What a busy, gifted mass of contradictions was that eminent Victorian, William Morris. Arguably the most influential British designer of all time, he was equal parts idealism and pragmatism stuffed into one restless, stocky body. An ardent socialist, he envisaged a future in which living amid things of beauty would be a universal right. But he was such an uncompromising craftsman that he spent much of his life producing extremely expensive goods. Although he was frustrated by having to cater to what he called “the swinish luxury of the rich,” well-heeled patrons thought so highly of his furniture, tapestries and wallpapers that he became wealthy in his own right. Morris, who lived from 1834 to 1896, was widely renowned in his day as the author of The Earthly Paradise and other epic poems. He somehow found time to champion the causes of environmentalism and architectural preservation as well. This summer, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is paying tribute to his protean achievement, and to the artistry of his associates, in the most comprehensive exhibition of their work ever mounted in North America.
Featuring 285 objects, The Earthly Paradise: Arts and Crafts by William Morris and his Circle from Canadian Collections is the most elaborate installation in the AGO’s history. The exhibition, which cost $1 million to mount, is on view at the AGO in Toronto until Sept. 6, and then travels to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the Musée du Québec in Quebec City and the Winnipeg Art Gallery. It includes furniture, pottery, jewelry and paintings by prominent Morris associates Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Some of those pieces are displayed in two domestic rooms and a chapel decorated in the Morris style.
In preparing The Earthly Paradise, the AGO found a wealth of little-known or previously unexhibited material in museums and private collections across the country. The gallery’s prints and drawings curator, Katharine A. Lochnan, who headed the show’s international, 13-member curatorial team, notes that a
number of 19th-century Canadians, including g Scottish-born Montreal shipping merchant f David Allan Poe Watt, commissioned works | from the designer’s London firm. Some of 5 those pieces, including Watt’s two Morris-1 designed stained-glass windows depicting “ minstrel angels, appear in the show. More significant, however, was Morris’s influence on the arts in Canada at the turn of the century. “From Vancouver to Halifax,” said Lochnan in an interview, “the people who
founded most of the museums and art schools were Morris adherents.” (A side note: novelist Robertson Davies, newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook and T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) number among those who once owned some of the objects on display.)
Morris was the powerhouse of the Arts and Crafts Movement, an esthetic backlash against the Industrial Revolution. Horrified by the ornate ugliness of his era’s mass-produced goods, and by the low-paid drudgery of those who labored at the machines, he strove to turn back the clock. From an early age, he was, as Lochnan says, “on fire with a love for the Middle Ages.” He believed that artists could lead society out of its grimy squalor by reviving the handcrafted, natureinspired art of the Gothic era. Like John Ruskin, the leading art critic of the last half of the 19th century, Morris regarded the Middle Ages as a time when no distinction existed between fine art and decoration. He strove to recapture that unity, and to restore the dignity that he associated with preindustrialized labor. “He didn’t just make patterns and sell furnishings,” says Lochnan. “He disseminated a whole view of life.”
The show opens with a biographical section that introduces the extraordinary cast of characters in the Morris circle. Morris himself, the son of a wealthy stockbroker, was born in Walthamstow, England. When he and Burne-Jones met at Oxford in the early 1850s, both were planning to enter the priesthood. But they changed their minds after falling under the spell of the artists who called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—the name indicated allegiance to artists who preceded the Renaissance Italian master Raphael. At college, Morris began writing poetry and also met a groom’s daughter, Jane Burden, who looked like a walking Pre-Raphaelite canvas. By 1859, the year in which she and Morris married, the couple had become friends with one of the PreRaphaelites, the charismatic Rossetti. While living in Kent in 1861, Morris founded the decorative arts firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., which included Rossetti and BurneJones as partners.
By the late 1860s, Morris had lost most of his inherited fortune to a recession and had moved with his wife and two daughters to London. Jane had become Rossetti’s favorite model and either was—or was about to become—his lover. The AGO exhibition contains several Rossetti works depicting Jane’s distinctive, brooding features. The Morris’s marriage endured, however. “Morris seems to have accepted in a very gentle
manly way that his wife’s affections had shifted,” says Lochnan. In 1868, the publication of the first volume of The Earthly Paradise, an epic retelling of Greek and Norse myths, se cured his reputation as a poet. The American novelist Henry James, who met Morris in 1869, described him as a remarkable specimen of “delicate sensitive genius and taste, saved by a perfectly healthy body and temper.”
Morris’s design firm flourished with unprecedented vigor in the 1870s. In the middle part of the decade, he jettisoned several partners, including Rossetti, and reconfigured the enterprise as Morris & Co. The AGO exhibition attests to the inventiveness of his wallpaper and textile designs, which turned stylized natural forms into tightly controlled arabesques of energy. Although he continued to draw inspiration from European medieval designs, as he grew older he looked to traditional Middle Eastern designs as well.
Morris & Co. went out of business in 1940, but many of the firm’s wallpaper designs are still in print. At the AGO, a 35-foot strip of paper traces the step-by-step process of printing St. James’s, Morris’s most elaborate wallpaper. The pattern gradually emerges in the course of overlaying 72 different printing blocks.
The AGO’s technical crew has re-created the storefront of Morris’s London shop, which opened on fashionable Oxford Street in 1877. Visitors pass through the storefront replica into a small dressing room and a large drawing room appointed in the Arts and Crafts style. The drawing room contains one of the show1 s most spectacular objects: a 10foot, silk-embroidered panel called Partridge, which Morris’s associate John Henry Dearie designed just over a century ago. Morris & Co. sold the panels as gigantic embroidery kits. This one, from the estate of Lady Margaret Ayre of Montreal, remains not quite finished. Lochnan and her Earthly Paradise colleague Carole Silver, a New York-based Morris scholar, met with the owner a few years before her death. When Lady Margaret lifted the panel out of a green garbage bag and carefully unfolded it, Lochnan recalls, “we couldn’t believe our eyes.”
With some of his designs, most notably his elegantly simple line of straight-backed Sussex chairs, Morris succeeded in creating products that met his own standards—and which
the middle class, at least, could afford. Toronto collector Joan Randall, who loaned several Sussex chairs to the AGO exhibition, notes that they “work very nicely in a modern setting, and give elegance to even a modest space.”
But for Morris, such achievements as the Sussex chair ultimately were not enough. In the 1880s, he handed over much of his design firm’s work to his associates and devoted his considerable energies to the socialist cause. “He didn’t see any way of making quality products available to a larger society simply because of the way wealth was distributed,” says Lochnan. “So he thought maybe he’d better get busy on the question of the redistribution of wealth.” He sold many of his rare medieval manuscripts and early printed books (some found their way to Canada and into the AGO show) to fund the drive for socialism.
In the years before his death in 1896, however, he became disillusioned with his political colleagues. The Earthly Paradise ends with Morris’s last great achievements: the exquisitely designed books he printed after founding the Kelmscott Press in 1891. With their calligraphic typefaces and page borders of intricately twined foliage, they recall the medieval manuscripts that were a cherished, enduring inspiration to Morris.
There was a period in the middle of the 20th century when the work of Morris & Co. was seriously out of fashion. For a time, the abstractionist movement almost succeeded in purging art of representation and historical allusion. But in the late 1960s, as Lochnan notes, back-to-the-land hippie leftists rediscovered Morris with a vengeance. They shared his disenchantment with industrialized society—and even printed his wallpaper patterns in psychedelic colors. Since then, he has never been truly out of favor.
If Morris were alive today, Lochnan speculates, he might be the owner of “a Laura Ashley or IKEA kind of company”—an enterprise, in other words, that offers a variety of matching components and attempts to make good design affordable. Perhaps. Morris once counselled, “Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” The designer proved that objects could be both.
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