WMS @ 60
THE PRESENT WILLIAM MORRIS SOCIETY, successor to earlier groups and fellowships, was launched in 1955 to celebrate his life, works and continuing impact on politics, design, conservation, crafts and critical thought.
For a single, long-dead, bearded Victorian, William Morris’s ideas have enjoyed an astonishing multifarious afterlife, and the diamond ( = enduring) anniversary of the Society is being marked this 5 September with a whole-day symposium William Morris in the 21st Century.
The focus is on radicalism and future perspectives regarding political action, environmentalism, education, utopian designs and human relations with the natural world.
Details of when and where are on the attached pdf . Everyone is welcome to what is hoped will be a stimulating day of discussion and debate. There are many points of contact between the turmoil of Morris’s time, before the formation of any Labour or Communist parties, and that of today, when new approaches to local and global situations are being formulated.
This is part of my introduction to the day:
WM's life and ideas remain startlingly in fashion, in quite disparate ways. Last month the Daily Telegraph listed his bedroom at Kelmscott Manor among its top 50 ‘Hidden Gems’; and in July Country Life celebrated 60 things it declared ‘the best of Britain’. Grouse moors, tea at the ritz, hunting horns and the monarchy. Then, flanked by public schools and parish churches, was WM wallpaper, his instruction about what to have in your house and the declaration that the Arts and Crafts movement was ‘part of a wider socialist vision for moral improvement and wholesome living,’ that still inspires today. And so he is beloved even by the reactionary press.
Just weeks earlier, a leader column in the Guardian written by Charlotte Higgins proposed WM’s ‘splendidly bearded visage’ for the new £20 note. She argued:
‘Morris would be a hearteningly radical choice, despite the chintzy reputation
Baldwin might have failed to mention Morris’s politics when he opened the V&A’s
centenary exhibition in 1934, but … he was a revolutionary socialist who wrote
and lectured tirelessly, who addressed the striking miners of Northumberland in
1887, who marched on Bloody Sunday to Trafalgar Square. He wished to see a
world in which there were neither “brain-sick brain workers, nor heart-sick
hand workers … in which all men would be living in equality of condition.” Of course there were contradictions in this
revolutionary-cum-luxury-retailer. But these would be elegantly encapsulated by
his gracing the currency. In short, Morris was, “one of
those men whom history will never overtake”.
This all might make one suspect that WM is ‘all things to all men’ – somewhere we can each find confirmation of our likes and dislikes, prejudices and preferences. But I think his legacy is more stimulating and provocative. One cannot like everything that WM said or produced; indeed, one must often argue with his politics and his patterns.
And it is something of a mystery to me why the Society founded to promote the contemporary relevance of his life and work (to quote the recent business plan) has not over six decades split into constituent strands or sects – some to celebrate stained glass, others to debate anarcho-syndicalism; some to study the Sagas, others to build new cities; some to analyse utopias, others to print beautiful books. There are these tensions and complexities as there have been ever since Morris’s time, at least, when Bernard Shaw divided the progressive movement between those idealists who wished to sit among the daisies and those who wished to organize the docks. But the Society has room for all in a spirit of diversity within commonality.
Above all, WM’s legacy remains powerful because we do not regard it as primarily historic. It belongs to the present and future as well. Recently I was invited to a symposium, on the theme ‘Would WM have used an i-pad?’ Well, it’s an interesting question with a less simple answer than might at first appear.
While I think that i-pads will possibly have a fairly short life-span, owing to the speed of change in an electronic, digital and frankly astonishing age, we must also contemplate ‘how we live and how we might live’.