|1834.||Born at Walthamstow, March 24.|
|1853-5.||Exeter College, Oxford.|
|1856.||Studies architecture under Street.|
|1857.||Red Lion Square; influence of D. G. Rossetti.|
|1858.||Defence of Guenevere.|
|1859.||Marries Miss Jane Burden.|
|1860-5.||‘Red House’, Upton, Kent.|
|1861.||Firm of Art Decorators founded in Queen Square, Bloomsbury. (Dissolved and refounded 1875.)|
|1867-8.||Life and Death of Jason. 1868-70. Earthly Paradise.|
|1870.||Tenant of Kelmscott Manor House, on the Upper Thames.|
|1871-3.||Visits to Iceland; work on Icelandic Sagas.|
|1876.||Sigurd the Volsung.|
|1878.||Tenant of Kelmscott House, Hammersmith.|
|1881.||Works moved to Merton.|
|1883-4.||Active member of Social Democratic Federation.|
|1884-90.||Founder and active member of Socialist League.|
|1891.||Kelmscott Press founded.|
|1892-6.||Preparation and printing of Kelmscott Chaucer.|
|1896.||Death at Hammersmith, October 3.|
|1896.||Burial at Kelmscott, Oxfordshire.|
In general it is difficult to account for the birth of an original man at a particular place and time. As Carlyle says: ‘Priceless Shakespeare was the free gift of nature, given altogether silently, received altogether silently.’ Of his childhood history has almost nothing to relate, and what is true of Shakespeare is true in large measure of Burns, of Shelley, of Keats. Even in an age when records are more common, we can only discern a little and can explain less of the silent influences at work that begin to make the man. There are few things more surprising than that, in an age given up chiefly to industrial development, two prosperous middle-class homes should have given birth to John Ruskin and William Morris, so alien in temper to all that traditionally springs from such a soil. In the case of Morris there is nothing known of his ancestry to explain his rich and various gifts. From a child he seemed to have found some spring within himself which drew him instinctively to all that was beautiful in nature, in art, in books. His earliest companions were the Waverley Novels, which he began at the age of four and finished at seven; his earliest haunt was Epping Forest, where he roamed and dreamed through many of the years of his youth.
His father, who was in business in the City of London, as partner in a bill-broking firm, lived at different times at Walthamstow and at Woodford; and the hills of the forest, in some places covered with thick growth of hornbeam or of beech, in others affording a wide view over the levels of the lower Thames, impressed themselves so strongly on the boy’s memory and imagination that this scenery often recurred in the setting of tales which he wrote in middle life.
There was no need of external aid to develop these tastes; and Morris was fortunate in going to a school which did no violence to them by forcing him into other less congenial pursuits. Marlborough College, at the time when he went there in 1848, had only been open a few years. The games were not organized but left to voluntary effort; and during his three or four years at school Morris never took part in cricket or football. In the latter game, at any rate, he should have proved a notable performer on unorthodox lines, impetuous, forcible, and burly as he was. But he found no reason to regret the absence of games, or to feel that time hung heavy on his hands. The country satisfied his wants, the Druidic stones at Avebury, the green water-meadows of the Kennet, the deep glades of Savernake Forest. So strong was the spell of nature, that he hardly felt the need for companionship; and, as chance had not yet thrown him into close relations with any friend of similar tastes, he lived much alone.
It was a different matter at Oxford, to which he proceeded in January 1853. Among those who matriculated at Exeter College that year was a freshman from Birmingham named Edward Burne Jones; and within a few days Morris had begun a friendship with him which lasted for his whole life and was the source of his greatest happiness. For more than forty years their names were associated, and so they will remain for generations to come in Exeter College Chapel, where may be seen the great tapestry of the Nativity designed by one and executed by the other. Burne-Jones had not yet found his vocation as a painter; he came to Oxford like Morris with the wish to take Holy Orders. He was of Welsh family with a Celtic fervour for learning, and a Celtic instinct for what was beautiful, and at King Edward’s School he had made friends with several men who came up to Pembroke College about the same time. Their friendship was extended to his new acquaintance from Marlborough. Here Morris found himself in the midst of a small circle who shared his enthusiasm for literature and art, and among whom he quickly learned to express those ideas which had been stirring his heart in his solitary youth. Through the knowledge gained by close observation and a retentive memory, through his impetuosity and swift decision, Morris soon became a leader among them. Carlyle and Ruskin, Keats and Tennyson, were at this time the most potent influences among them; and when Morris was not arguing and declaiming in the circle at Pembroke, he was sitting alone with Burne-Jones at Exeter reading aloud to him for hours together French romances and other mediaeval tales. Young men of to-day, with a wealth of books on their shelves and of pictures on their walls, with popular reproductions bringing daily to their doors things old and new, can little realize the thrill of excitement with which these men discovered and enjoyed a single new poem of Tennyson or an early drawing by Millais or Rossetti. How they were quickened by ever fresh delight in the beauty and strangeness of such things, how they responded to the magic of romance and dreamed of a day when they should themselves help in the creation of such work, how they started a magazine of their own and essayed short flights in prose or verse, can best be read in the volumes which Lady Burne-Jones50 has dedicated to the memory of her husband. This period is of capital importance in the life of William Morris, and the year 1855 especially was fraught with momentous decisions.
Like Burne-Jones he had gone up to Oxford intending to take Holy Orders in the Church of England; but the last three years had taught him that his interest lay elsewhere. The spirit of faith, of reverence, of love for his fellow men still attracted him to Christianity; but he could not subscribe to a body of doctrine or accept the authority of a single Church. His ideal shifted gradually. At one time he hoped to found a brotherhood which was to combine art with religion and to train craftsmen for the service of the Church; but he was more fitted to work in the world than in the cloister, and the social aspect of this foundation prevailed over the religious. Nor was it mere self-culture to which he aspired. The arts as he understood them were one field, and a wide field, for enlarging the powers of men and increasing their happiness, for continuing all that was most precious in the heritage of the past and passing on the torch to the future; in this field there was work for many labourers and all might be serving the common good.
His own favourite study was the thirteenth century, when princes and merchants, monks and friars, poets and craftsmen had combined to exalt the Church and to beautify Western Europe; and he wished to recreate the nineteenth century in its spirit. And so while Burne-Jones discovered his true gift in the narrower field of painting, Morris began his apprenticeship in the master craft of architecture, and passed from one art to another till he had covered nearly the whole field of endeavour with ever-growing knowledge of principle and restless activity of hand and eye. His father had died in 1847; and when Morris came of age he inherited a fortune of about £900 a year and was his own master. Before the end of 1855 he imparted to his mother his decision about taking Orders. The Rubicon was crossed; but on which road he was to reach his goal was not settled for many years. Twice he had to retrace his steps from a false start and begin a fresh career. The year 1856 saw him still working at Oxford, in the office of Street, the architect. Two more years (1857-8) saw him labouring at easel pictures under the influence of Rossetti, though he also published his first volume of poetry at this time. The year 1859 found him married, and for the time absorbed in the making of a home, but still feeling his way towards the choice of a profession.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was in some ways the most original man of his generation; certainly he was the only individual whose influence was ever capable of dominating Morris and drawing him to a course of action which he would not have chosen for himself. Rossetti’s tragic collapse after his wife’s death, and the pictures which he painted in his later life, have obscured the true portrait of this virile and attractive character. Burne-Jones fell completely under his spell, and he tells us how for many years his chief anxiety, over each successive work of art that he finished, was ‘what Gabriel would have thought of it’. So decisive was his judgement, so dominating his personality.
Morris’s period of hesitation ended in 1861, when the first firm of decorators was started among the friends. Of the old Oxford set it included Burne-Jones and Faulkner; new elements were introduced by Philip Webb the architect and Madox Brown the painter. The leadership in ideas might still perhaps belong to Rossetti; but in execution William Morris proved himself at once the captain. The actual work which he contributed in the first year was more than equal to that produced by his six partners, and future years told the same tale.
In the early part of his married life Morris lived in Kent, at Upton, some twelve miles from Charing Cross, in a house built for him by his friend Webb. The house was of red brick, simple but unconventional in character, built to be the home of one who detested stucco and all other shams, and wished things to seem what they were. Its decoration was to be the work of its owner and his friends.
Here we see Morris in the strength of early manhood and in all the exuberance of his rich vigorous nature, surrounded by friends for whom he kept open house, in high contentment with life, eager to respond to all the claims upon his energy. Here came artists and poets, in the pleasant summer days, jesting, dreaming, discussing, indulging in bouts of single-stick or game of bowls in the garden, walking through the country-side, quoting poets old and new, and scheming to cover the walls and cupboards of the rooms with the legends of mediaeval romance. Visitors of the conventional aesthetic type would have many a surprise and many a shock. The jests often took the form of practical jokes, of which Morris, from his explosive temper, was chosen to be the butt, but which in the end he always shared and enjoyed. Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and Faulkner would conspire to lay booby traps on the doors for him, would insult him with lively caricatures, and with relentless humour would send him to ‘Coventry’ for the duration of a dinner. Or he would have a sudden tempestuous outbreak in which chairs would collapse and door panels be kicked in and violent expletives would resound through the hall. In all, Morris was the central figure, impatient, boisterous, with his thick-set figure, unkempt hair, and untidy clothing, but with the keenest appreciation and sympathy for any manifestation of beauty in literature or in art. But this idyll was short-lived. Ill-health in the Burne-Jones family was followed by an illness which befell Morris himself; and the demand of the growing business and the need for the master to be nearer at hand forced him to leave Upton. The Red House was sold in 1865; and first Bloomsbury and later Hammersmith furnished him with a home more conveniently placed.
The period of his return to London coincided with the most fruitful period of his poetic work. Already at Oxford he had written some pieces of verse which had found favour with his friends. He soon found that his taste and his talent was for narrative poetry; and in 1856 he made acquaintance with his two supreme favourites, Chaucer and Malory. It is to them that he owes most in all that he produced in poetry or in prose, and notably in the Earthly Paradise, which he published between 1868 and 1870. This consists of a collection of stories drawn chiefly from Greek sources, but supposed to be told by a band of wanderers in the fourteenth century. Thus the classic legends are seen through a veil of mediaeval romance. He had no wish to step back, in the spirit of a modern scholar, across the ages of ignorance or mist, and to pick up the classic stones clear-cut and cold as the Greeks left them. To him the legends had a continuous history up to the Renaissance; as they were retold by Romans, Italians, or Provençals, they were as a plant growing in our gardens, still putting out fresh shoots, not an embalmed corpse such as later scholars have taught us to exhume and to study in the chill atmosphere of our libraries and museums. This mediaevalism of his was much misunderstood, both in literature and in art; people would talk to him as if he were imitating the windows or tapestries of the Middle Ages, whereas what he wanted was to recapture the technical secrets which the true craftsmen had known and then to use these methods in a live spirit to carry on the work to fresh developments in the future.
If the French tales of the fourteenth century were an inspiration to him in his earliest poems, a second influence no less potent was that of the Icelandic Sagas. He began to study them in 1869, and a little later, with the aid of Professor Magnusson, he was translating some of them into English. He made two journeys to Iceland, and was deeply moved by the wild grandeur of the scenes in which these heroic tales were set. For many successive days he rode across grim solitary wastes with more enthusiasm than he could give to the wonted pilgrimages to Florence and Venice. When he was once under the spell, only the geysers with their suggestion of modern text-books and Mangnall’s Questions51 could bore him; all else was magical and entrancing. This enthusiasm bore fruit in Sigurd the Volsung, the most powerful of his epic poems, written in an old English metre, which Morris, with true feeling for craftsmanship, revived and adapted to his theme. His poetry in general, less rich than that of Tennyson, less intense than that of Rossetti, had certain qualities of its own, and owed its popularity chiefly to his gift for telling a story swiftly, naturally and easily, and in such a way as to carry his reader along with him.
His fame was growing in London, which was ready enough in the nineteenth century to make the most of its poets. In Society, if he had allowed it to entertain him, he would have been a picturesque figure, though hardly such as was expected by admirers of his poetry and his art. To some his dress suggested only the prosperous British workman; to one who knew him later he seemed like ‘the purser of a Dutch brig’ in his blue tweed sailor-cut suit. This was his Socialist colleague Mr. Hyndman, who describes ‘his imposing forehead and clear grey eyes with the powerful nose and slightly florid cheeks’, and tells us how, when he was talking, ‘every hair of his head and his rough shaggy beard appeared to enter into the subject as a living part of himself.’ Elsewhere he speaks of Morris’s ‘quick, sharp manner, his impulsive gestures, his hearty laughter and vehement anger’. At times Morris could be bluff beyond measure. Stopford Brooke, who afterwards became one of his friends, recounts his first meeting with Morris in 1867. ‘He didn’t care for parsons, and he glared at me when I said something about good manners. Leaning over the table with his eyes set and his fist clenched he shouted at me, “I am a boor and the son of a boor”.’ So ready as he was to challenge anything which smacked of conventionality or pretension, he was not quite a safe poet to lionize or to ask into mixed company.
But it was less in literature than in art that he influenced his generation, and we must return to the history of the firm. From small beginnings it had established itself in the favourable esteem of the few, and, thanks to exhibitions, its fame was spreading. Though as many as twelve branches are mentioned in a single copy of its prospectus, there was generally one department which for the moment occupied most of the creative energy of the chief.
Painted glass is named first on the prospectus, and was one of the earlier successes of the firm. As it was employed for churches more often than for private houses, it is familiar to many who do not know Morris’s work in their homes; but it is hardly the most characteristic of his activities. For one thing, the material, the ‘pot glass’, was purchased, not made on the premises. Morris’s skill lay in selecting the best colours available rather than in creating them himself. For another, he knew that his own education in figure-drawing was incomplete, and he left this to other artists. Most of the figures were designed by Burne-Jones, and some of the best-known examples of his windows are at St. Philip’s, Birmingham, near the artist’s birthplace, and at St. Margaret’s, Rottingdean, where he died.52 But no cartoon, by Burne-Jones or any one else, was executed till Morris had supervised the colour scheme; and he often designed backgrounds of foliage or landscape.
To those people of limited means who cannot afford tapestries and embroidery (which follow painted glass on the firm’s list), yet who wish to beautify their homes, interest centres in the chintzes and wall-papers. These show the distinctive gifts by which Morris most widely influenced the Victorian traditions. It is not easy to explain why one design stirs our curiosity and quickens our delight, while another has the opposite effect. Critics can prate about natural and conventional art without helping us to understand; but a passage from Mr. Clutton-Brock seems worth quoting as simply and clearly phrased.53 ‘Morris would start’, he says, ‘with a pattern in his mind and from the first saw everything as a factor in that pattern. But in these early wall-papers he showed a power of pattern-making that has never been equalled in modern times. For though everything is subject to the pattern, yet the pattern itself expresses a keen delight in the objects of which it is composed. So they are like the poems in which the words keep a precise and homely sense and yet in their combination make a music expressive of their sense.’ Beginning with the design of the rose-trellis in 1862, Morris laid under contribution many of the most familiar flowers and trees. The daisy, the honeysuckle, the willow branch, are but a few of the best known: each bears the stamp of his inventive fancy and his cunning hand: each flower claims recognition for itself, and reveals new charms in its appointed setting. Of these papers we hear that Morris himself designed between seventy and eighty, and when we add chintzes, tapestry, and other articles we may well be astonished at the fertility of his brain.
Even so, much must have depended on his workmen as the firm’s operations extended.
Mr. Mackail tells us of the faith which Morris had in the artistic powers of the average Englishman, if rightly trained. He was ready to take and train the boy whom he found nearest to hand, and he often achieved surprising results. His own belief was that a good tradition once established in the workshops, by which the workman was allowed to develop his intelligence, would of itself produce good work: others believed that the successes would have been impossible without the unique gifts of the master, one of which was that he could intuitively select the right man for each job.
The material as well as the workers needed this selective power. The factories of the day had accustomed the public to second-rate material and second-rate colour, and Morris was determined to set a higher standard. In 1875 he was absorbed in the production of vegetable dyes, which he insisted on having pure and rich in tone. Though madder and weld might supply the reds and yellows which he needed, blue was more troublesome. For a time he accepted prussian blue, but he knew that indigo was the right material, and to indigo he gave days of concentrated work, preparing and watching the vats, dipping the wool with his own hands (which often bore the stain of work for longer than he wished), superintending the minutest detail and refusing to be content with anything short of the best. But these two qualities of industry and of aiming at a high standard would not have carried him so far if he had not added exceptional gifts of nature. With him hand and eye worked together as in few craftsmen of any age; and thus he could carry his experiments to a successful end, choosing his material, mixing his colours, and timing his work with exact felicity. And when he had found the right way he had the rare skill to communicate his knowledge to others and thus to train them for the work.
Queen Square, Bloomsbury, was the first scene of his labours; but as the firm prospered and the demands for their work grew, Morris found the premises too small. At one time he had hopes of finding a suitable spot near the old cloth-working towns at the foot of the Cotswolds, where pure air and clear water were to be found; but the conditions of trade made it necessary for him to be nearer to London. In 1881 he bought an old silk-weaving mill at Merton near Wimbledon, on the banks of the Wandle, and this is still the centre of the work.
To study special industries, or to execute a special commission, he was often obliged to make long journeys to the north of England or elsewhere; but the routine of his life consisted in daily travelling between his house at Hammersmith and the mills at Merton, which was more tiresome than it is to-day owing to the absence of direct connexion between these districts. But his energy overbore these obstacles; and, except when illness prevented him, he remained punctual in his attendance to business and in close touch with all his workers. Towards them Morris was habitually generous. The weaker men were kept on and paid by time, long after they had ceased to produce remunerative work, while the more capable were in course of time admitted as profit-sharers into the business. Every man who worked under him had to be prepared for occasional outbursts of impatient temper, when Morris spoke, we are told, rather as a good workman scornful of bad work, than as an employer finding fault with his men; but in the long run all were sure to receive fair and friendly treatment.
Such was William Morris at his Merton works, a master craftsman worthy of the best traditions of the Middle Ages, fit to hold his place with the masons of Chartres, the weavers of Bruges, and the wood-carvers of Nuremberg. As a manager of a modern industrial firm competing with others for profit he was less successful. The purchasing of the best material, the succession of costly experiments, the ‘scrapping’ of all imperfect work, meant a heavy drain on the capital. Also the society had been hurriedly formed without proper safeguards for fairly recompensing the various members according to their work; and when in 1875 it was found necessary to reconstitute it, that Morris might legally hold the position which he had from the outset won by his exertions, this could not be effected without loss, nor without a certain friction between the partners. So, however prosperous the business might seem to be through its monopoly of certain wares, it was difficult even for a skilful financier to make on each year a profit which was in any way proportionate to the fame of the work produced. But in 1865 Morris was fortunate in finding a friend ready to undertake the keeping of the books, who sympathized with his aims and whose gifts supplemented his own; and, for the rest, he had read and digested the work of Ruskin, and had learnt from him that the function of the true merchant was to produce goods of the best quality, and only secondarily to produce a profitable balance-sheet.
How it was that from being the head of an industrial business Morris came to be an ardent advocate of Socialism is the central problem of his life. The root of the matter lay in his love of art and of the Middle Ages. He had studied the centuries productive of the best art known to him, and he believed that he understood the conditions under which it was produced. The one essential was that the workers found pleasure in their work. They were not benumbed by that Division of Labour which set the artisan laboriously repeating the same mechanical task; they worked at the bidding of no master jealously measuring time, material, and price against his competitors; they passed on from one generation to another the tradition of work well done for its own sake. He knew there was another side to the picture, and that in many ways the freedom of the mediaeval craftsman had been curtailed. He did not ask history to run backwards, but he felt that the nineteenth century was advancing on the wrong line of progress. To him there seemed to be three types of social framework. The feudal or Tory type was past and obsolete; for the richer classes of to-day had neither the power nor the will to renew it. The Whig or Manchester ideal held the field, the rich employer regarding his workmen as so many hands capable of producing so much work and so much profit, and believing that free bargaining between free men must yield the best economic results for all classes, and that beyond economic and political liberty the State had no more to give, and a man must be left to himself. Against this doctrine emphatic protests had been uttered in widely differing forms by Carlyle and Disraeli, by Ruskin and Dickens; but it was slow to die.
The third ideal was that of the Socialist; and to Morris this meant that the State should appropriate the means of production and should so arrange that every worker was assured of the means of livelihood and of sufficient leisure to enjoy the fruits of what he had made. He who could live so simply himself thought more of the unjust distribution of happiness than of wealth, as may be seen in his News from Nowhere, where he gives a Utopian picture of England as it was to be after the establishment of Socialism. Here rather than in polemical speeches or pamphlets can we find the true reflection of his attitude and the way in which he thought about reform.
It was not easy for him to embark on such a crusade. In his early manhood, except for his volunteering in the war scare of 1859, he had taken no part in public life. The first cause which led to his appearing at meetings was wrath at the ill-considered restoration of old buildings. In 1877, when a society was formed for their protection, Morris was one of the leaders, and took his stand by Ruskin, who had already stated the principles to be observed. They believed that the presentation of nineteenth-century masonry in the guise of mediaeval work was a fraud on the public, that it obscured the true lessons of the past, and that, under the pretence of reviving the original design, it marred the development which had naturally gone forward through the centuries. It was from his respect for work and the workman that Morris denounced this pedantry, from his love of stones rightly hewn and laid, of carving which the artist had executed unconsciously in the spirit of his time, and which was now being replaced by lifeless imitation to the order of a bookish antiquary. Against this he was ready to protest at all times, and references to meetings of ‘Antiscrape’, as he calls the society, are frequent in his letters. He also was rigid in declining all orders to the firm where his own decorations might seem to disturb the relics of the past.
His next step was still more difficult. The plunge of a famous poet and artist into agitation, of a capitalist and employer into Socialism, provoked much wonder and many indignant protests. His severer critics seized on any pamphlet of his in which they could detect logical fallacies and scornfully asked whether this was fit work for the author of the Earthly Paradise. Many liberal-minded people indeed regretted the diversion of his activities, but the question whether he was wasting them is one that needs consideration; and to judge him fairly we must look at the problem from his side and postulate that Socialism (whether he interpreted its theories aright or not) did pursue practical ideals. If Aeschylus was more proud of fighting at Marathon than of writing tragedies — if Socrates claimed respect as much for his firmness as a juryman as for his philosophic method — surely Morris might believe that his duty to his countrymen called him to leave his study and his workshop to take an active part in public affairs. He might be more prone to error than those who had trained themselves to political life, but he faced the problems honestly and sacrificed his comfort for the common good.
Criticism took a still more personal turn in the hands of those who pointed out that Morris himself occupied the position of a capitalist employer, and who asked him to live up to his creed by divesting himself of his property and taking his place in the ranks of the proletariat. This argument is dealt with by Mr. Mackail,54 who describes the steps which Morris took to admit his foremen to sharing the profits of the business, and defends him against the charge of inconsistency. Morris may not have thought out the question in all its aspects, but much of the criticism passed upon him was even more illogical and depended on far too narrow and illiterate a use of the word Socialism. He knew as well as his critics that no new millennium could be introduced by merely taking the wealth of the rich and dividing it into equal portions among the poor.
However reluctant Morris might be to leave his own work for public agitation, he plunged into the Socialist campaign with characteristic energy. For two or three years he was constantly devoting his Sundays to open-air speech-making, his evenings to thinly-attended meetings in stuffy rooms in all the poorer parts of London; and, at the call of comrades, he often travelled into the provinces, and even as far as Scotland, to lend a hand. And he spent time and money prodigally in supporting journals which were to spread the special doctrines of his form of Socialism. Nor was it only the indifference and the hostility of those outside which he had to meet; quarrels within the party were frequent and bitter, though Morris himself, despite his impetuous temper, showed a wonderful spirit of brotherliness and conciliation. For two years his work lay with the Socialist Democratic Federation, till differences of opinion with Mr. Hyndman drove him to resign; in 1885 he founded the Socialist League, and for this he toiled, writing, speaking, and attending committees, till 1889, when the control was captured by a knot of anarchists, in spite of all his efforts. After this he ceased to be a ‘militant’; but in no way did he abandon his principles or despair of the ultimate triumph of the cause. The result of his efforts must remain unknown. If the numbers of his audiences were often insignificant, and the visible outcome discouraging to a degree, yet in estimating the value of personal example no outward test can satisfy us. He gave of his best with the same thoroughness as in all his crafts, and no man can do more. But, looking at the matter from a regard to his special gifts and to his personal happiness, we may be glad that his active connexion with Socialism ceased in 1889, and that he was granted seven years of peace before the end.
These were the years that saw the birth and growth of the ‘Kelmscott’ printing press, so called after his country house. Of illuminated manuscripts55 he had always been fond, but it was only in 1888 that his attention was turned to details of typography. The mere study of old and new founts did not satisfy him for long; the creative impulse demanded that he should design types of his own and produce his own books. As in the other arts, his lifelong friend Burne-Jones was called in to supply figure drawings for the illustrated books which Morris was himself to adorn with decorative borders and initials. Of his many schemes, not all came to fruition; but after four years of planning, and a year and a half given to the actual process of printing, his masterpiece, the Kelmscott edition of Chaucer, was completed, and a copy was in his hands a few months before his death.
The last seven years of his life were spent partly at Hammersmith and partly at Kelmscott, the old manor house, lying on the banks of the Upper Thames, which he had tenanted since 1878. He had never been a great traveller, dearly though he loved the north of France with its Gothic cathedrals and ‘the river bottoms with the endless poplar forests and the green green meadows’. His tastes were very individual. Iceland made stronger appeals to him than Greece or Rome; and even at Florence and Venice he was longing to return to England and its homely familiar scenes. Scotland with its bare hills, ‘raw-boned’ as he called it, never gave him much pleasure; for he liked to see the earth clothed by nature and by the hand of man. By the Upper Thames, at the foot of the Cotswolds, the buildings of the past were still generally untouched; and beyond the orchards and gardens, with their old-world look, lay stretches of meadows, diversified by woods and low hills, haunted with the song of birds; and he could believe himself still to be in the England of Chaucer and Shakespeare. There he would always welcome the friends whom he loved and who loved him; but to the world at large he was a recluse. His abrupt manner, his Johnsonian utterances, would have made him a disconcerting element in Victorian tea-parties. When provoked by foolish utterances, he was, no less than Johnson, downright in contradiction. There was nothing that he disliked so much as being lionized; and there was much to annoy him when he stepped outside his own home and circle. His last public speech was made on the abuses of public advertisement; and in the last year of his life we hear him growling in Ruskinian fashion that he was ever ‘born with a sense of romance and beauty in this accursed age’.
His life had been a strenuous and exhausting one, but he enjoyed it to the last. As he said to Hyndman ten days before the end, ‘It has been a jolly good world to me when all is said, and I don’t wish to leave it yet awhile’. At least his latter years had been years of peace. He had been freed from the stress of conflict; he had found again the joys of youth, and could recapture the old music.
The days have slain the days, and the seasons have gone by
And brought me the summer again; and here on the grass I lie
As erst I lay and was glad, ere I meddled with right and wrong.
After an illness in 1891 he never had quite the same physical vigour, though he continued to employ himself fully for some years in a way which would tax the energy of many robust men. In 1895 the vital energy was failing, and he was content to relax his labours. In August 1896 he was suffering from congestion of the lungs, and in October he died peacefully at Hammersmith, attended by the loving care of his wife and his oldest friends. The funeral at Kelmscott was remarkable for simplicity and beauty, the coffin being borne along the country road in a farm wagon strewn with leaves; and he lies in the quiet churchyard amid the meadows and orchards which he loved so well.
Among the prophets and poets who took up their parable against the worship of material wealth and comfort, he will always have a foremost place. The thunder of Carlyle, the fiery eloquence of Ruskin, the delicate irony of Matthew Arnold, will find a responsive echo in the heart of one reader or another; will expose the false standards of life set up in a materialistic age and educate them in the pursuit of what is true, what is beautiful, and what is reasonable. But to men who work with their hands there must always be something specially inspiring in the life and example of one who was a handicraftsman and so much beside. And Morris was not content to denounce and to despair. He enjoyed what was good in the past and the present, and he preached in a hopeful spirit a gospel of yet better things for the future. He was an artist in living. Amid all the diversity of his work there was an essential unity in his life. The men with whom he worked were the friends whom he welcomed in his leisure; the crafts by which he made his wealth were the pastimes over which he talked and thought in his home; his dreams for the future were framed in the setting of the mediaeval romances which he loved from his earliest days. Though he lived often in an atmosphere of conflict, and often knew failure, he has left us an example which may help to fill the emptiness and to kindle the lukewarmness of many an unquiet heart, and may reconcile the discords that mar the lives of too many of his countrymen in this age of transition and of doubt.
50 Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, by G. B.-J., 2 vols. (Macmillan, 1904).
51 Letter quoted in Life of Morris, by J. W. Mackail, vol. i, p. 257 (Longmans, Green & Co., 1911).
52 Other easily accessible examples are in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, and Jesus College Chapel, Cambridge.
53 William Morris, by A. Clutton-Brock (Williams and Norgate, 1914).
54 Life of Morris, by J. W. Mackail, vol. ii, pp. 133-9.
55 Mr. Hyndman (Story of an Adventurous Life, p. 355) describes a visit to the Bodleian Library at Oxford with Morris, and how ‘quickly, carefully, and surely’ he dated the illuminated manuscripts.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50