William Morris, founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood interpreted Medievalism in his work as an aesthetic devotion to the cultural expressions of that period. Influenced by the ideals of Ruskin and Marx, Morris saw Socialism as a path to counteract the ugliness of industrialized production, an ideology to promote the Arts and Crafts aesthetic of hand made quality. Morris incorporated “socialism as a means to achieve a beauty-loving society.”1
One expression of this beauty shows up in the love of nature-themed patterns that is evident in almost all of Morris’ graphic work.
From 1858, we see Morris’ only completed easel painting, “La Belle Iseult”; depicting a portrait of Queen Guenevere from a scene in Mallory’s La More D’Arthur (c.1470), modelled by the Pre-Raphaelite stunner Jane Burden. She is painted centrally in her bedroom; in front of an unmade bed where her small greyhound still sleeps. There are many symbols related to the figure’s sorrow at the loss of Sir Tristam: from the sprigs of rosemary for remembrance in her hair to the word “Dolours” (ie: grief) reportedly inscribed on her crown.2 The allegory of this painting mirrors that of Medieval artworks, but the most remarkable aspects are the details of the work, specifically the different floral patterns that appear throughout the composition: from thistle flowers on her gown to blossoming rose trees on a tapestry in the background, all the flowers are pointing upward, perhaps to indicate the artist’s optimism that beauty brings hope to counterbalance sadness. This optimism felt in the colourful blossoms is a theme repeated throughout Morris’ designs.
While not abandoned, romantic allegory is often replaced by natural ornamentation for greater relevance to the general public. On occasion both appear in masterworks, such as the Woodpecker Tapestry (1885). Inspired by the Ovidian legend of King Pictus, who upon refusing to be seduced by the goddess Circe, was turned into a woodpecker and cursed to being a mere adjunct of beauty. With the feel of an illustrated manuscript, the central panel reveals a healthy and upward growing orange tree. The fruit are surrounded by petal-like leaves furthering the impression of blossoms. On the lower right and remarkably bare branch sits the woodpecker with his back to the beautiful Circe-bird sitting in the goddess-branches above him. Royal blue leaves and various other blossoms dance around the tree trunk stopping just out of the line of sight of the woodpecker. The side panels of the tapestry are blossoming vines that climb between banners inscribed with a stanzas.
While both stem from Medieval allegory, they are distinct in their style of the illustration. The colours and details of Woodpecker Tapestry, like much of his renowned pattern designs pop out of the surface and contain a living dimensionality not common in Medieval artworks. Here we see an intent to communicate emotionally to a more general audience, not necessarily raised on classic literature. Whereas Medievalism communicated parables of virtue and ideals of society, the more Socialist minded design work of Morris’ later years communicated beauty and virtue aesthetically. It was able to offer a more relatable beauty to all.
“Let us consider what the real state of art is. And first I must ask you to extend the word art beyond those matters which are consciously works of art, to take in not only painting and sculpture, and architecture, but the shapes and colours of all household goods, nay, even the arrangement of the fields for tillage and pasture, the management of towns and of our highways of all kinds; in a word, to extend it to the aspect of the externals of our life. For I must ask you to believe that every one of the things that goes to make up the surroundings among which we live must be either beautiful or ugly, either elevating or degrading to us, either a torment and burden to the maker of it to make, or a pleasure and a solace to him.”3
1 – Mathis, Charles-Francois. Ruskin’s heirs: art, nature and socialism. Retrieved from E-Rea. 2016 https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.5106
2 – William Morris Archives. Tate Gallery: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/william-morris-388
3 – Morris, William. The Political Writings of William Morris. Edited by A. L Morton. New World Paperbacks, Nw-S-16. New York: International, 1973.
(2)Morris, William. The Political Writings of William Morris. Edited by A. L Morton. New World Paperbacks, Nw-S-16. New York: International, 1973.
Tittle, Miles C. “Pen and Printing-Block: William Morris and the Resurrection of Medieval Paratextuality,” 2012
Mathis, Charles-Francois. Ruskin’s heirs: art, nature and socialism. Retrieved from E-Rea. 2016 https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.5106
1- The William Morris Society: https://williammorrissociety.org/about-william-morris/
2- The William Morris Gallery: https://www.wmgallery.org.uk/home
3- William Morris Archives. Tate Gallery: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/william-morris-388
4 – William Morris – Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Morris
5 – Emma Taggart: Meet William Morris: The Most Celebrated Designer of the Arts & Crafts Movement: https://mymodernmet.com/arts-and-crafts-movement-william-morris/ Last revised 2021.
1 – La Belle Iseult, William Morris, 1858
2 – Woodpecker Tapestry, William Morris,1885