A William Morris Pilgrimage

Staircase of the Red House.

The reason this blog has been silent for a few weeks is that we took a trip to England to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. The pandemic gave me a pretty bad case of agoraphobia and I’m thankful Kelly pushed me to take a much needed break from Los Angeles. She had the great idea of organizing a trip around the houses and favorite places of the 19th century poet, designer, artist and socialist William Morris.

Unfortunately the first two days of the trip Kelly got a stomach bug, leaving me to travel alone to our first stop, the William Morris Gallery, located in the house he lived in as a teenager (thank you Cathy Ward for the suggestion). This concise museum gives an introduction to Morris’ superhuman output of everything from books to wallpaper to furniture to stained glass to socialist newspapers.

While viewing these exhibits I kept thinking of Morris as an English Richard Wager but with much better politics, though Morris really hated the German composer. However, both were interested in Icelandic sagas and medieval legends. Both were proponents of Gesamtkunstwerk, a kind of total aesthetic control of one’s world and surroundings. That said, Morris distinguishes himself from Wagner with a much lighter and more joyous aesthetic and through his dedication to fighting for the rights of working people.

One of the rooms of the Gallery is devoted to that activism. The view out the front door of the Gallery, pictured above, tells us that Morris’ political and aesthetic revolution did not come to pass. The class struggle Morris expected instead happened in undeveloped Russia. In the U.K. and U.S. we got, instead, consumer culture. The revolution Morris worked towards never came to pass because, as Herbert Marcuse put it,

If the worker and his boss enjoy the same television program and visit the same resort places, if the typist is a attractively made up as the daughter of her employer, if the Negro owns a Cadillac, if they all read the same newspaper, then this assimilation indicates not the disappearance of classes but the extend to which the needs and satisfactions that serve the preservation of the establishment are shared by the underlying population.

Ironically not only do we all enjoy the same newspaper (Netflix in 2022?) but we can also all buy a mass produced William Morris coffee mug and scarf in the gift store. If this is a new level of contraction in Morris’ legacy, the great man was well aware of the contradictions of his own life–the life of a successful businessman, born of a wealthy family, selling very expensive interior decor to rich people while, at the same time, working to undermine the system that gave him the privileges that he enjoyed. Importantly, Morris did not use his awareness of those contradictions as an excuse to do nothing. Instead he worked himself to death, agitating against his own class interest while simultaneously, attempting to revive lost crafts, translating sagas, weaving, designing and building.

The next day we took a long tube and bus ride out to the Red House co-designed by Morris’ friend, the architect Philip Webb. Like the William Morris Gallery, the Red House is a formerly semi-rural house subsumed by 20th century suburbs.

The Red House was more modest and more experimental than I expected. It has only come into the National Trust within the last few decades and was lived in up until relatively recently.

You can see in the house Morris and Webb trying out different ideas–a kind of spare Medievalism, attempts at wall murals as well as Morris’ greatest gift–pattern making.

Webb had much to learn. The roofs are at a bad angle for the rainy climate of England and, as a result, there’s been a lot of leaks over the years. That said, the house is a masterpiece.

You also can’t get more cottagecore than this.

Just outside the Red House is a landscape Morris would, no doubt, be disappointed with. A few blocks down this prosaic road is the Canterbury trail.

Speaking of which, since we’re Episcopalians, we made a side trip to Canterbury Cathedral, the mother church of Anglicans.

During our trip we discovered a hack of sorts which was to visit churches while services were going on. I highly recommend this. There’s a service or evensong going on every single day in most towns. We dropped into evensong services at St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, Christ Church Oxford and Canterbury and attended mass at Canterbury Cathedral. We particularly enjoyed mass at All Saint’s Margaret Street.

If you’re budget minded, attending a service lets you skip admittance fees but it also means you get to see the building  the way it was meant to be experienced: in use. Arrive early and you can often get a seat in the wooden stalls right next to some of the best choirs in the world. Evensong services were a great way to just sit down, be quiet, listen to some beautiful music and take it easy after a day of rushing around. Anglicanism is relaxed, everyone is welcome and it’s perfectly fine to either participate in the service or just watch. There’s a website for finding an evensong service as well as a radio show on the BBC.

From Canterbury we went to Oxford and to see the Oxford Union murals that Morris did along with his Pre-Raphaelite collaborators Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. It’s kind of refreshing to know that even talented artists make mistakes. In this case they painted on fresh plaster and the murals began degrading instantly.

The murals are very dark and hard to make out. What does work is Morris’ pattern work on the ceiling.

While in Oxford we stopped by the Ashmolean museum which currently has a really great show of Pre-Raphaelite drawings.

From Oxford we headed towards Morris’ Kelmscott manor. On the way we stopped at one of Morris’ favorite buildings, the Great Coxwell Barn built in 1292 for the Cistercian Beaulieu Abbey.

Morris considered it one of the finest buildings in England and used to take visitors there.

The next day we went to Morris’ country house, Kelmscott Manor, a 16th century building that Morris occupied and decorated in the last years of his life between 1871 to 1896.

At Kelmscott you get an appreciation of how light and graceful his work is when compared to most fussy Victorian interiors.

The children’s bedroom in the attic were especially memorable.

The house has a nice collection of some of Morris’ design work such as these tiles as well as the extraordinary embroidery of May and Jane Morris.

Nearby is St. George’s church, a 12th century church whose preservation owes a lot to Morris. Morris opposed a common trend in his time of restoration work that involved significant alterations.

Morris and his wife Jane are buried in the graveyard of the church under a modest marker designed by Philip Webb.

We also dropped by the nearby St. John the Baptist church in Inglesham. This church also reflects the influence of Morris’ ideas about building preservation. In 1880 Morris started a campaign to oppose a major remodeling that was proposed for this church. That campaign was a part of his Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings which still exists. SPAB’s philosophy is “to stave off decay by daily care … and otherwise to resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands”. St. John the Baptist church has 600 years worth of wall paintings as well as 17th century box pews and 13th century stone carvings.

I’m a big fan of this cat head downspout.

We journeyed back to London to visit Morris’ city house in Hammersmith where his press was located.

There’s a museum in the basement that has a show of his printing work as well as the actual, still working, press. A family lives in the house upstairs. Morris’ physicality, in this case his passion for hand set type and carefully crafted books, stands in opposition to our present day obsession with disembodied, online distractions. If you’d like to experience Morris’ print work there are facsimile editions of his utopian novel News From Nowhere as well as his collection of Chaucer’s work.

When Morris lived in Hammersmith the house was next to a slum district called Little Wapping described by one 19th century writer as “a seething mass of misery”. It was here that Morris became politically active, participating in several socialist organizations, editing a socialist newspaper and giving as many as 200 political speeches every year. I suspect Morris would not be happy with the ugly traffic sewer that’s now in front of the house.

Nor would he appreciate the a pedestrian tunnel under that traffic sewer.

No doubt Morris would have a lot to grapple with in the way London has been financialized and gentrified, haunted by the specter of real estate speculation along with all the other big cites of the West such as New York, San Francisco, Paris and Los Angeles. The poor have been pushed out to make space for giant blinking ads and NFT exhibits.

And everywhere bleak new buildings are popping up with construction barriers decorated with images of what some architectural critics disparagingly call “renderite”.

On the flight over I was reading a history of the Frankfurt School, Grand Hotel Abyss. All during the trip I kept wondering if  Walter Benjamin’s view of history could be considered as like an exploding thrift store: everything from the past as one big mass pushing us reluctantly forward.

On our second to last day in London we went mudlarking on the Thames with a guide next to the Millennium Bridge. Each day the tides wash up a centuries of pottery shards, animal bones, clay pipe stems and vape cartridges. Here was Benjamin’s history supernova now including the renderite and NFT exhibits.

Against this tragic mass of history stands William Morris: his art and his activism. Modernists, such as the Bauhaus folks admired his connection between politics and art but did not like his aesthetic, dismissing it as a medievalist fantasy. But seeing his work in person deepened my appreciation for it. Something about its biomorphic sensuality speaks more to this time than the machine aesthetic of mid-century modernism in my humble opinion. Perhaps some new dialectical movement will soon emerge inspired by Morris, an aesthetic neither modernist nor historical fantasy.

We can also hope that this new movement will take up the cause of working people just as Morris did. Young people today are increasingly aware of the horror of capitalism and not as indoctrinated in cold war propaganda as are people my age. Together we can strive for the world, as Morris put it,

a condition of society in which there should be neither rich nor poor, neither master nor master’s man, neither idle nor overworked, neither brain-sick brain workers, nor heart-sick hand workers, in a word, in which all men would be living in equality of condition, and would manage their affairs unwastefully, and with the full consciousness that harm to one would mean harm to all—the realization at last of the meaning of the word COMMONWEALTH.

We returned to an election here in Los Angeles that appears to have resulted in a socialist candidate beating the incumbent in my own council district. After a long horrible interval, Morris’ struggle is reborn.

For more information on William Morris there’s a William Morris society in the UK and in the US. I belong to the US one and they have a nice series of lectures via Zoom and they both publish journals.

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12 Comments

  1. That a great trip. Congratulations on 25 years, and glad Kelly is doing so much better. I am not familiar with Morris but it sounds like I should be. Earlier he would be called a Renaissance man, not sure what a 19th century is called. Great photos and text.

    People have been complaining about modern London buildings for a long time. Even the current King I believe.

    I like Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh from Glasgow Scotland. She was influence by Morris. My wife and I used to live in LA but are now in the coast range of Oregon. We don’t fly anymore, not because of the pandemic, but that didn’t help. We are happy on our hobby farm. I have followed the blog for years and made an occasional comment. Great trip and a great theme. Congrats to Kelly for arraigning it.

    • I’m a Mackintosh fan too. Would like to see his work someday in person. Best wishes to you and and may you have many abundant harvests on the farm.

  2. What year was this said,

    “If the worker and his boss enjoy the same television program and visit the same resort places, if the typist is a attractively made up as the daughter of her employer, if the Negro owns a Cadillac, if they all read the same newspaper, then this assimilation indicates not the disappearance of classes but the extend to which the needs and satisfactions that serve the preservation of the establishment are shared by the underlying population.”

    Because i do feel that most Cadillac market targeted ads cater specific to black consumers. Or is this just coincidence. no car company i can think of target more heavily towards blacks than Cadillac.

  3. That was absolutely awesome. I was concerned you were out on blogging. So many of the people I have followed over the years are out. I love the Western US take on bungalows and Craftsman.
    I read you all the time. Though you do not know.
    I comment when I can.

  4. I’m so glad that your blog is continuing. Certainly, a trip to England for your 25th anniversary (Congratulations!) is an appropriate celebration!
    I cannot get enough of England, even though its beauty and its ancient buildings are being compromised by sprawl and pollution. My first trip there was as a teenager, to visit a friend who had been an exchange student at my high school. I felt an immediate connection to the rural village where her family lived. We spent several weeks driving around the countryside, visiting the churches (Oh look! Norman arches!) Years later, I found out that my family history leads back to that area. I’ve returned several times. I was shown the area of my ancestors’ village church where the poor people sat (including my own poor ancestors).
    As a naive teenager, I had some real-life lessons (from those who lived through it) in what it was like to be bombed and to live under strict rationing during WW2.
    Your William Morris photos are great. Please tell us more about your mudlarking adventures.

    “This precious stone set in the silver sea,
    Which serves it in the office of a wall,
    Or as a moat defensive to a house,
    Against the envy of less happier lands,
    This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”
    –Shakespeare

  5. I came here to say many things and realized they were already said.

    – I am very happy for your anniversary. Congratulations!

    – Celebrating with a trip to places you’re interested in is my idea of a great celebration (my husband and I went to Scandinavian capitals and visited only what we thought we might enjoy, which we totally did enjoy).

    – The post is very informative, well written and illustrated, and follows a tematic arch present in this blog.

    – Mudlarking elicits all sorts of contradictory feelings but I’d like to read your thoughts.

    It’s great to see you (read you?) back and I confess being relieved the hyatus was for such a great motive.

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