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.

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