William Morris and the Art of the Book

After my somewhat relentless focus on contemporary figures who demonstrate the influence of William Blake’s art and/or poetry, the anniversary of the birth of William Morris provides me with an opportunity to explore a different vein. Over the past couple of years, I have found myself increasingly interested in Blake’s Victorian followers, not merely content to leave that field to friends (such as Shirley Dent) who have done a much better job than myself. Indeed, I’m gearing myself up to do some work on Algernon Swinburne, who wrote an exceptional study of Blake in the 1860s.

Morris – artist, designer, writer, socialist – cannot really be said to be one of Blake’s followers, and the fact that while he was often associated with many movements but rarely fully part of them (whether the Socialist League, which he founded but then broke with, or the Pre-Raphaelites), is actually one of the things I like about Morris, and an attitude of independence which I think he shares with Blake.

Obviously his friendship with the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti, brought him into contact with the circle around Alexander Gilchrist that was renovating Blake’s reputation in the second half of the nineteenth century. Morris had little to do – at least in any explicit sense – with this renovation, but Blake’s combination of image and text in the sphere of design had an important effect on Morris’s work (as, indeed, was the case with other designers such as Walter Crane and Charles Rennie Mackintosh). Morris’s relations with W. B. Yeats, another leading exponent of Blake’s art at the turn of the century, has also been noted by academics such as Margaret Rudd and Morton Seiden.

It was with the founding of the Kelmscott Press in 1891 in which something special can be seen of Blake’s line of the art of the book. The 1896 edition of Chaucer, which Morris produced with Burne-Jones, is rightly considered a masterpiece, and it is not my intention in the slightest to diminish the extraordinary effects of works such as this by making any claims that “Blake got there first” (a claim that would, in any case, look ridiculous compared to those marvellous precursors which also affected Morris such as medieval illuminated manuscripts). Rather, like Blake, Morris conceived of the book as a complete work of art, one in which the matter of printing and all elements of production were instrumental in achieving its status as an object of beauty.

Morris’s politics are also equally fascinating to me. His interest in socialism is, of course, well-documented and extremely important, but the 1880s and 1890s was also a period when anarchism often appeared to be the vibrant and truly international movement, and Morris befriended Peter Kropotkin when the Russian anarchist settled near London in the 1880s. Similarly, Engels was rather disgusted at that time by what he saw as Morris’s uncritical support of anarchists in the Socialist League at a period when animosity between Marxists and anarchists was building up after the failure of the First International. Morris was much more consistent and dedicated in his political activity than Blake, but I have always taken pleasure in the fact that old, staid, conservative Albion every so often produces such artists who have such revolutionary fire in their belly.