On this day in 1824, William Morris, the great Victorian craftsman and social reformer, was born. He is responsible for a huge range of designs inspired by nature: curtain and upholstery fabrics, wallpapers, and dress fabrics too. His is the most often quoted:
“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
First spoken in 1880, at his lecture at Birmingham UK’s School of Art And Design, at that time the working poor had barely the chance to own anything beautiful, and the city was a grimy bastion of rapid industrialisation, smoggy, insanitary and dismal. But Morris was one of a key cohort of philanthropists and revolutionaries who railed against production for mere profit, and who revelled in the beauty of the artisan, the crafted, the hand-made.
The Idler has today published a short film in the series ‘ Eminent Victorians’, perfect for watching with one eye as yet another hand knitted garment or hand sewn cushion grows steadily between one’s fingers. Watch it here, with thanks.
The curtains in the picture, a version of his chrysanthemum pattern, are now more than 35 years old. They were also hand-made in Birmingham, and although as you can see the lining shredded and fell away in a wash sometime in the last millennium, the fabric is still as firm and bright. Like a fine wine and a well made Shetland jumper, it looks better with age.
The fabric looks wonderful against a wide range of wall colours; more usually they have been hung in a garden room where the greens are picked up in the foliage of garden trees and hedges. Today they take pride of place in my Artemisian cottage by the sea, hanging against a blue/grey/green wall, a subtle shade which changes colour in the light. Golden hour this evening brought out its green, a light mossy hue. This evening, with the stove alight, the walls will look blue.
Useful indeed, and beautiful.
We need a return to the William Morris broad conception of art in relation to life, in terms of colours and designs and craftsmanship, and windows opening on to Heaven, instead of narrowing it down to the preciosities of cliques and coteries who seek through their obscurities to keep art esoteric.
Ethel Mannin, in Privileged Spectator, 1939.
Happy birthday, Mr Morris, the world, and our tiny corner here in The Attic, is a better place thanks to you.