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An artistic disobedience aspiring to Beauty and Usefulness

Article by Alessandra Ribera d’Alcalà/Mad’in Europe. Special thanks to Mrs. Sylvette Botella Gaudichon for her precious contribution.

At the end of November 2022, the Mad’in Europe team left the Belgian territory to go to Roubaix, a French city nicknamed the Manchester of the North, which has close and tormented ties with England due to their rivalry in the textile industry and wool trade.

Our aim was to visit the exhibition “L’Art dans tout” at the iconic Museum La Piscine, which pays tribute to the life, the philosophy and the works of William Morris (1834 – 1896), poet, libertarian thinker and leading figure of the Arts & Crafts Movement. He was involved with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in a rebellion against the Victorian society, which he considered to be elitist and philistine.

We had the honor to meet Mrs. Sylvette Botella Gaudichon, director of the museum, who confirmed the affinity between William Morris’ values and those of Mad’in Europe. She mentioned Victor Champier, a renowned art critic and founder of the first Museum of Arts and Textile industries in Roubaix in 1903, who was a fervent disciple of William Morris and a Roubaix promoter of decorative arts. He had been inspired by the Green Dining Room at the Victoria & Albert Museum designed by William Morris. 

To which extent was William Morris a visionary in tackling issues that have become fundamental to the 21st century?

Ecology, degrowth, feminism, know-how transmission and appreciation of the past are all parts of William Morris’ social, economic and cultural vision of the world. It is only in the 21st century that the societal struggles once led by William Morris will resonate within the general public.

During the summer 1855, an initiatory journey at the discovery of Gothic cathedrals and Flemish primitive painters (Van Eyck, Memling) in Belgium and France turned Morris’ life trajectory upside down. Coming from a wealthy Puritan family, he initially planned to pursuit priesthood, however the discovery of his true artistic vocation, led him to undertake architecture, then painting and later to explore embroidery, tapestry, stained glass, carpentry, masonry, wallpaper, carpentry, glassmaking and furniture…  with a very British style.

Anthem to Architecture

To understand Morris’s love for architecture one must first consider his love for applied arts. Morris believed that by attributing ornamental quality to utilitarian items, the applied arts add beauty to the results of human labor, but above all add pleasure to work. On the other hand, he considers industrialisation as a repression of aesthetics and well-being, destroying the innate human instinct of beauty.

He considers architecture as the foundation of all applied arts since it is an art that embraces all disciplines. “If I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of Art and the thing most to be longed for, I should answer: a beautiful house.”

If I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of Art and the thing most to be longed for, I should answer: a beautiful house.

In 1858 Morris married his muse Jane Burden, a highly skilled embroiderer, and in 1859 he entrusted his friend and architect Philip Webb with the construction of ‘Red House’ in Bexleyheath, located South-East London. He lived for six years in this red-brick house, designed to host family, friends and work, until it became too small for his ambitious plans. This house has been the embodiment of his philosophy and the supreme expression of the Arts & Crafts movement. To build this house, where nothing was to be factory-produced (not even the clay bricks) and to produce all sorts of works designed by artists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Morris called on the finest craftsmen in England to work on site under privileged working conditions. Morris strongly encouraged these highly skilled craftsmen to pass on their know-how and to avoid falling into sectarian elitism.

Anthem to the Preservation of Heritage 

Morris will show his devotion to architecture in particular by urging heritage preservation. Like John Ruskin (1819 – 1900), great artist and critic of his time, he attributed a great importance to the spirit of old buildings and advocated for ” non restoration “. He founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (forerunner of the National Trust) in 1877 with the aim of preventing the use of modern methods for the restoration of ancient buildings. Morris gives great importance to the transmission of the skills of the past as according to him “ it is the apprenticeship of the ages, in short, whereby an artist is born into the workshop of the world”. He wants to avoid ” staining ” the surface of the earth by erecting buildings lacking quality craftsmanship. He deplored the isolation of great artists and of the general public from tradition, knowledge and understanding of the past.

Anthem to Beauty an Utility

Nothing that is useless can be truly beautiful

Following the success of the ‘Red House’ project, Morris decided to continue the process by creating the crafts company Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, Fine Art, Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and the Metals’, which later became ‘Morris & Co’, renowned for the conceptualisation ofthe Green Dining Room in the actual Victoria and Albert Museum. According to Morris, everyone deserves to produce and to be surrounded by beautiful objects in their daily lives. The quest for beauty is his leitmotif. He suggested that one should have either useful or beautiful things in one’s home and went further by affirming that “nothing that is useless can be truly beautiful”. He exhorted craftsmen to follow their desire for beauty in all their creations and to never surrender to the capitalist logic of society aiming primarily at generating profits.

Thus, he will make wall decorations, wallpapers from old printing techniques, wall hangings, stained glass windows, architectural sculptures, furniture such as the Sussex chairs that were originally retrieved from a country house. His ornamental creations, always combined with high quality craftsmanship, made him a pioneer of design, a discipline that did not yet exist at the time. Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959), a great American architect, will initially be inspired by Morris, as are many other modern designers. And that’s not all: in addition to his many talents as a decorator, Morris, who learned to read at the age of four, also developed a passion for graphic arts, for publishing and traditional printing, and founded in 1891 the Kelmscott Press, a publishing house, printing works and traditional letterpress foundry.

Anthem to Anthem to self-fulfillment 

As eating would be dull work without appetite, or the pleasure of eating, so is the production of utilities dull work without art, or the pleasure of production

For Morris, the pursuit of pleasure in everyday life is paramount. He considered that this could be achieved through work, since it occupies a large part of our lives. Guided by this principle he will affirm “my work is the embodiment of dreams in one form or another”. According to him, work should be a source of pleasure and dignity, which implies knowledge of what is being done, good pay and sufficient rest.

Morris was keen to preserve the artistic and creative aspect of work. Art would enable work to be a source of pleasure rather than a miserable burden. He stated that “as eating would be dull work without appetite, or the pleasure of eating, so is the production of utilities dull work without art, or the pleasure of production[1]”. He will also add that mutual aid must be the main driving force of a job if it is to provide pleasure. Morris was concerned with the individualistic and hostile aftermath of the Industrial Revolution as it directly affected the majority of workers whose purpose was to produce. 

Therefore according to Morris, art is a sine qua non condition for personal fulfillment. He is convinced of the pleasure that the arts applied to utilitarian and decorative items generate in their makers and consumers, in contrast to the chain production of ersatz goods. He proclaimed a rebellion into happiness to resist the transfer of art to commerce. Influenced by John Ruskin’s view that one should always ask itself whether ‘ornamentation has been executed with pleasure’, Morris goes further by arguing that an object made by an unhappy maker will make its consumer unhappy.


Anthem to Ecology & Degrowth

William Morris denounced the industrialisation and mechanization of his time and promoted a world closer to nature and manual labor. In his view, excessive production or cultivation is futile. The industrial revolution not only exploited people, but it also destroyed natural resources and sites.

Morris agreed to proceed to hand-made creations in the field of decorative arts only if they had a utilitarian purpose. He thus advocated responsible consumption and degrowth before its time. The underlying idea is not to overproduce, not to “overplant” but to always cultivate flowers.

Indeed, nature permeates all his art. Since childhood, he developed an overwhelming passion for flowers, which are abundantly present on his wallpapers, so that nature can enter the house. As a painter, he belonged to the “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood”, structured like a medieval guild with an ecological and awareness raising added dimension. The Pre-Raphaelites oftenpainted in natural environments and advocated for an art closer to nature, while remaining aware that they could not match it.

Anthem to Feminism

Edward Burne-Jones, Lady Frances Balfour, 1880
Aurora leigh's dismissal of romney ('the tryst')

Considered too ‘fragile’ to be sent away to study like other boys his age, Morris grew up with his sisters, surrounded by women. As a great promoter of equal opportunity and female emancipation, he stood out once again from the patriarchal attitude of his time. For the ‘Red House’ worksite, for example, he brought together a whole community of highly skilled artists and craftsmen, both men and women, who were equally paid and had to agree on the same main condition: to pass on their skills to an apprentice.

In his writings and poems, he gave a large space to women, he reinvented medieval novels such as the Arthurian legend by giving for example to the queen Guinevere a leading role in order to denounce women repression in the public sphere. Women as symbols of commitment (in particular some ”suffragettes”) are also illustrated in his paintings, tapestries and stained-glass windows.

Anthem to Socialism

His political commitment made him a leading figure in eco-socialism, constantly fighting against the capitalist and industrial form of modernity. He initially joined the Democratic and Social Federation and helped to establish the Socialist League alongside Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx’s daughter.

Morris’s socialism has an artistic ideal to the extent that social inequalities are incompatible with the existence of healthy artistry. “I don’t want art for a few, any more than I want education for a few, or freedom for a few”, he said. Morris categorically refuses to concentrate know-how and art into an elitist milieu. To avoid this to happen, art must remain an integral part of manufactured goods.

I don't want art for a few, any more than I want education for a few, or freedom for a few

Morris’s socialism is reconstructive because he calls on the oppressed class to unite and transform discontent and the thirst for justice into hope against institutionalized selfishness and plutocracy. He refuses to succumb to the competitive market system into which the standards of beauty are defined by the wealthiest. Morris longs for the Middle Ages, when craftsmen were perfectly associated in guilds and hierarchy existed only in the apprenticeship phase of the profession. Production then involved the total commitment of the worker and was not reduced to a meaningless and alienating mechanical task. The pace of work was more humane and trade was a mean to an end, not an end in itself. Inequalities between the workers and the professionals in charge of the machines did not exist.

9.1 Conclusion
Museum - La Piscine de Roubais

In England William Morris is mainly remembered for his writing and wallpaper. However, as we have seen, he was far more talented at paying homage to Beauty and Utility by constantly disobeying the codes of his period.

Just as he called on his contemporaries to value and understand the past, so we wish to preserve the spirit of this great artist and craftsman who had already been awakened to major social challenges. Morris, as an artist, felt to have a great responsibility as he expressed “we are the representatives of craftsmanship which has become extinct in the production of market wares.[1]”


William Morris The Pimpernel

Bibliographic references:

  • Botella-Gaudichon, S., Morris, W., & La Piscine-Musée d’art et d’industrie André Diligent (Roubaix, N. (2022). William Morris (1834-1896): l’art dans tout. Snoeck.
  • Morris, W., Breda, L., & Gillyboeuf, T. (2011). L’Art et l’artisanat. RIVAGES.

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