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PRINT November 1984

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The Collected Letters of William Morris

WILLIAM MORRIS’ WORK IS UNIQUE in never having gone completely out of fashion. His designs have always been available to the public (except during the years of the Second World War): not in the sterile atmosphere of museums but in the more exciting and practical form of purchasable bales of cloth and rolls of wallpaper. But the lasting popularity of his designs is not the only reason for his widespread fame today, which also arises from his anticipation, in his political and ideological writings and by his practical activities, of the preoccupations of our age. Much of our concern for conservation, ecology, and the pollution of the environment were prefigured in Morris’ teachings during the later years of his life, when he lectured the length and breadth of England on the role of the decorative arts, the preservation of ancient buildings, and the creation of a just and equable society.

In his own lifetime, however, Morris was regarded first and foremost as a poet, and was considered, despite his socialist views, as the logical successor to AIfred, Lord Tennyson as poet laureate, although Morris himself disclaimed all interest in this honor. It is important to remember this, since today for every thousand of the numerous admirers of his designs there is only one familiar with his poetry. A protean figure of Morris’ stature must therefore be reinterpreted afresh to each successive generation, and for this reason the publication of a beautifully produced and scrupulously edited volume of his collected letters is an event of great importance.

As Norman Kelvin remarks perceptively in his introduction to this book:

The strong, persistent themes in William Morris’s letters are architecture and the decorative arts; work, its pleasures and to a lesser degree its problems; socialism . . . and in the last years of his life the Kelmscott Press. . . . Threaded through these themes is another subject—love and the lack of it: love of family and of friends, love that tries to redeem, even challenge in importance, the apparent absence of physical love in Morris’s marriage.

Kelvin’s sensitive adumbration well conveys the overall impression given by this collect ion of nearly 700 letters. Although greatly blessed with the capacity for inspiring friendship in his contemporaries and admiration in the young, Morris’ personal life was not a happy one. His wife. Jane’s long intimate relationship with his friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and his daughter Jenny’s illness, were the cause of much anguish; his letters to Jane, although they are invariably deeply affectionate in tone, make extremely painful reading. Their relationship, clouded by her love for Rossetti, seems by mutual consent to have worked best by restraining their exchanges to the humdrum routine of daily life, and accounts of his fishing excursions, and requests for “’baccy,’’ are only rarely interrupted by passages which reveal deep feelings, as in the letter of December, 1870: “For me I don’t think people really want to die because of mental pain, that is if they are imaginative people; they want to live to see the play played out fairly. . . . ”

The deep unhappiness at the core of Morris’ personal life was to spill over into much of his other correspondence. His admirable self-discipline and restraint, reflected in his letters, preclude him, it must be said, from occupying a place among the first rank of practitioners of the art in the English language—the level occupied by Horace Walpole, Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde, and Virginia Woolf, among others. Their letters possess a unique gift for conjuring up from the past a personal voice which gives the reader a sense of participation in their lives, an audible quality which transcends the printed word.

One does indeed hear a voice in Morris’ letters, but for the most part it is a gruff, preoccupied voice dashing off long business letters or hurried notes on personal affairs. Only rarely did he allow himself the luxury of a long gossip on paper to such favored and long-term friends as Georgiana Burne-Jones, Aglaia Coronio, and Philip Webb, the architect of the Red House, in Upton, Kent, where the Morrises lived. These three correspondents were those to whom Morris found it easiest to write about the themes with which he was most concerned. When writing to Burne Jones in particular he was able to express himself with complete freedom, for she was the perfect confidante, who knew his personal domestic problems so well that there was no need to go into embarrassing detail. She could be relied on to read sympathetically between the lines of his letters to her, and he could thus safely confide in her as he could to no one else. She also shared his attitudes about political issues like the Eastern Question (broadly speaking, what Britain should do if Russia were to invade the unstable Ottoman Empire), and his passionate concern for the preservation of ancient buildings. Some of the most delightful letters in the volume are addressed to her, notably two written in August 1880 which describe in detail a voyage up the Thames from Kelmscott House, Hammersmith, to Kelmscott Manor, near Lechlade, an excursion that was to provide the inspiration for his account of the river trip in News from Nowhere (1891).

Somewhat surprisingly, while Morris’ letters to Georgiana survive in large numbers very few exist from him to her husband, his lifelong friend Edward Burne-Jones. This is very sad, for perhaps no one knew Morris better than “Ned” Burne-Jones, or portrayed him with more affection. Many caricatures of Morris by Burne-Jones exist (none, again surprisingly, reproduced in this otherwise rewardingly illustrated volume). They depict Morris in many guises—reading poetry, riding a pony in Iceland, cutting woodblocks, playing Ping-Pong, having a bath, sleeping, snoring, as Bacchus—but perhaps the finest of them reveals the quintessential Morris: a dynamo of energy, seated at a loom, giving a lecture on weaving to an amazed audience.

One reason why Morris’ letters to Burne-Jones do not survive may be that they were never written. This is hinted at in a letter to Webb, another friend of long standing and Morris’ close associate in “the firm” and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. It was written by Morris in 1873 from Florence,which he was visiting with Burne-Jones. “I ought to say a great deal about works of art here,” Morris writes, “but I had rather wait till I see you and we can talk over it: I am not at all disappointed [sic] with Italy; but a good deal with myself; I am happy enough, but as a pig is, and cannot bring my mind up to the proper pitch and tune for taking in these marvels; I can only hope that I shall remember them hereafter. I daren’t whisper this to Ned who is horribly jealous of the least signs of depression in me here, thinking that Florence ought to make a sick man well, or a stupid one bright.” May we conjecture, reading this passage, that Morris realized that Burne-Jones knew him almost too well to be able to confide in him? Habitual depression sometimes needs only a sympathetic ear, rather than an exhortation to be of good cheer, and we all know that sometimes we must conceal ourselves most from those who know and love us most.

While all these correspondents are familiar figures to students of the period, Aglaia Coronio (1834–1906) is less well known. She was the daughter of a wealthy Greek shipping magnate, and her brother Constantine Ionides was a great patron of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; his collection can be seen today in the Victoria and Albert Museum. She married Theodore Coronio in 1855’ and they had two children. Her lifelong friendship with Morris was at its closest during the early 1870s, when Jane Morris’ relationship with Rossetti was at its most intense. Morris seems to have been able to confide his feelings about the subject to Aglaia as he could to no one else, as the moving letter of November 25, 1872, testifies: “One thing wanting ought not to go for so much: nor indeed does it spoil my enjoyment of life always, as I have often told you: to have real friends and some sort of an aim in life is so much, that I ought still to think myself lucky: and often in my better moods I wonder what it is in me that throws me into such rage and despair at other times: I suspect, do you know, that some such moods would have come upon me at times even without this failure of mine.”

While such quotations indicate that those who approach this volume eager for insights into the personal life of Morris will be saddened, the rewards it holds for students of his working methods are great. Among the most interesting letters are those he wrote to Thomas Wardle (1831–1909), the owner of a dyeing business at Leek, Staffordshire, and the brother-in-law of Morris’ business manager. Wardle was an authority on the dyeing of silk and cotton, and shared Morris’ enthusiasm for reviving old methods and techniques. From 1875 to 1877 the two men worked closely together, and Morris acquired knowledge from the collaboration that was to prove of immense value in later years when he set up his own dye works at Merton on the banks of the Wandie, near Wimbledon. To Wardle Morris wrote at length, both technically—“In printing the tulip let the outline be always rather strong upon the blotch: otherwise the whole pattern looks dead and dull“—and concerning his design theories: ”I don’t think you should look forward to our ever using a machine. As to the mercantile branch, that is quite out of our way: but I see no reason why you should not try it, if you think it would pay; and I should be happy to help if you wanted my help in the designing way." This is a most revealing passage, showing Morris’s willingness to cooperate in commercial production utilizing machines, although preferring in the activities of his own company to use hand craftsmanship. Morris had no objection to the use of machines in processes to which they were suited, provided that man was their master, not their slave; indeed, Morris was to design several effective patterns for machine-woven carpets for the Royal Wilton and Axminster carpet companies.

This first volume of Morris’ collected letters leaves the reader eager to pursue the daily round of Morris’ activities during the crowded last 16 years of his life, which will be covered in the second and third volumes.These were the years of his greatest activity as a lecturer; they saw also the production of the Kelmscott Press books, the works that were to prove so influential on later typographical developments, and which mark a culmination to his life’s work. But it is appropriate to select as a final quotation from this volume, which so fittingly celebrates his 150th birthday; a glimpse of Morris enjoying one of his rare moments of relaxation. The letter to Georgiana Burne-Jones of August 19, 1880, describes his arrival at Kelmscott Manor after his trip up the Thames: “Night fell on us long before we got to Radcot, and we fastened a lantern to the prow of our boat, after we had with much difficulty got our boats through Radcot Bridge. Charles was waiting for us with a lantern at our bridge by the corner at 10 P.M., and presently the ancient house had me in its arms again:J. had lighted up all brilliantly, and sweet it all looked you may be sure.”

Lionel Lambourne is Assistant Keeper in the Department of Paintings, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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The Collected Letters of William Morris; Volume 1, 1848–1880, ed. Norman Kelvin (Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984), 626 pages, 32 black and white illustrations.