Constellation Lecture: William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement: Prof. Jeff Jones

Why look back at William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement? Why is it still relevant?

These are the exact questions that Jeremy Deller was asking when he created his installation at the Biennale in Venice “we sit starving amidst our gold”, revisiting William Morris. Deller was asked what argument he was putting forward for William morris in this work, simply replying “its not really about arguments as such, a lot of this is about the power of art, about enduring the power of William Morris as an artist.”

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 William Morris is commonly associated with Furnishing fabrics, wallpapers and the Pre-Raphaelites. It’s all to easy to think about Morris as someone who is from the past, a historical figure, but its interesting to study his influence in later life.  Morris lived two centuries ago but the questions he raised in that period are still very relevant now. He wasn’t just an artist, but also an early socialist, manufacturer, visionary and conservationist – “It is not possible to dissociate art from morality, politics and religion.”

In the late 19th century saw the rise of the Aesthetic movement. This and the Arts and Crafts movement had completely opposite views of what art was. James McNeill Whistler of the Aesthetics movement believed “Art should be independent of all claptrap – should stand alone.”  In other words, believed in art for art’s sake and that all artists need to worry about is art, you have no responsibility to anyone else but art. Whereas Morris believed art had a function in all aspects of our lives and that artists were caught up in society and just simply cannot ignore everything but art. He saw socialism and art being part of the same idea. Morris was very interested in combining art and work together. Who makes the art? and who makes the choice? are questions that he sees as political as well as artistic.

Morris was a colleague of John Ruskin. Ruskin’s the “Nature of Gothic” in the stones of Venice, draws on what making art is all about. During the industrial revolution, Morris and Ruskin reflected on the conditions in which people had to work or make art. Where the labour was divided, he saw that the people were also being divided. John Ruskin was interested in the idea that people are made less human by the things that are made and the division of labour. He looked back to the gothic works. He sees that in the building of the gothic cathedrals, there is a model of people working together and individual creativity. He feels this is something that can be learnt from and sees this ideal as far more superior to the machines of the Industrial revolution making people less human.

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Ruskin and Morris acted against people working with machines. William Morris set up workshops to bring people together and setup a more humane way of producing things, a more human way of making art. However, Morris was by no mean made of money, people still had to work hard. “Each full waged girl must do a 9ft of 4 x 4 per week to pay”. Making carpets for Morris was much better in every way than working with machinery during the Industrial Revolution. He thought about how he could arrange work so people made things by hand to get more people engaging in the act of art. To get people enjoying work and enjoying getting pleasure out of creating art. Morris set up “Morris and Co in 1875 and the Merton Abbey works in 1881. Tasks such as weaving and Printing were brought together in a small-scale manufacture. Morris highly valued the contributions of the people who worked for him and even put the names of his workers on the things created.

The First phase of the Arts and Craft Movement was very much a London-based phenomenon but in the second phase, there was a move to he country. William Morris set up the Guild of Handicraft where health was very important. Fresh air was something that morris saw as very important for his workers. They were encouraged to study graceful ways of moving and carrying pottery vessels. Morris was very much a romantic and is constantly criticized for being just a dreamer. Was Morris a dreamer? or was he a visionary? In response to this Morris replies “If others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream. In my opinion, he is a visionary. He has a vision of what life could be like for people stuck in industry.

 The Legacy of Arts and Crafts Movement is an important area of discussion. 20th century studio crafters such as potters and weavers that started in the cities were moving to the country because of its influence and the work of William Morris. Bernard Leach was highly inspired by Morris’s efforts and set up the Leach Pottery St.Ives group within the arts and crafts movement. The values of this group were clear “things should be done for the sake of work, for the sake of humanity, not for the sake of economic interests”. His workers worked against the background of industry. Craft and philanthropy became apparent and craft was used to help unemployed or physically disabled people.

The arts and crafts movement all sounds idealistic, but it was real and people actually did it. However, a very narrow range of people could afford the works handmade out of this movement. William Morris knew there was contradiction in what he did. The Arts and Crafts Movement may have given people pleasure but unfortunately it was expensive.

Jeremy Deller has revisited the work and history of William Morris within his work and everything in his show is all made by other people. How does this fit in with Morris’s ideology? Jeremy clarifies “well, I have worked with other crafts people and utilised their skills to make an exhibition”. Fabrication is key in art today. We can argue that if others make your work then technically it is not yours but, Deller has engaged all these people in a constructive project and interestingly named them all. He has given credit to his workers just as William Morris did.

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In Conclusion, when asking: Did William Morris really impact people not working in industrial ways? we can say: we still have sweatshops across the world and machinery makes items in bulk but Morris’s Ideas are still very relevant today and all we have to do is look at Jeremy Dellers work to see a clear revisitation of these ideas. Interestingly, we will be able to see Dellers work in the William Morris Gallery soon.

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