MoboReader> Literature > William Morris

   Chapter 4 MORRIS AND COMPANY.

William Morris By Elizabeth Luther Cary Characters: 40274

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The formation of the firm of "Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, & Company," as it was first called, appears to have been highly incidental in character, despite the assertion of Morris himself in a letter to his old tutor, that he had long meant to be a decorator, and to that end mainly had built his fine house. "One evening a lot of us were together," says Rossetti, in the account given by Mr. Watts-Dunton, "and we got to talking about the way in which artists did all kinds of things in olden times, designed every kind of decoration and most kinds of furniture, and someone suggested-as a joke more than anything else-that we should each put down five pounds and form a company. Fivers were blossoms of a rare growth among us in those days, and I won't swear that the table bristled with fivers. Anyhow the firm was formed, but of course there was no deed or anything of that kind. In fact it was a mere playing at business, and Morris was elected manager, not because we ever dreamed he would turn out a man of business, but because he was the only one among us who had both time and money to spare. We had no idea whatever of commercial success, but it succeeded almost in our own despite."

In the mind of Morris it doubtless promised to be the sort of association about which he was constantly dreaming; a group of intelligent craftsmen interested in making the details of daily life as full as possible of beauty, each man fitted to his task and loving it, each in his way a master-workman of the guild, counting his craft honourable and spending his best thought and labour on it. There was ground enough for faith in the artistic if not in the commercial outcome of the enterprise. The associates, beside Morris, Rossetti, and Burne-Jones, were Madox-Brown, then an artist of established reputation, Webb, the architect of the Red House, who was also a designer of furniture and ornament; Peter Paul Marshall, to whom Mr. William Rossetti ascribes the first suggestion of the formation of the firm, a "capable artist" although an amateur; and Charles Faulkner of the Oxford group, who had followed his mates to London unable to endure the loneliness of Oxford without them. They proposed to open what Rossetti called "an actual shop," and sell whatever their united talent produced. "We are not intending to compete with --'s costly rubbish or anything of that sort," Rossetti wrote to his friend Allingham, "but to give real good taste at the price as far as possible of ordinary furniture."

TULIP DESIGN FOR AXMINSTER CARPET

In the Spring of 1861, premises were taken over a jeweller's shop at 8 Red Lion Square. Two floors and a part of the basement were used by the firm, and about a dozen men and boys were presently employed. There were regular weekly meetings carried on with the boisterousness of youth and high spirits, but with thorough efficiency, nevertheless, where plans that were to modify and influence the household decoration of all England were gaily formed and put into practice.

The prospectus, in which Mr. Mackail discerns Rossetti's "slashing hand and imperious accent," was not entirely calculated to mollify rival decorators, calling attention to the fact that attempts at decorative art up to that time had been crude and fragmentary, and emphasising the want of some one place where work of "a genuine and beautiful character could be obtained." The new firm pledged itself to execute in a business-like manner:

"I. Mural Decoration, either in Pictures or in Pattern Work, or merely in the arrangement of Colours, as applied to dwelling-houses, churches, or public buildings.

"II. Carving generally, as applied to Architecture.

"III. Stained Glass, especially with reference to its harmony with Mural Decoration.

"IV. Metal Work in all its branches, including jewellery.

"V. Furniture, either depending for its beauty on its own design, on the application of materials hitherto overlooked, or on its conjunction with Figure and Pattern Painting. Under this head is included Embroidery of all kinds, Stamped Leather, and ornamental work in other such materials, besides every article necessary for domestic use."

Clearly this was not the usual thing, nor was the business conducted in the usual way. According to Mr. William Rossetti, the young reformers adopted a tone of "something very like dictatorial irony" toward their customers, permitting no compromise, and laying down the law without concession to individual taste or want of taste. You could have things such as the firm chose them to be or you could go without them.

The finance of the company began, Mr. Mackail says, with a call of one pound per share and a loan of a hundred pounds from Mrs. Morris of Leyton. In 1862 a further call of nineteen pounds a share was made on the partners, raising the paid-up capital to one hundred and forty pounds, which "was never increased until the dissolution of the firm in 1874." A few hundred pounds additional were loaned by Morris and his mother. Each piece of work contributed by any member of the firm was paid for at the time, and Morris as general manager received a salary of a hundred and fifty pounds a year.

PEACOCK DESIGN FOR COARSE WOOL HANGINGS

It is obvious that with this slender financial basis the business required the utmost energy, industry, skill, and talent to keep it from being promptly wrecked on the very uncertain coast of public opinion. During the first year all the members of the firm were active, although even at the first Morris led the rest. A stimulus was provided by the International Exhibition of 1862, whither they sent examples of their work, at the cost, wrote Faulkner, of "more tribulation and swearing to Topsy than three exhibitions will be worth." The exhibits attracted attention, and were awarded medals, in the case of the stained glass, "for artistic qualities of colour and design," and in the case of the furniture, hangings, and so forth, for the "closeness with which the style of the Middle Ages was rendered." It happened that the chief work in stained glass in the exhibit of the firm consisted of a set of windows designed by Rossetti, and giving, according to a Belgian critic, "an impression of colour, dazzling and magnificent, velvety and harmonious, resembling the Flemish stained glass windows decorating the Gothic cathedrals." Thus, fortunately, the first appearance of the firm was distinguished by the splendour which Rossetti alone among the group of workers could achieve, but his interest and activity shortly flagged and were absorbed in his individual work outside the company.

At first, despite the lordly prospectus, there were occasional blunders. Dr. Birkbeck Hill tells of a study table and an arm-chair, neither one of which was so thorough a piece of workmanship as the firm would have turned out later on, and Mr. Hughes remembers a sofa with a long bar beneath projecting six inches at each end so that it tripped up anyone who hastily went round it. These, however, were blunders of a kind soon remedied by experience. So long as the associates kept up their enthusiasm there were among them ample skill to grapple with technicalities, and ample artistic faculty to defy all ordinary competition. Whoever dropped behind from time to time in this most essential quality of enthusiasm it was never Morris, and all accounts agree in attributing to his energy and industry and unutterable zest the success of the novel and interesting experiment. "He is the only man I have known," said Rossetti once, "who beats every other man at his own game." The men he had to beat at this game of decoration were for the most part unworthy foes. Decorative art was at a low ebb in the early Victorian age, the age of antimacassars, stucco, and veneer. From this cheap vulgarity and pretentiousness Morris turned back-as he was wont to do on every occasion that offered excuse-to the thirteenth century as the purest fount of English tradition, where, if anywhere, could be found models showing logical principles of construction and genuine workmanship. His companions either caught from him the infection of the medi?val attitude or were already in sympathy with it, and the work of the firm took on an emphatically Gothic aspect from the beginning. How great or how important a part each member played in the sum of the production is very difficult to estimate owing to the co?perative plan by which several artists frequently united in executing one and the same piece of work. Sometimes Burne-Jones would draw the figures, Webb the birds, and Morris the foliage for a piece of drapery or wall-paper. Again portions of separate designs would be used over and over in different combinations for different places. This free co?peration, this moving about within the limits of a general plan, suited the restless spirit of Morris, and chimed also with his profound admiration for the way in which the medi?val works of art were brought about, no one man standing high above the others or trying to preserve his name and the fame of his performance. Working for the pleasure of the work was of the very essence of his philosophy, and nothing could be more unjust than the sneers from time to time launched at him because his venture proved a commercial triumph. Perhaps it would be going too far to say that money-getting was never in his mind, but there is no question that it was never first in his mind, and never in the slightest degree crowded his desire to put forth sincere, fine work, worth its price to the last detail, and worthy of praise and liking without regard to its price. There was not the slightest suggestion of pose or sham of any kind in his thought when he wrote, as he often did, against the greed of gain and in praise of the kind of labour that may be delighted in without regard to pounds and pence. He could say quite faithfully that he shared the humility of the early craftsmen, of whom he speaks with reverence.

"In most sober earnest," he says in one of his lectures, "when we hear it said, as it often is said, that extra money payment is necessary under all circumstances to produce great works of art, and that men of special talent will not use those talents without being bribed by mere gross material advantages, we, I say, shall know what to reply. We can appeal to the witness of those lovely works still left to us, whose unknown, unnamed creators were content to give them to the world, with little more extra wages than what their pleasure in their work and their sense of usefulness in it might bestow on them." There is no room for doubt that he approached his work in precisely the spirit here described by him. He was willing to exercise his faculties on the humblest undertakings, with no other aim than to make a common thing pleasant to look upon and agreeable to use. Half a century ago "craft" was not the fashionable word for the kind of work with which the firm chiefly concerned itself, and in doing the greater part of what he did Morris was merely writing himself down, in the language of the general public, an artisan. Conforming to the truest of principles he raised his work by getting under it. Nothing was too laborious or too lowly for him. Pride of position was unknown to him in any sense that would prevent him from indulging in manual labour. His real pride lay in making something which he considered beautiful take the place of something ugly in the world. If it were a fabric to be made lovely with long disused or unfamiliar dyes, his hands were in the vat. If tapestry were to be woven, he was at the loom by dawn. In his workman's blouse, steeped in indigo, and with his hair outstanding wildly, he was in the habit of presenting himself cheerfully at the houses of his friends, relying upon his native dignity to save appearances, or, to speak more truly, not thinking of appearances at all, but entirely happy in his r?le of workman, though frankly desirous that the business should prosper beyond all danger of the "smash" that would, he owned, "be a terrible nuisance." "I have not time on my hands," he said, "to be ruined and get really poor." It was to the peculiar union of the ideal and the practical in his nature that his success in the fields on which he ventured is due.

PAINTED WALL DECORATION

DESIGNED BY MORRIS

It must be admitted, however, that while his soul and vigour found vent in his designing and in the journeyman work-"delightful work, hard for the body and easy for the mind"-at which he was so ready to lend a hand, his artistic product lacked somewhat in the qualities that come from the exercise of the higher intellectual gifts. It was more than an attempt to revive old Gothic forms; it was an adoption of old forms with an infusion of modern spirit; but it missed the native and personal character of work growing out of contemporaneous conditions and tastes. Imaginative craftsman as he was, Morris was never quite an artist in the strict sense of the word. He had a fine sense of colour and, within certain limits, a right feeling for pattern; but his invention was too exuberant for repose, and he displayed in the greater part of his work an ornamental luxuriance that destroyed dignity and simplicity of effect. He did not like the restraints of art, and he seems to have been incapable of entering the sphere of abstract thought in which the principles governing great art are found. "No schools of art," he says with his superbly inaccurate generalisation, "have ever been contented to use abstract lines and forms and colours-that is, lines and so forth without any meaning." Such ornament he deemed "outlandish." He wanted his patterns, especially his wall-paper patterns, to remind people of pleasant scenes: "of the close vine trellis that keeps out the sun by the Nile side; or of the wild woods and their streams with the dogs panting beside them; or of the swallows sweeping above the garden boughs toward the house eaves where their nestlings are, while the sun breaks the clouds on them; or of the many-flowered summer meadows of Picardy,"-all very charming things to think about, but as really pertinent to wall-paper designing as the pleasant memory of a hard road with a fast horse speeding over it would be to the designing of a carpet. He preached the closest observation of nature and the most delicate understanding of it before attempting conventionalisation, but he did not hesitate to break all the laws of nature in his designs when he happened to want to do so. He did not hesitate, as Mr. Day has said, to make an acorn grow from two stalks or to give a lily five petals. Fitness in ornament was one of his fundamental principles, and he made his designs for the place in which they were to be seen and with direct reference to the limitations of opportunities of that place. It was never his way to turn a wall-paper loose on the market for any chance purchaser. He must know, if possible, something of the walls to which the design was to be applied and of the room in which it was to live, and he then adapted his design to his idea of what was required. This idea, however, was commonly much influenced by certain pre-conceived theories. He believed, for example, that there should be a sense of mystery in every pattern designed. This mystery he tried to get, not by masking the geometrical structure upon which a recurring pattern must be based, but by covering the ground equably and richly, so that the observer may not "be able to read the whole thing at once." Thus many of his designs are so over-elaborated as to give the effect of restlessness, whereas "rest" was the word oftenest on his lips in connection with domestic art. In common with most designers who derive their ideals from medi?val sources, he was less impressed by the tranquillity gained from calm clean spaces, the measure, order, and stateliness brought about by the simple relation of abstract lines, the repose of the rhythmical play of mass in perfect proportion, undisturbed by decorative detail, than by the charm of highly vitalised imagery. But though he erred on the side of luxuriance-while preaching simplicity-he never allowed his design to sink into vulgarity or petty picturesqueness. He might be intricate but he was not vague. "Run any risk of failure rather than involve yourself in a tangle of poor weak lines that people can't make out," he says. "Definite form bounded by firm outline is a necessity for all ornament. You ought always to go for positive patterns when they may be had." They might always be had from him. And it is due to his positive quality, his uncompromising certainty of the rightness of the thing that he is doing, that even when he is most imitative he gives an impression of originality, and is in fact original in the sense that he has thought out for himself the methods and motives of the ancient art by which he is consciously and intentionally influenced.

PAINTED WALL DECORATION

DESIGNED BY MORRIS

Finish, it need hardly be said, was not prized by him. It was one of his assumptions that "the better is the enemy of the good," and he preferred the roughness of incompleteness to the suavity of perfect workmanship. He dreaded the suggestion of the machine that lurks in the polished surface and the perfect curve. Nor did he at any time believe in the subdivision of labour by which a workman learns to do one thing with the utmost efficiency, holding that no workman could enjoy such specialised work, and therefore, of course, could not through it give pleasure to others. The following is the creed which, according to his "compact with himself," he made it a duty to repeat when he and his fellow-men came together to discuss art:

"We ought to get to understand the value of intelligent work, the work of men's hands guided by their brains, and to take that, though it be rough, rather than the unintelligent work of machines or slaves though it be delicate; to refuse altogether to use machine-made work unless where the nature of the thing compels it, or where the machine does what mere human suffering would otherwise have to do; to have a high standard of excellence in wares and not to accept make-shifts for the real thing, but rather to go without-to have no ornament merely for fashion's sake, but only because we really think it beautiful, otherwise to go without it; not to live in an ugly and squalid place (such as London) for the sake of mere excitement or the like, but only because our duties bind us to it-to treat the natural beauty of the earth as a holy thing not to be rashly dealt with for any consideration; to treat with the utmost care whatever of architecture and the like is left us of the times of art."

DESIGN FOR ST. JAMES'S PALACE WALL-PAPER

(Reproduced by courtesy of Mr. Bulkley)

Wall-papers were among the earliest staple products of the firm in Red Lion Square, although Morris always regarded them in the light of a compromise; an altogether unsatisfactory substitute for the hand-painting, or tapestry or silk or printed cotton hangings, which he considered the proper covering for the bare walls which, of course, no one not in "an unhealthy state of mind and probably of body also" could endure to leave bare. The first to be designed, the Trellis paper, was the combined work of Morris and Webb, the former being responsible for the rose-trellis intended, we may suppose, to bring with it pleasant recollections of gardens in June and inspired by his own sweet garden at Upton, the latter for the birds that cling to the lattice or dart upward among the heavily thorned stems. In the early papers the designs were very simple and direct, often more quaint than beautiful, as in the case of the well-known Daisy paper, and depending greatly on the colouring for the attractiveness they possessed. Later came such intricate patterns as the Pimpernel, the Acanthus, so elaborate as to require a double set of blocks and no less than thirty-two printings, and the paper designed for St. James's Palace, as large and magnificent as the environment in w

hich it was to be placed demanded. It is quite obvious from these designs that Morris did not regard his wall-hangings as backgrounds but as decorations in themselves. As a matter of fact he did not fancy pictures for his walls. After his early burst of enthusiasm over Rossetti's paintings he bought few pictures if any, and they do not seem ever to have entered into his schemes of decoration. The wall of a room was always important to him, and despite his discontent with paper coverings for it, he was anxious to have such coverings as ornamental as possible, admitting them to be useful "as things go," and treating them in considerable detail in his lectures on the decorative arts. He advised making up for the poverty of the material by great thoughtfulness in the design: "The more and the more mysteriously you interweave your sprays and stems, the better for your purpose, as the whole thing has to be pasted flat upon a wall and the cost of all this intricacy will but come out of your own brain and hand." Concerning colour he was equally specific. In his lecture characteristically called Making the Best of It, in which with an accent of discouragement he endeavours to show his audience how at the time of his speaking to make a middle-class home "endurable," he lays down certain rules which indicate at one and the same time his mastery of his subject and the incommunicability of right taste in this direction, although many of his ideas may be pondered to great advantage by even the mind untrained in colour schemes. He begins with his usual preliminary statement as to the health of those who disagree with him. "Though we may each have our special preferences," he says, "among the main colours, which we shall do quite right to indulge, it is a sign of disease in an artist to have a prejudice against any particular colour, though such prejudices are common and violent enough among people imperfectly educated in art, or with naturally dull perceptions of it. Still colours have their ways in decoration, so to say, both positively in themselves, and relatively to each man's way of using them. So I may be excused for setting down some things I seem to have noticed about these ways." After thus establishing friendly relations with his audience, he instructs them that yellow is a colour to be used sparingly and in connection with "gleaming materials" such as silk; that red to be at its finest must be deep and full and between crimson and scarlet; that purple no one in his senses would think of using bright and in masses, and that the best shade of it tends toward russet; green, he continues, must seldom be used both bright and strong. "On the other hand," he adds, "do not fall into the trap of a dingy, bilious-looking yellow-green, a colour to which I have a special and personal hatred, because (if you will excuse my mentioning personal matters) I have been supposed to have somewhat brought it into vogue." Dingy colours were abhorred by him in all cases, and his patience with those customers who demanded them was extremely limited. Blue was his "holiday colour," and "if you duly guard against getting it cold if it tend toward red, or rank if it tends toward green," you "need not be much afraid of its brightness."

EARLY DESIGN FOR MORRIS WALL-PAPER "DAISY AND COLUMBINE"

CHRYSANTHEMUM DESIGN FOR WALL-PAPER

From his hatred of mechanical methods grew his preferences among the lesser arts. He once complained that he never could see any scene "with a frame as it were around it," and the less necessity there was for bounding and limiting his design the happier he was in making it. Embroidery he loved, for here the worker had an almost absolutely free hand. There was no "excuse" in embroidery for anything short of striking beauty. "It is not worth doing," he said, "unless it is either very copious and rich, or very delicate-or both. For such an art nothing patchy or scrappy, or half-starved should be done." Tapestry-weaving stood next in freedom of method, and this was not only a favourite art with him, but one which he carried to an extraordinary degree of perfection, he and Burne-Jones combining their designs to produce results coming nearer to the old Arras effects than to the work of modern weavers. In tapestry-weaving Morris used the haute lisse or "high loom," the weaver holding apart with his left hand the threads of the warp which stands upright before him as with his right hand he works his bobbins in and out, seeing the picture he is making in a mirror placed on the other side of the loom. The interest of Morris in the weaving craft is said to have been first awakened by the sight of a man in the street selling toy models of weaving machines, one of which he promptly bought for experimental purposes. It was many years before he could find a full-sized loom of the kind he wanted, which had become obsolete or nearly so, and which was the only style of loom he would consider using as it was most like the looms on which the splendid fabrics of medi?val times had been woven. By such difficulties he was rarely baffled. In the case of his tapestries the method he proposed to revive had died out in Cromwell's time and there was no working model which could be used as a guide. But there was an old French official handbook that came in his way, from which he was able to pick up the details of the craft and this sufficed. His personal familiarity with his process is apparent in his various discussions of it. He speaks with the authority of a workman whose hand has held the tool. This practical and positive knowledge saved him from the sentimentalism into which his theories might otherwise have led him. He designed his patterns fully aware of the way in which they were going to behave in the process of application. When in 1882 he was called upon to give evidence before the Royal Commission appointed to inquire into the subject of technical instruction, he urged the necessity of this working-knowledge on the part of every designer. "I think it essential," he said, "that a designer should learn the practical way of carrying out the work for which he designs; he ought to be able to weave himself." In all his talk about art he tried to tell people how to do only the things he himself had done, in which he differed widely and wholesomely from his master Ruskin whose teachings were so often on his lips. The activity of his hand was a needed and to a great extent an effective check upon the activity of his sentiment. But-like Ruskin here-he found it hard to stay long away from the moral or emotional significance of the art he was discussing. The art that speaks to the mind he did not completely understand. The art that speaks to the senses he abundantly explained. The amazingly ingenious point of view from which he defends his preoccupation with what he has named "the lesser arts" is displayed in the following passage, beginning with the almost inevitable formula:

"A healthy and sane person being asked with what kind of art he would clothe his walls, might well answer, 'with the best art,' and so end the question. Yet out on it! So complex is human life, that even this seemingly most reasonable answer may turn out to be little better than an evasion. For I suppose the best art to be the pictured representation of men's imaginings: what they have thought has happened to the world before their time, or what they deem they have seen with the eyes of the body or the soul; and the imaginings thus represented are always beautiful indeed, but oftenest stirring to men's passions and aspirations and not seldom sorrowful or even terrible.

"Stories that tell of men's aspirations for more than material life can give them, their struggle for the future welfare of the race, their unselfish love, their unrequited service; things like this are the subjects for the best art; in such subjects there is hope surely, yet the aspect of them is likely to be sorrowful enough: defeat, the seed of victory, and death, the seed of life, will be shown on the face of most of them.

"Take note, too, that in the best art all these solemn and awful things are expressed clearly and without any vagueness, with such life and power that they impress the beholder so deeply that he is brought face to face with the very scenes, and lives among them for a time: so raising his life above the daily tangle of small things that wearies him to the level of the heroism which they represent. This is the best art, and who can deny that it is good for us all that it should be at hand to stir the emotions; yet its very greatness makes it a thing to be handled carefully, for we cannot always be having our emotions deeply stirred: that wearies us body and soul; and man, an animal that longs for rest like other animals, defends himself against that weariness by hardening his heart and refusing to be moved every hour of the day by tragic emotions,-nay, even by beauty that claims his attention overmuch. Such callousness is bad, both for the arts and our own selves, and therefore it is not so good to have the best art forever under our eyes, though it is abundantly good that we should be able to get at it from time to time.

"Meantime, I cannot allow that it is good for any hour of the day to be wholly stripped of life and beauty, therefore we must provide ourselves with lesser (I will not say worse) art with which to surround our common work-a-day or restful times; and for those times I think it will be enough for us to clothe our daily and domestic walls with ornament that reminds us of the outward face of the earth, of the innocent love of animals, or man passing his days between work and rest as he does. I say with ornament that reminds us of these things and sets our minds and memories at work easily creating them; because scientific representation of them would again involve us in the problems of hard fact and the troubles of life, and so once more destroy our rest for us."

ANEMONE PATTERN FOR SILK AND

WOOL CURTAIN MATERIAL

Was ever a craftsman of the ancient guilds so at pains to make clear the propriety and usefulness of his wood-carving or enamelling or niello! Like the early workman, however, he moved with marvellous facility from one branch of his art to another. From wall-papers it was but a step to cotton prints which in a way were the playthings of a mind at leisure. They might be as gay as one chose to make them, and "could not well go wrong so long as they avoided commonplace and kept somewhat on the daylight side of nightmare." From the weaving of hangings to the weaving of carpets was a step as easily taken, and when the impulse seized him to carry on the great but dying art of Persia in this direction, Morris so effectively applied himself to mastering the conditions under which the beautiful Eastern carpets were brought to their perfection as to produce at least one example-that called The Buller's Wood Carpet-that fairly competes with the splendour of its prototypes. Stained glass for a time baffled him. "His was not the temperament," says one of his critics, "patiently to study the chemistry of glass colour; or to prove by long experiment the dependence to be placed upon a flux." Although many windows were made by the firm, the larger number of them designed by Burne-Jones, Morris being responsible for the colour, he never seemed to forget that he had come near to being worsted in his fight with the technical difficulties of this most difficult art, and economised his enthusiasm for it accordingly. Hand-painted tiles, however, which he was the first to introduce into England, were favourites with him, and in them he perpetuated some of his attempts at drawing the human figure. Furniture, though an important feature of the work undertaken by the firm, did not appeal to him, and he left it to his associates. His experiments in vegetable dyes produced interesting results, although here also his technical knowledge was not entirely adequate to his task. In connection with his textile work he early felt the imperative necessity of having finer colours than the market offered. To get them as he wanted them he was obliged to go back as far as Pliny, but this was a small matter to one whose mind was always ready to provide him with an Aladdin's carpet. Back to Pliny he went to learn old methods, and in addition he called to his aid ancient herbals and French books of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, finally setting up his own vats and becks and very literally plunging in. At first he complained of "looking such a beast," but his enthusiasm soon overcame this rather remarkable display of concern for his personal appearance, and he wrote most joyously of working in sabots and blouse in the dye-house "pretty much all day long." Out of his vats came the blue of his indigo, the red of his madder, the yellow of weld or Persian berry, the rich brown of walnut juice, making beautiful combinations, which, when they faded, changed into paler tints of the same colour and were not unpleasant to look upon. The aniline dyes, which in 1860 were the latest wonder of science, and in a very crude stage of their development, called out his most picturesque invective. Each colour was hideous in itself, crude, livid, cheap, and loathed by every person of taste, the "foul blot of the capitalist dyer." In brief, the invention supposed to be for the benefit of an art "the very existence of which depends upon its producing beauty" was "on the road; and very far advanced on it, towards destroying all beauty in the art." The only thing to do was to turn one's back on the chemical dyes, relegate them to a museum of scientific curiosities, and go back "if not to the days of the Pharaohs yet at least to those of Tintoret." It was highly characteristic of him that he chose the remedy of "going back" in place of progressing with the new material as far as possible.

PORTION OF HAMMERSMITH CARPET

His work with silks and with wools was naturally greatly enriched by his use of his own full, soft and brilliant colours, and his personal attention to the art of dyeing counted for so much that one of his most accomplished pupils in embroidery is quoted by Mr. Mackail as saying that she promptly felt the difference when Morris ceased to dye with his own hands, that the colours became more monotonous and prosy and the very lustre of the silk was less beautiful. It is, however, difficult to impress yourself upon the public precisely as you are, whatever vigour your personality may have. Morris, with his intense love of bright full hues, has come down as the promoter of the so-called "?sthetic" dulness of colour, and his name has been especially associated with the peacock blue and the "sage-green" to which he had an especial aversion. It was one of his doctrines that a room should be kept cheerful in tone, and how happily he could carry out this doctrine is seen in more than one of the rooms decorated by the firm. A visitor to Stanmore Hall, for example, has noted the delicate tones of the painted ceilings as looking like embroidery on old white silk, giving a bright yet light and a?rial effect, and forming with the woodwork of untouched oak an impression of delightful gayety.

That Morris made himself a master of so many crafts and grappled even so successfully as he did with the technical difficulties involved would be somewhat remarkable had he attempted none of the other undertakings in which he gained for himself a name to be remembered. His eagerness to express his ideals in a practical form led him on indefinitely. To the very last a new world to conquer roused his spirit and made him tingle to be off. For a man with the trace of the plodder in him such a career would have been an impossible one, but Morris went blithely from craft to craft by a series of leaps and bounds. He stayed with each just long enough to understand its working principles and to make himself efficient to teach others its peculiar virtues and demands, and he then passed on. "Each separate enterprise on which he entered," says one of his biographers, "seems for a time to have moved him to extraordinary energy. He thought it out, installed it, set it going, designed for it, trained men and women in the work to be done, and then by degrees, as the work began to run smoothly and could be trusted to go on without him, his interest became less active: a new idea generated in his mind, or an old one burst into bud, and his energies burst out afresh in some new doing." As time went on he had less and less practically to do with the firm of which he was the head and of which he continued to the end to be the consulting adviser. He gathered about him co?perators who not only were sympathetic with his methods but absorbed his style. His distinction as a designer was neither so great nor so personal that it could not to a considerable degree be communicated, and this accounts for the enduring quality of his influence which has been handed down to us through others without too much subtracted from it, with many of the characteristics most to be cherished still present. Greater decorators have existed, indeed, but it may be questioned if anyone has been quite so inspiriting; has had the matter quite so much at heart. He persuaded the multitude from the intensity of his own conviction, and he persuaded them on the whole toward good things and toward beauty. He made other men's ideas his own but he adopted them body and soul. He followed his own fashion, inveighing with vigour and frequently with logic against nearly all the fashions of his time. It is not surprising that he himself became the great fashion of the nineteenth century in matters of decoration. And this certainly was what he wanted, in the sense of wanting everyone in England to see as he did the possibilities of household art and to share in furthering them by turning their backs upon the sham art with which the commercial world was largely occupied. But he made no effort toward gaining the patronage of those unwilling to admit that what he disliked was intolerable. His was never a conciliatory policy. The following passage from his lecture on The Lesser Arts reveals his attitude in his own phrasing:

"People say to me often enough: If you want to make your art succeed and flourish, you must make it the fashion: a phrase which I confess annoys me: for they mean by it that I should spend one day over my work to two days in trying to convince rich, and supposed influential people, that they care very much for what they really do not care in the least, so that it may happen according to the proverb: Bell-wether took the leap and we all went over; well, such advisers are right if they are content with the thing lasting but a little while: say till you can make a little money, if you don't get pinched by the door shutting too quickly: otherwise they are wrong: the people they are thinking of have too many strings to their bow, and can turn their backs too easily on a thing that fails, for it to be safe work trusting to their whims: it is not their fault, they cannot help it, but they have no chance of spending time enough over the arts to know anything practical of them, and they must of necessity be in the hands of those who spend their time in pushing fashion this way and that for their own advantage.

SOFA DESIGNED BY THE MORRIS CO.

(Reproduced by courtesy of Mr. Bulkley)

SECRETARY DESIGNED BY THE MORRIS CO.

(Reproduced by courtesy of Mr. Bulkley)

"Sirs, there is no help to be got out of these latter, or those who let themselves be led by them: the only real help for the decorative arts must come from those who work in them: nor must they be led, they must lead.

"You whose hands make those things that should be works of art, you must all be artists, and good artists too, before the public at large can take real interest in such things; and when you have become so, I promise you that you shall lead the fashion; fashion shall follow your hands obediently enough."

* * *

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares