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.

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