidency is a clear-cut case of human folly, and not only is he remaining in office, but when you look at the history of the American presidency, there is not much likelihood that he will be succeeded by anyone significantly more competent. All of the presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt seem mediocre, and even Roosevelt had conspicuous human weaknesses. Besides the foibles of presidents, in a democratic system there is no escaping the stupidity of the public. For example, John McCain is currently gaining public sympathy simply because he is ill and patriotic. It is important to him to oppose state-sponsored torture, because he was tortured, and it is important to him to defeat evil, since he envisions himself as having fought evil when he was injured during his military service: this is all emotional nonsense that has nothing to do with competent governance. As far as I'm concerned, McCain is just an emotional guy who thinks that he should have been rewarded for his sacrifices and is angry that he didn't get to be president and will soon die. Most of his ideas are based on his sense of self-importance and entitlement, and no matter how long he lived he would never be a good president or a panacea for the feeble political process here.

My readership seems to be dwindling at the moment, though there are still about three regulars. I am always getting hits from across the world, and the hits seem to be determined by the titles I choose for my posts. I could increase my hits dramatically simply by writing catchy titles, but there is no point to that, since I don't want a wide audience and prefer the current semi-private, calm atmosphere. For unknown reasons, "Robert Hughes on Andy Warhol" is very popular now. I don't mind not getting any comments from random people who happened to reach the blog by googling something, though occasional comments from people who have actually read my posts can be stimulating and encouraging. I think most readers prefer soft topics such as fiction and poetry, and, since I probably won't be writing about those again for some time, the blog may be less appealing to them.

Friday, May 4, 2018

William Morris: A Life for Our Time III

Spring activities have been a further distraction from my reading, but I am still gradually making my way through the book. Its detail surpasses my level of interest, though to some extent I appreciate the microscopic view, since I am curious about the period and, through the assiduous study of letters, diaries and other records, MacCarthy has produced a sharper picture of a life than seems possible for people living now. I suppose one could reconstruct such details through emails, tweets, etc., but the electronic environment in which we live trivializes everything, and it is hard to imagine anyone alive now exhibiting much depth in future biographies.

Morris's career as an architect didn't last for long. He relocated to Bloomsbury when it was a rundown section of London and initially continued his apprenticeship in architecture while studying painting and drawing in his spare time. Burne-Jones also moved to London, and they shared an apartment. Through Burne-Jones he met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was a few years older than they were and a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which entailed an interest in medievalism, and Rossetti became their mentor. Since he was independently wealthy, Morris gave up architecture and began to experiment in various crafts such as embroidery, woodcuts and furniture design. He met one of Rossetti's models, Jane Burden, in 1857. She was of a lower class and uneducated but had the right female physical characteristics for the group. They were married in 1859, when he was 25. Using family money, Morris built a house, known as the Red House, in Kent, in which to live with Jane. The building was designed by his friend Philip Webb, and Morris decorated the interior. His hope was to establish an artisan community centered there, but that never materialized.

The Morris emerging so far is rather frenetic, a man with a high energy level but little self-discipline or self-control. He tended to start projects and not finish them and jumped around between crafts. He gradually gave up on painting, perhaps because he simply was not as talented as Burne-Jones, Rossetti or Ford Madox Brown, another member of his circle. Morris also veered off into poetry, which he self-published, and he eventually established a name for himself in that sphere. Morris's personal relationships were often strained. Because of his neurological condition, he became the butt of jokes, and, since he had a gregarious nature, he put up with them. He had a schoolboyish mentality and liked being surrounded by male friends in a fraternity-like atmosphere. The lack of discipline extended to eating and drinking, and he became rather corpulent after college. His relationships with women, even his wife, tended to be problematic. Burne-Jones married a compatible woman from his class, while Jane's background was different, and she may have been a model for Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, which George Bernard Shaw, a friend of the group, wrote years later. Although Morris and Jane promptly produced two daughters early in their marriage, and Jane became an expert embroiderer, she and Morris seem to have been incompatible, and after he died she was rather blunt in stating that she had never loved him but was simply taking advantage of a social opportunity that was too good to pass up. There was a fair amount of naïveté and idealization about women in Morris's circle; for example, John Ruskin is said to have been shocked on his wedding night to discover that his wife had pubic hair.

Although the Red House did not become a craft hub, in 1861 Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. was established to produce murals, architectural carvings, stained glass, metalwork and furniture. As was the case with many of Morris's wealthy contemporaries, his financial footing was far from solid. In those days, wealthy families often had all of their income generated by one company in which they owned stock. Morris had inherited stock in a mining company that gradually failed, and initially he depended on more funds from his mother, whose financial condition was also precarious. By 1865, Morris was in financial straits, and he put the Red House up for sale and moved back to London with his wife and children. This proved to be beneficial for the Firm, which gradually widened its clientele and became fashionable. Before it was over, Morris had established a successful business that didn't depend on handouts from his family.

In some respects, Morris and his friends represented an anti-modernity movement. They preferred medieval Europe and ancient Greece to Victorian England. Their spirit was similar to that of the hippies in the 1960's who wanted to return to the land, live in communes and produce their own food. Both groups were rebelling against bourgeois life, but in the U.S. there was not the same sense of a lost past and its artistic traditions. The hippies instead took an interest in rural traditions such as folk music and bluegrass, having no high culture to recall. And while Morris and his friends were still conventional Christians, the hippies preferred psychedelic drugs and Eastern religions. In Morris's time, the agrarian past was still in living memory, while the hippies grew up mainly in suburbs. I'm still only a third of the way through the book, and Morris became an outspoken socialist later in his life, which parallels the focus of baby boomers on inequality and social injustice. Thus, I am finding it of some value to see similar tendencies in human nature played out in different social and historical contexts.