SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 184 Dec/Jan 2014/15

Art for the people

Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and his legacy, 1860-1960

National Portrait Gallery To 11 January 2015 – £14

Reviewed by Jim Horton

To the left, just outside the exhibition entrance, visitors are greeted by an enlarged replica of a membership card for the Hammersmith branch of the Socialist League, from 1885. Designed by Walter Crane, it features a smith, hammer in hand, resembling William Morris, and signed by him as treasurer. Its prominence is a welcome sight, anticipating the blend of art and politics featured in this fascinating exhibition.

It provides a good introduction to the various strands of William Morris’s work and life, touching on his ideology and political activities. It illustrates how he influenced contemporary and later radical artists, some of whose works are also on display, such as the Pre-Raphaelite artists Ford Madox Brown and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Morris’s connections to the revolutionaries of his day, including Eleanor Marx, and his influence on subsequent British radicals from EP Thompson to Jeremy Deller, are also commented on.

Although relatively compact, the exhibition covers a wide range of issues – perhaps too superficially in parts. It is divided into seven sections dealing with the themes of art as life, revolution, sexual politics and libertarianism, arts and crafts, the garden city movement, interwar artistic movements, and the 1951 Festival of Britain. Running like a thread through each section is Morris’s core idea of art for the people, and the power of beauty to transform human lives.

The exhibition features a wonderful array of crafts, portraits and artefacts produced by Morris and his contemporaries, including furniture and wallpaper designs. The beautiful wallpaper design, titled Daisy, the first to be issued by Morris (in 1864), was derived from the blue serge floral hangings in the main bedroom in William and Jane Morris’s first marital home, known as the Red House, Bexley Heath, Kent. A lovely embroidered panel by his daughter, Mary, features floral decoration, a view of Kelmscott manor, their later home in Oxfordshire, and verses from Morris’s poem, The Earthly Paradise.

Morris’s diary and satchel are on display, as is his personal edition of Das Kapital, gorgeously bound with gold-tooled bindings by Cobden-Sanderson. Morris’s Democratic Federation membership card (designed by Morris in 1883), is featured, plus copies of his booklets, Chants for Socialists (1885), and Monopoly, or How Labour is Robbed (1890), both designed by Walter Crane. Crane designed many trade union banners and the Gas Workers’ union banner of 1920, based on his 1883 design, is exhibited.

The artistic talents of the socialist suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst are revealed, too. Influenced by Crane, her suffragist Angel of Freedom symbol, with its purple, green and white motif incorporating a winged angel with ‘freedom’ written on a banner above her head, appears on a thirteen-piece white china tea service made by Williamson Pottery. Also displayed are a Votes for Women tin badge in the Women’s Social and Political Union colours, a silver Holloway broach showing the portcullis symbol of the House of Commons with a superimposed prison arrow, and a self-portrait by Pankhurst. Morris challenged accepted social and aesthetic values. Author and reformer Edward Carpenter, seen in an 1894 portrait by Roger Fry, was one of the arts and crafts idealists who set up their own working communities.

The exhibition features early editions of Morris’s visionary novel, News from Nowhere – a wonderfully detailed Kelmscott Press edition and the one-shilling paperback. The novel, which was widely distributed in Russia in the years before the revolution, describes a communist England set in the future (1950s), where real freedom and equality prevail between men, women and children. Schools, prisons and central government have been abolished. There is no private property, no money or divorce courts. Work as a community endeavour has replaced the exploitation and drudgery under capitalism. Art is omnipresent and has become "a necessary part of the labour of every man [sic] who produces".

His grand ideas, however, came up against the harsh realities of the capitalist market. Notwithstanding his genuine belief in art for all, and its transformative capacity, Morris’s handmade wallpaper and furniture were way out of reach of ordinary workers whose paltry incomes only stretched to mass-produced homeware. Ironically, it was only the wealthy who could afford his ‘people’s’ craft works, confirming that only the rich could enjoy art under capitalism. Later, Morris asked: "What business do we have with art at all unless all can share it?"

Morris came to see art as everyone’s birthright, inextricably bound to politics. In 1881, he expressed his hope that the future of art would "be a gift of the people to the people, a thing which everybody can understand, and everyone surround with love". Two years later, at the relatively late age of 49, he became active in socialist politics, joining the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), a revolutionary, but somewhat sectarian, party. Morris had come to realise that art alone could not transform society, that the struggle for socialism represented the only hope for the arts, and humankind.

Notwithstanding the title of the exhibition, Morris was no anarchist. He battled against anarchists in the Socialist League, which he helped form when he and others broke from Henry Hyndman’s autocratic domination of the SDF, proudly declaring himself a Marxist revolutionary socialist. Morris broke with the SDF partly because he rejected the idea that capitalism could be gradually transformed into socialism through parliament. He made clear his view in 1890: "No programme is worthy of acceptance by the working classes that stops short of the abolition of private property in the means of production".

Morris died before the formation of the Labour Party. Decades later, Labour prime ministers as diverse as Clement Atlee and Tony Blair claim to have been inspired by Morris. Atlee initiated the 1951 Festival of Britain, a regenerative project of a post-war Labour government committed to reform and improving workers’ lives. Compared to Morris’s pursuance of "an art made by the people for the people, as a joy to the maker and the user", however, the Festival of Britain was a passive affair.

Somewhat more incredulously, in 1997, Blair named Morris as one of his political heroes. Surely Blair hadn’t read News from Nowhere, in which central government has become superfluous in England’s communistic society, with the houses of parliament converted into an outhouse, piled high with manure!

A central theme of the exhibition – from the Hammersmith Socialist League to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the campaign for women’s votes, the interwar modernist designers, through to the Festival of Britain – is the idea of art for all and its role in improving the life and work of everyone.

Morris identified the social problems arising from the separation in an industrialised society between intellectual and manual activity. While recognising the devastating impact of industrialisation on the working and living conditions of the mass of workers, Morris understood that new technology could be used to enhance workers’ lives if organised along socialist lines.

The current level of technology has the potential to transform the lives of millions across the globe in a way no one could have imagined in the 19th century. Morris would stand aghast to see that, six decades after the setting of News from Nowhere, the monotony of work, the blight of poverty and the detachment from art for millions of workers not just remains but has become more entrenched.

In his art, he combined beauty with functionality. It is an art of its time which inspired subsequent generations in the arts and crafts movement. Moreover, it is the overarching message of art for the people through revolutionary social change which resonates most today. See the exhibition and enjoy the marvellous collection of work but, mostly, be inspired by William Morris’s vision of a tomorrow, put forward in his 1880 lecture, Labour and Pleasure Versus Labour and Sorrow, "when the civilised world shall have a new art, a glorious art, made by the people and for the people".

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