Is this good advice and what inspired William Morris to give it?
On the surface of the quote by William Morris ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’ one assumes that it is a very superficial statement. Given that Morris was massively important in the arts and crafts movement of the day and middles class, one could assume this, however, Morris was not only an artist but he was a political theologian and an important part of the socialist movement of the Victorian age. I will argue that his statement has at its core, nothing to do with art but everything to do with Politics and Victorian society and that in making the statement, he believed that his advice would change Society for the better, inspiring Morris to make the statement.
Morris was an eclectic mix of things, he was a craftsman, he was a Romantic and he was a Socialist. He surrounded himself with influential thinkers of the day and he would read late Victorian Romantic writers such as Keats, Ruskin and Dickens and it is with these writers that we see a change in the direction of Romanticism. According to Ruth Kinna ‘the character of romanticism changed and Romanticism softened to Sentimentalism’ (Kinna P.11) Morris was clearly a Sentimentalist, a Romantic Sentimentalist with his craft and his art firmly entrenched in the past. Writers, such as Cole Believed that ‘Morris failed to reconcile himself fully to the modern world and that there was a sense in which his work was always rooted in the past. (Kinna P.14) and through his study of art history, Morris stated that ‘the art produced between the mid-9th and late 12th century is pure in its principles, reasonable in its practice and beautiful to the eyes of all men. (Kinna P.39)
He was also of the understanding that beauty was related to nature and that everything made by man had form but with which, the form had to work with nature to be beautiful or ugly if it was to work against her and thwart her. Morris was of the belief beautiful objects evoked natural passions and that those passions evoked by nature had historical and romantic connotations’ (Kinna P.45) his description of what is beautiful, one’s initial thoughts of the superficiality of the original statement change because Morris’ beauty in art is accessible to all and not just the elite classes. Along with Kingsley, Ruskin and Newman, Morris also attacked what they saw as ‘the dull utilitarianism of Victorian society and the self-assured and self-interested morals and manners that underpinned it by making art an elitist commodity.
In comparison, Morris was to compare the Middle ages with those of modern Post – Renaissance society and saw that the modern world was damaged by commerce and the deterioration of manners. He was acutely aware that the medieval period was beset with wars and violence but that too the modern world had not quite yet, spread peace and justice throughout but he concluded that medieval society, in his opinion, was the high point in European society (p.41)
Morris was a socialist and this played a huge part in the ideology around art and its purpose. He firmly believed that art had a moral and social purpose and that in this, his own art had two clear ideas: simplicity and sincerity. He believed through art and through his own art this could lead to social change and reform against Victorian industrialisation and against commerce. Morris’ ideology stemmed from the Oxford movement but Morris didn’t declare for Socialism until many years later.
Socialism is against Capitalism and the financial constraints of consumerism. He believed that the factories and the ‘system’ kept people working long days to produce cheaper things for the buying masses and by the finish, they were too tired to have any interest in the arts. Morris thought this as a kind of modern age slavery imposing unacceptable conditions on the workers. This, he juxtapose to the medieval period were everyone was the artist ‘Art was in the hands of the undistinguished people, the monk, the ploughman’s brother, oftenest his other brother, the village carpenter. (Kinna P.40) The people of this time produced things they needed, things that were useful household goods that were works of art because the people were free and not under patronage to produce them. Morris believed that in short, everything they produced became art.
Through Socialism, Morris had a need to want to change Victorian society. In this need his own art reflected a period of history were European society was at its best and in this Medieval period Morris was to take that art form from that time and use it in his own craft. The need for nature to be represented in his art was the need for Morris to relay the message of an age were consumerism and the middle class were not to keep art a segregated thing from the working class. By keeping the working classes in the factories producing mass goods, is to stop the education through art. Gaudy consumerism is not the beautiful art form that should be represented and that mass production of goods, was not the avenue in which to produce cheap art. Nature was beautiful and to go against nature is to thwart her and cause it to be ugly, by labelling the artist as such, you remove the joy of creating useful things through the social acknowledgment of been free. By not mass producing through commerce is not to have the need to keep up with the consumer classes and not needing anything in your home that isn’t useful and by only having something in your home that is Beautiful, is acknowledging a time when all men were free and society was fairer.
Kinna, Ruth (2000) William Morris the art of socialism, University of Wales Press, Cardiff.
Meynell, Esther (1947) Portrait of William Morris, Chapman and Hall, London
Barringer, Tim. Et al (2012) Pre-Raphaelites Victorian Avant-Garde, Tate Publishing, London