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William Morris By Elizabeth Luther Cary Characters: 26119

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

While Morris was developing the industries of the firm with essential steadiness, despite the rapid transitions from one pursuit to another, he was going through a variety of personal experiences, some of which involved his disappointment in deeply cherished plans. For one thing, and this perhaps the most grievous, he was obliged to give up the Red House upon which so much joyous labour had been spent. Several causes contributed to the unhappy necessity, chief among them an attack of rheumatic fever that made him sensitive to the bleak winds which the exposed situation of the building invited. The distance between London and Upton became also a serious matter after his illness, as he found it almost impossible to make the daily journeys required by his attention to the business. Several compromises were thought of, the most enticing being the removal of the works from Red Lion Square to Upton, and the addition of a wing to the Red House for Burne-Jones and his family; but in the end the beautiful house was sold, Morris, after leaving it, never again setting eyes upon it.



The first move was to Queen Square, London, where Morris and the business became house-mates in the autumn of 1865, remaining together there, with more or less interruption, for seven years. Queen Square is in Bloomsbury, not far from the British Museum, and a part of the ugly London middle-class region for which Morris had so little liking, but as a place to carry on the rapidly increasing work of the firm it possessed great advantages. The number of the house was 26, and adjacent buildings and grounds were used for the workshops. At this time Mr. George Warrington Taylor was made business manager for the company, and Morris gained by his accession much valuable time, not only for designing and experimenting, but for the literary work that again began to claim his attention. He was still, however, a familiar figure in "the shop," acting as salesman, showman, designer, or manual labourer. His aspect as he strode along the streets of the dull neighbourhood must have been refreshing. Those who knew him have repeatedly described him as the image of a sea-captain in general appearance. He wore habitually a suit of navy-blue serge cut in nautical fashion, and his manner was bluff and hearty as that of the proverbial seaman. Mr. Mackail gives a breezy picture of him in his workman's blouse, hatless, with his ruddy complexion and rocking walk, bound for the Faulkners' house where once upon a time a new maid took him for the butcher. To have seen him in these days was to have seen one of his own ideal workmen out of News from Nowhere. As a master of men he seems to have been singularly successful, despite the temper which led him at times to commit acts of positive violence. His splendid zest for work must have been stimulating and to a degree contagious. Merely to be in the company of one who thought hearty manual labour so interesting and so pleasant and so heartily to be desired by everyone, must have had its vivifying effect. He was stating the simple truth when he said that he should die of despair and weariness if his daily work were taken from him unless he could at once make something else his daily work, and he is constantly drawing persuasive pictures of the charm of the various handicrafts-that of weaving for example, his description of which would invite the most discontented mind. He does not call the weaver's craft a dull one: "If he be set to doing things which are worth doing-to watch the web growing day by day almost magically, in anticipation of the time when it is to be taken out and one can see it on the right side in all its well-schemed beauty-to make something beautiful that will last out of a few threads of silk and wool, seems to me not an unpleasant way of earning one's livelihood, so long only as one lives and works in a pleasant place, with work-day not too long, and a book or two to be got at." His own weavers were some of them boys trained in the shop from a condition of absolute ignorance of drawing and of the craft to such an efficiency as enabled them to weave the Stanmore tapestry, one panel of which took two years to the making, and which was of the utmost elaboration and magnificence of design. The exigencies of the business presently made it necessary to devote the whole of the premises in Queen Square to the work going on there, and the Morris family removed in 1872 to a small house between Hammersmith and Turnham Green, near Chiswick Lane, Morris retaining a couple of rooms in the Queen Square house for his use when busy there. Even the extended quarters soon proved insufficient, however, and in 1877 rooms were taken in Oxford Street for showing and selling the work of the firm, the manufacturing departments being still ensconced in Queen Square. In 1881 these also were transferred to more suitable premises. The dyeing and cotton-printing demanded workshops by the side of some stream of clear water "fit to dye with," and after much search Morris found an ideal situation on the banks of the little Wandle River, near Wimbledon. There were the ruins of Merton Abbey where the Barons once gave their famous answer "Nolumus leges Angli? mutari," and there manufactures had been carried on for centuries. In the long low-roofed worksheds on the river's bank his workmen could move about in ample space, practising ancient methods of dyeing, printing, and weaving, seven miles from Charing Cross. It is anything but a typical manufactory that has been depicted by visitors to the Merton Abbey works. We read of an old walled garden gay with old-fashioned flowers and shrubs, of the swift little Wandle River rushing along between the buildings, its trout leaping under the windows, a water-wheel revolving at ease, hanks of yarn, fresh from the vats, drying in the pure air, calico lying "clearing" on the meadow grass in an enclosure made by young poplar trees, a sunlit picture of peaceful work carried on by unharried workers among surroundings of fresh and wholesome charm. Women and men were both employed, some of them old and not all of them competent, but none of them overworked or underpaid. Though Morris had somewhat scant courtesy of manner toward those who worked for and with him, he had at least the undeviating desire to promote their welfare. If he expected work of his work-people, as certainly he did, he expected it only under the most healthful and agreeable conditions. Judging others by himself, he could not conceive anyone as happy in idleness, but neither did he expect anyone to be happy without leisure. In his own business he proved what the nineteenth century found hard to believe, that honest, thorough, and artistic workmanship, accomplished under reasonable exactions by people enjoying their occupation, could be combined with commercial prosperity. That the products of such labour could not be bought by the poorer classes was due, he argued, to a social order wrong at the root. The time when art could be made "by the people and for the people, as a happiness to the maker and the user," was a far-off dream.

Kelmscott Manor House

Kelmscott Manor House

Shortly before Morris abandoned Queen Square as a place of residence, he discovered for himself a "heaven on earth," in which he could spend his vacations from town, and free himself from the contamination of London streets. This was Kelmscott Manor House, which he rented-at first jointly with Rossetti-in 1871, and in which he took infinite satisfaction for the remainder of his life. The beautiful old place was in its way as characteristic of him and of his tastes as the Red House had been, and has become intimately associated with him in the minds of all who knew him during his later years, his passion for places investing those for which he cared with a sentiment not to be ignored or slighted in making up the sum of his interests. For a couple of years Rossetti was an inmate of Kelmscott Manor, and through his letters many vivid glimpses of it are obtained. The village of Kelmscott was at the time no more than a hamlet containing a hundred and seventeen people, and situated two and a half miles from the nearest town, Lechlade, to whose churchyard Shelley lent distinction by writing a poem there. The nearest station-town was Farringdon, so far off that the carrier who brought railway parcels to the occupants of the Manor charged six shillings and sixpence for each trip. "Thus," writes Rossetti, who was chronically short of money, "a good deal of inconvenience tempers the attractions of the place." Nothing, however, unless the presence of Rossetti, who was "unromantically discontented" there, tempered them for Morris. In an article for The Quest for November, 1895, he describes the house in the most minute detail, accentuating its charms with a touch of comment for each that falls like a caress. The roofs are covered with the beautiful stone slates of the district, "the most lovely covering which a roof can have." The "battering" or leaning back of the walls is by no means a defect but a beauty, "taking from the building a rigidity which otherwise would mar it," and the stout studded partitions of the entrance passage are "very agreeable to anyone who does not want cabinet work to supplant carpentry." To the building of it all must have gone, he thinks, "some thin thread of tradition, a half-anxious sense of the delight of meadow and acre and wood and river, a certain amount (not too much, let us hope) of common-sense, a liking for making materials serve one's turn, and perhaps at bottom some little grain of sentiment." And from Rossetti we hear of the primitive Kelmscott church "looking just as one fancies chapels in the Mort d'Arthur," of clouds of starlings sinking in the copses "clamourous like mill-waters at wild play," of "mustering rooks innumerable," of a "delicious" garden and meadows leading to the river brink, of apple blossoms and marigolds and arrow-heads and white lilies "divinely lovely," of an island by the boat-house rich in wild periwinkles, and of many another exquisite aspect of a place whose unvexed quietness was nevertheless powerless to soothe the turmoil of that tormented soul.

To realise fully how Morris himself felt toward it, one must turn to his description in News from Nowhere. There he is supposed to see it through the kindly mist of time, returning to it from a regenerate and beautified world, and his problem is to write of it with the penetrating eloquence and melancholy associated with remembered happiness. It is supremely characteristic of him that he could perfectly strike this note while still living in hale activity upon the spot he is to praise with the tenderness of reminiscence. The great virtue of his temperament lay in this peculiar intensity of realisation. He needed neither loss nor change to spur his sensibility and awaken his recognition of the worth or special quality of what he loved. Vital as few men are, he seems, nevertheless, always to have dwelt in sight of death and to have grasped life as though the next moment he was to be torn from it. The burden of the song which Ogier the Dane hears on a fair May morning:

Kiss me love! for who knoweth

What thing cometh after death?

so often quoted in evidence of his fainting and dejected spirit, embodies indeed the sentiment of his attitude toward the pleasures and satisfactions to be drawn from the visible and perishable world, but does not hint at the energy with which he seized those pleasures, the sturdiness with which he filled himself with those satisfactions. When News from Nowhere was written, Morris had lived the better part of twenty years in close relation with the Kelmscott house, but custom had not staled for him its infinite variety. This is what he writes of it and of its surroundings in his romance of An Epoch of Rest: He and his companions have approached it by way of the river.

"Presently we saw before us a bank of elm trees, which told us of a house amidst them. In a few minutes we had passed through a deep eddying pool into the sharp stream that ran from the ford, and beached our craft on a tiny strand of limestone gravel, and stepped ashore.

"Mounting on the cart-road that ran along the river some feet above the water, I looked round about me. The river came down through a wide meadow on my left, which was grey now with the ripened seeding grasses; the gleaming water was lost presently by a turn of the bank, but over the meadow I could see the gables of a building where I knew the lock must be. A low wooded ridge bounded the river-plain to the south and south-east, whence we had come, and a few low houses lay about its feet and up its slope. I turned a little to my right and through the hawthorn sprays and long shoots of the wild roses could see the flat country spreading out far away under the sun of the calm evening,

till something that might be called hills with a look of sheep pastures about them bounded it with a soft blue line. Before one, the elm boughs still hid most of what houses there might be in this river-side dwelling of men; but to the right of the cart-road a few grey buildings of the simplest kind showed here and there.

"I had a mind to say that I did not know the way thither, and that the river-side dwellers should lead: but almost without my will my feet moved on along the road they knew. The raised way led us into a little field bounded by a backwater of the river on one side: on the right hand we could see a cluster of small houses and barns and a wall partly overgrown with ivy, over which a few grey gables showed. The village road ended in the shallow of the aforesaid backwater. We crossed the road, and again almost without my will my hand raised the latch of a door in the wall, and we stood presently on a stone path which led up to the old house to which fate in the shape of Dick had so strangely brought me in this world of men. My companion gave a sigh of pleased surprise and enjoyment, nor did I wonder, for the garden between the wall and the house was redolent of the June flowers, and the roses were rolling over one another with that delicious superabundance of small well-tended gardens which at first sight takes away all thought from the beholder save that of beauty. The blackbirds were singing their loudest, the doves were cooing on the roof-ridge, the rooks in the high elm trees beyond were garrulous among the young leaves, and the swifts wheeled, whining, about the gables. And the house itself was a fit guardian for all the beauty of this heart of summer.

"Once again Ellen echoed my thoughts as she said: 'Yes, friend, this is what I came out to see; this many-gabled old house built by the simple country-folk of the long-past times, regardless of all the turmoil that was going on in cities and courts, is lovely still amidst all the beauty which these latter days have created; and I do not wonder at our friends 'tending it so carefully and making much of it. It seems to me as if it had waited for these happy days, and held in it the gathered crumbs of happiness of the confused and turbulent past.'

"She led me up close to the house and laid her shapely sun-browned hand and arm upon the lichened wall as if to embrace it, and cried out: 'O me! O me! How I love the earth and the seasons and weather, and all the things that deal with it and all that grows out of it,-as this has done!'

"We went in and found no soul in any room as we wandered from room to room-from the rose-covered porch to the strange and quaint garrets amongst the great timbers of the roof, where of old time the tillers and herdsmen of the manor slept, but which a-nights seemed now, by the small size of the beds, and the litter of useless and disregarded matters-bunches of dying flowers, feathers of birds, shells of starling's eggs, caddis worms in mugs and the like,-seemed to be inhabited for the time by children.

"Everywhere there was but little furniture, and that only the most necessary, and of the simplest forms. The extravagant love of ornament which I had noted in this people elsewhere, seemed here to have given place to the feeling that the house itself and its associations was the ornament of the country life amidst which it had been left stranded from old times, and that to reornament it would but take away its use as a piece of natural beauty.

"We sat down at last in a room over the wall which Ellen had caressed, and which was still hung with old tapestry, originally of no artistic value, but now faded into pleasant grey tones which harmonised thoroughly well with the quiet of the place, and which would have been ill supplanted by brighter and more striking decoration.

"I asked a few questions of Ellen as we sat there, but scarcely listened to her answers, and presently became silent, and then scarce conscious of anything but that I was there in that old room, the doves crooning from the roofs of the barn and dovecot beyond the window opposite."

* * *

In 1878 Morris took a London house on the Upper Mall, Hammersmith, which he occupied alternately with Kelmscott Manor. This place, which Mr. Mackail describes as "ugly without being mean," was also on the banks of the river, and Morris gained much satisfaction from the thought that the water flowing by it had come in its due course past the beloved Kelmscott garden. A somewhat inconvenient touch of sentiment caused him to give his Hammersmith home the name of "Kelmscott House" in compliment to the home actually situated at Kelmscott, the latter being distinguished by the title of "Manor," a title that seems to belong to it by courtesy alone.

From the great fondness felt by Morris for these places on which he lavished his art until they spoke more eloquently than his words of the aims and theories so dear to him, the domesticity of his life would naturally be inferred. Nor was he an eager traveller judged by modern standards. Nevertheless, he managed to find time for some extended trips just as he found time for everything that came in his way with an appeal to his liking. The most important of these was a voyage to Iceland, made in company with Faulkner and two other friends during the summer of 1871, just after the acquisition of Kelmscott Manor, in which he left Rossetti. His mind was ripe for the experience. He had already published translations from the Icelandic sagas made in collaboration with Mr. Magnusson, and his interest in the bracing Northern literature was reaching its height. Long years after, Rossetti said of him, "There goes the last of the Vikings!" and his mood in visiting Iceland was not unlike that of a modernised Viking returning to his home. Thoughts of the country's great past were constantly with him. The boiling geysers, the conventional attraction for tourists who "never heard the names of Sigurd and Brunhild, of Njal, or Gunnar, or Grettir, or Gisli, or Gudrun," were a source of irritation to him. His pilgrimages to the homes of the ancient traditions were the episodes of his journey worth thinking about, and about them he thought much and vigorously, seeing in imagination the figures of the old heroes going about summer and winter, attending to their haymaking and fishing and live stock, eating almost the same food and living on the same ground as the less imposing Norsemen of the present. "Lord!" he writes, "what littleness and helplessness has taken the place of the old passion and violence that had place here once-and all is unforgotten; so that one has no power to pass it by unnoticed." His two months spent among the scenes of the greater sagas left him with an intense impression of a land stern and terrible, of toothed rocks and black slopes and desolate green, a land that intensified his melancholy by its suggestion of short-lived glory and early death, and intensified also his enjoyment of life by the sense of adventure, the rugged riding, and the fresh keen air. One of the important events of the trip was the exploration of the great cave at Surts-hellir, and twenty years after, many of its incidents were embodied in the book called The Story of the Glittering Plain, wherein Hallblithe and the three Seekers make their way through the stony tangle of the wilderness seeing "nought save the wan rocks under the sun."

Two years later he made a still more adventurous journey across the arid tableland occupying the central portion of Iceland and across the northern mountains to the sea. It was highly characteristic of him that for the time he yielded himself utterly to the influence of the strange and awful land upon his imagination, and that for years afterward his writing was flooded by the impressions that continually swept back upon his mind as he reverted to these experiences. Mr. Mackail gives an amusing instance of the way in which the interest uppermost with him became an obsession leading to the most childlike extravagances. During a holiday tour in Belgium he came to a place where neither French nor English was spoken. He therefore "made a desperate effort at making himself understood by haranguing the amazed inn-keeper in Icelandic." His first visit to Italy, made between the first and second visits to Iceland, took faint hold upon him, nor was the second Italian journey, made some years later, and marked by a troublesome attack of gout, notably successful. He was a man of the North as surely as Rossetti was a man of the South, and it would have been a renaissance indeed that could have turned him into a Florentine or a Venetian.





During this middle period of his life, at the height of his great activity, an event occurred involving the element of tragedy, if the breaking of friendships be accounted tragic. In 1875 the firm was dissolved. Following Mr. Mackail's account of the circumstances that led to the dissolution, we find that the business had become one in which Morris supplied practically all the capital, invention, and control. It was also the chief source of his income. On the other hand, his partners might find themselves at any time seriously involved in the liabilities of a business which was rapidly extending. Hence the desirability of the dissolution and reconstitution of the firm. But in connection with this step an embarrassing situation arose. Under the original instrument, each partner had equal rights in the assets of the firm. After the first year or two the profits had never been divided, and the six partners of Morris, for the hundred and twenty pounds by which they were represented in the contributed capital at the beginning, had now claims on the business for some seven or eight thousand pounds. If these claims were insisted upon, Morris would be placed in a position of considerable financial difficulty. Burne-Jones, Webb, and Faulkner refused to accept any consideration. "The other three," says Mr. Mackail, "stood on the strict letter of their legal rights." Naturally the relations between Morris and the latter became grievously strained, and with Rossetti the break was absolute and irremediable. In passing out of Morris's life, as he then did, he certainly left it more serene, but with him went also the vivifying influence of his genius. In considering the very unfortunate part played by him in the conflict among the members of the firm, it is fair to give a certain weight to details emphasised in Mr. William Rossetti's account as modifying-to a slight degree, it is true, but still modifying-the sordid aspect of Rossetti's action. Madox Brown, who was one of the partners wishing not to forego their legal rights, was getting on in years and was a comparatively poor man. He had always counted on the firm "as an important eventual accession to his professional earnings." No one familiar with Rossetti's character can doubt that a desire to stand by his old friend and teacher in such a matter would have a strong influence with him. To his brother's mind, his attitude was throughout "one of conciliation," with the wish "to adjust contending claims had that but been possible." "He himself," says Mr. William Rossetti, "retired from the firm without desiring any compensation for his own benefit. A sum was, however, assigned to him. He laid it apart for the eventual advantage of a member of the Morris family, but, ere his death, circumstances had induced him to trench upon it not a little." It is easy to imagine circumstances trenching upon any sum of money under Rossetti's direct control, and in the absence of any testimony the reader acquainted with his prodigal disposition may very well be pardoned for doubting whether any member of the Morris family became appreciably the richer for his impulse. Nevertheless, it is a reasonable conclusion that he was not actuated by a sordid motive in opposing the essentially just claim made by Morris, but was to his own mind acting in accordance with the demands of a friendship older and closer than that between him and Morris. It must be noted, however, that a reconciliation was effected in the course of time between Morris and Madox Brown, while in Rossetti's case the wound never healed. The outcome of the negotiations was that Madox Brown was bought out, "receiving a handsome sum," says Mr. William Rossetti, and the business went on under the sole management and proprietorship of Morris.

In addition to the annoyance and real trouble of mind caused Morris by these transactions, he had the further anxiety at about this time of a breakdown of a serious and permanent nature in the health of his eldest daughter. This he took deeply to heart, losing spirits to a marked degree, but nothing human had power to stay his fertile brain and busy hand.

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