Analysis Of William Morris’ Views On Social And Artist Reform Reflected In His Actual Work And Working Practises

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William Morris’ values were simultaneously reflected and not within his work and working practises and in this essay, I will be exploring the possible reasons behind this controversial topic. To begin with, I will be exploring his active socialistic views; Morris often expressed that he thought that his ideal form of socialism for society was “an all-embracing theory of life” which people should follow (How I Became A Socialist, 1894) however some of Morris’ actions within his work contradicts these beliefs.

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Catering to the wealthy while supporting the poor

The first and most generally well known example of the point previously mentioned was when Morris very openly disputed about the unfair “class superiority” within contemporary Victorian society and when he “encouraged working-class self-reliance”, this being directly juxtaposed by Morris producing very high quality, luxurious and expensive pieces of work which only the wealthy or as Morris himself referred to them as “well-to-do” people would be able to afford. This was seen as very hypocritical of Morris as he claimed to strive to create a more socialist centred society where everyone was equal where there was no large divide between the social classes, however his actions here suggest him almost giving into the capitalistic ideals ingrained into society. Some here may mention Morris’ past and his background while growing up in a very wealthy household as being born into a “well-to-do” bourgeois English family in Walthamstow, which at the time was a very well-off area to live in. Some could further suggest that his wealthy background, attending boarding school and further on Oxford University left him craving to continue on his lavish lifestyle once he’d become somewhat of a Social Activist- hence him still making masses of money off of his work and giving into the capitalist ideals which allowed him to still live the wealthy lifestyle all the while still sharing his socialist views and sympathising for the working class and those slaving away in factories.

One other point to speak on is Morris and Co, Morris’ wallpaper company, which was still thriving up until 1940 yet continues today under a new name, however peaked during the Arts and Craft movement during the 1880’s and 90’s. The company was set up not only by Morris but some of his pre-Raphaelite associates and friends, such as Charles Faukner and Phillip Webb. The purpose of the company was to create wallpapers and designs heavily inspired by Morris’ favourite style, Medieval crafts. Every product was handcrafted and was also designed for the home, which correlates to Morris’ home which he designed and created himself as he thought that his home should reflect his values in not giving in to consumerism and that it’s better to have items of quality rather than meaningless cheap items. Similarly to his own home, his anti consumerist and anti-capitalistic views came across strongly through his company, however like previously mentioned, as each product took time and care to make, the prices were higher meaning he was catering to the upper classes. This leaves Morris as a juxtaposition in himself as he openly supports and shows his encouragement to the lower and working classes, yet his work is for the wealthier and aiding them to decorate their lavish homes.

The controversies of the Kelmscott Press

One of Morris’ greatest achievements was the Kelmscott press or what he once modestly called a “little typographic adventure”. The production of this private printing press actually contradicts my previous point about Morris being a hypocrite and in fact evidences that some of Morris values were in fact reflected in his work. Morris was openly disappointed with the state of contemporary books which had been made quickly with very cheap materials with no care, in large scale productions such as factories. Morris spoke often about the “joy of labour” and how the quality of a product reflects the care and working conditions it was created in. He suggested that a young child slaving away for less than minimum wage in a dirty factory surrounded by dangerous industrial machines would produce a product of far less quality which wouldn’t last anywhere near as long as a handcrafted product which was created with time and care- even commenting that “The wonderful machines”used to produce material products in factories have become “such a burden, which every man, if he could, would shake off”. With these views, Morris produced the Kelmscott press- which was also viewed strongly as an “Socialist-League-style propaganda”, just 5 years before he past as one final achievement which embodied his controversial set of ideals against the industrial revolution. The Kelmscott press was also said to embody views from Morris’ own “News from Nowhere” which was a new feed filled with socialistic values for fellow Social activists like Morris. Yet despite his best efforts, the Kelmscott press wasn’t entirely socialistically friendly as each product produced from the private printing press was naturally far more expensive, due to the high quality of workmanship, materials and hours put into each creation to come from it. However, opposing that point one would argue that this reinforced his message of encouragement to the working class to become self-reliant and the idea that it’s better to have a few items of quality rather than many of “shoddy design”, Morris even stating “I tell you I feel dazed at the thought of the immensity of work which is undergone for the making of useless things”. One other interesting quote which reflects Morris’ opinion was one from when Morris was speaking about his views on the perfect society, where he hopes that “we are not driven to make a vast quantity of useless things, we have the time and resources enough to consider our pleasure in making them”.

Morris’ strong poetry and influences

Morris’ poetry is another pathway to be explored, especially when it comes to Morris’ values and beliefs being portrayed through his work. Morris’ “proletarian” poetry and the impact that it had on society at the time of publishing as well as modern day is spoken about often as the statements made in his poetry are strong and stand out. A particularly notable piece of his “fictive … lessons to his fellow socialists” was called A Dream of John Ball, which was published in 1886. The poem discusses and brings to light many issues which Morris thought should be within the spotlight, such as the “shared desire for genuine liberty, equality and (a) communist brotherhood” he and other social activists, such as close friend John Ruskin, had in common. Morris became known for publicly sharing his “qualified political views” on Socialism, capitalism and his hatred for the industrial revolution and the pointless materialism which came with it, even stating in a direct quote that “I fancy, that Commerce has become of very great importance and Art of very little” showing his disdain for how the mass production of products during the industrial revolution led to the decline in the art industry. However, some saw his poetry as a form of propaganda due to how “bold” and “assertive” his claims were and as this came so did much criticism and hatred from others as his beliefs, at the time, were very extreme and almost unheard off. When asking the question if Morris’ work reflects his values and having considered his poetry as well as the content of it, it evidences that in some of his works, yes it certainly does.

One last point to discuss is Morris’ influences, such as John Ruskin- who was a large part of Morris’ life. Ruskin was a writer and theorist and much like Morris, he was a very strong socialistic activist with very radical ideas on politics and society. The two were considered to be “two most influential figures of the Arts and Crafts Movement” and Ruskin almost took Morris under his wing and many often referred to the pair as “Ruskin and his disciple, Morris’ “- suggesting that Ruskin held a lot of influence over Morris. This influence led to Morris being more outspoken about his views as he was encouraged by Ruskin’s loud-and-proud approach to sharing his values and opinions, Morris was in fact so inspired by Ruskin that he produced a copy of The Nature of Gothic on the famous Kelmscott press in 1892, which was inspired by Ruskin’s views on the virtues of “high quality hand labour”. So, Ruskin is definitely a name to mention when talking about Morris’ influences.

In conclusion, I would say that William Morris was very open and public on his values and beliefs and that yes, a lot of his work does reflect those views, the best example coming from his literature, yet most importantly his poetry pieces specifically A Dream of John Ball, his views even coming across so strongly within the piece that members of the public referred to it as propaganda – however I would also compare and suggest that he is a large juxtaposition within himself due to the type of people within society who his work is sold too, who is work is catered for in addition to his already wealthy background, all of this catering to the upper classes yet still sympathising with the lower and working classes, attempting to show them that he’s on their sides in terms of societal problems.

Bibliography:

  • Colin Moores, 2018, William Morris, Use-Value and “Joyful Labour”, Toronto, Ryerson University, page 29
  • William Morris, 1884, Art and Socialism, London, S.L, pages 5-7
  • Michelle Weinroth, 2018, Reinventing Socialist Education: William Morris’s Kelmscott press, S.L, S.L, pages 42-43
  • Dr Mark Frost, 2014, The Ruskin-Morris Connection, S.L, Anthem Press, page 1
  • William Morris, 1894, How I Became A Socialist, S.L, Justice, page 167
10 Jun 2021

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