Designer, poet, Socialist, campaigner; what message does William Morris hold for the 21st century?, asks David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society
In 1868 William Morris wrote his longest poem, ‘The Earthly Paradise.’ A series of tales, alternately from the classical and the Scandinavian traditions, it begins with an evocation of medieval London, seen from a 19th-century perspective:
Forget six counties overcome with smoke,
Forget the snorting steam and piston stoke,
Forget the spreading of the hideous town;
Think rather of the packhorse on the down,
And dream of London, small, and white, and clean,
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green . . .
To Morris, mid-19th-century industrial sprawl and the poverty it brought with it were the worst results of the capitalist free market. He was brought up in Epping Forest and, though he lived in London for quite a lot of his life, he escaped whenever he could – to Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, to his new house in then-rural Bexleyheath in Kent, or to his home, which he named Kelmscott House, in semi-rural Hammersmith. And he spent much of his time making money (he was wealthy to start with) in the very sort of commerce he reckoned to despise – ‘I spend my life in ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich,’ he once said.
Today we value Morris’s designs, which are still as fresh and new as they were when they burst on the enlightened upper middle classes in the 19th century when he set up his design and manufacturing company, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. We pay less attention to other aspects of his work. Few read his poems today, and he is hardly remembered as a Socialist.
Morris was for some years a leading radical, verging on the Communist. He preached social equality while continuing to live in very comfortable circumstances and supplying high-quality – and expensive – goods to the wealthy. Many people thought he received special treatment from the authorities. No wonder a cartoon of the time showed him apparently preaching Socialist ideas while a policeman blacked his shoes. The cartoon was entitled ‘The Earthly Paradox’.
Yet at least one of his campaigns had as great an impact as his design. In 1877 Morris founded The Society for the Protection on Ancient Buildings (SPAB) to counteract the highly destructive 'restoration' of medieval buildings that was then being practised by many Victorian architects. Today SPAB is the largest, oldest and most technically expert national pressure group fighting to save old buildings from decay, demolition and damage.
At heart, Morris was a medieval sentimentalist. He would have loved (so he believed) to have lived in the 15th century, when toil was honest and buildings were beautiful – hence his vision of London ‘small, and white, and clean’. In his novel ‘News from Nowhere’ – set in a future when everything has returned to a rosy medieval-style economy – his hero travels around London, admiring the beautiful houses, wandering through Trafalgar Square, which has become an orchard (how about that for an idea for Ripon’s Market Square!) and passing the Houses of Parliament, which have become the Dung Store for all the London gardens and allotments.
He then travels up the Thames to ‘the old house’ – which is really his own Kelmscott Manor – and finishes with a feast in the village church. Morris himself is buried in Kelmscott churchyard. It is all far too contented a picture, ignoring the poverty and grinding struggle that was the lot of poor agricultural workers in the Middle Ages.
Yet Morris still has a message today – and it’s a message that seems to be getting stronger. The several hundred people who took the trouble to visit the Gazebo, the Masonic Hall, the Spa Baths and the Leper Chapel during last weekend’s Heritage Open Day, have, even if they don’t realise, already received the message – that, as Morris put it ‘We are only trustees for those that come after us’ and that we should look after the architectural heritage that his been entrusted to us.
Morris did not think that we should always preserve everything, or that all new building was to be despised. His Red House at Bexleyheath was, for all its pointed arches, a radical modern structure. But we need to respect what we have been given – here in Ripon and everywhere else – and treat it with sensitivity. Morris might have recognised something of his ‘Earthly Paradise’ vision of London in the way Ripon still looks. It’s not a bad ideal to hold in our minds as we grapple with the needs of the 21st century.
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