#54 William Morris: a creative inspiration
Sicilian ghosts and hallucinations
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This week I wrote this fascinating post about an amazing Victorian writer and artist whom I think is a wonderful example of creative tenacity and talent. This one is for all of the creatives struggling today. It serves as a reminder to never give up.
William Morris (1834 – 1896) was a British textile designer, poet, artist, novelist, architectural conservationist, printer, translator and socialist activist associated with the British Arts and Crafts Movement. He significantly contributed to reviving traditional British textile arts and production methods. His literary contributions helped establish the modern fantasy genre, while he helped win the acceptance of socialism in fin de siècle Great Britain.
Morris was born in Walthamstow, Essex, to a wealthy middle-class family. He came under the strong influence of medievalism while studying Classics at Oxford University. After university, he married Jane Burden and developed close friendships with Pre-Raphaelite artists Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Neo-Gothic architect Philip Webb. Webb and Morris designed Red House in Kent, where Morris lived from 1859 to 1865 before moving to Bloomsbury, central London.
In 1861, Morris founded the Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. decorative arts firm with Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Webb, and others, which became highly fashionable and much in demand. The firm profoundly influenced interior decoration throughout the Victorian period, with Morris designing tapestries, wallpaper, fabrics, furniture, and stained glass windows. In 1875, he assumed total company control and renamed Morris & Co.
Morris rented the rural retreat of Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire, from 1871 while retaining a main home in London. His visits to Iceland with Eiríkr Magnússon were of great inspiration, and they led him to produce a series of English-language translations of Icelandic Sagas. He also achieved success with the publication of his epic poems and novels, namely The Earthly Paradise (1868–1870), A Dream of John Ball (1888), the Utopian News from Nowhere (1890), and the fantasy romance The Well at the World's End (1896).
In 1877, he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings to campaign against the damage caused by architectural restoration. He embraced Marxism and was influenced by anarchism in the 1880s. Morris became a committed revolutionary socialist activist. He founded the Socialist League in 1884 after an involvement in the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), but he broke with that organisation in 1890. In 1891, he founded the Kelmscott Press to publish limited-edition, illuminated-style print books, a cause to which he devoted his final years.
Morris is one of the most significant cultural figures of Victorian Britain. He was best known in his lifetime as a poet, although he posthumously became better known for his designs. The William Morris Society, founded in 1955, is devoted to his legacy, while multiple biographies and studies of his work have been published. Many buildings associated with his life are open to visitors, much of his work can be found in art galleries and museums, and his designs are still in production.
I accidentally came across William Morris's designs while flicking through an art book dedicated to design and pattern making. After I was in a rut, I was looking for inspiration for blog graphics.
I BECAME COMPLETELY ENAMOURED WITH HIS ART when I looked at his beautiful designs, inspired mainly by the English countryside and nature. His work is as timeless as spring, and many of his textile designs are still very popular today.
I recalled reading some of his poetry while studying the Victorian period in my literature degree, so I went back and delved into his writing again. I have always been slightly envious of literature teachers who get to teach and revisit great writers every year to new students. But then I remember how horrible it is to teach first-year literature students and imagine that students these days aren't as dedicated as those of a few decades ago. I'm not even sure if many people choose to study literature these days. But I digress.
As you can see from Morris's biography, he was a dynamic Victorian who was creative but used his creativity to explore his interests and create an extremely lucrative business. The list of innovative pathways is astounding, from visual art to literature and politics—a wonderfully inspiring individual.
Diving deeply into a William Morris sidetrack, I downloaded his complete works as an Ebook. It is always exhilarating to download your favourite writer's works from the past in an instant (perhaps I am showing my age, but this Gen X still remembers having to go down to the library to search out these kinds of things!)
His poetry is exquisite and illustrates his love of all things Medieval. It still amazes me how someone can be a master of so many creative elements. His writing is vivid, passionate, vibrant and masterly. The images of Guenevere and Launcelot leap out at you from the page. And he is a maestro of the complex structure of the medieval sonnet form.
Reading the first two poems from his 1857 collection, The Defence of Guenevere and other poems, I immediately fell in love with his poetic gift. In particular, The Defence of Guenevere and Kind Arthur's Tomb have such an imaginative artistic sensibility that they take away your breath. His attention to detail and his command of the language is spellbinding. I am totally in love with his poetic work.
Yet, despite the apparent beauty of his work, even Morris had some setbacks thanks to the critics.
This poetry collection was primarily self-funded. It sold poorly, and the negative reviews put Morris off publishing other poems for eight years. Just think how many more published collections we could have from Morris if not for this poor critical response. Thank goodness he had the foresight to continue his work in private and never stopped writing.
Willian Morris's poem The Defence of Guenevere is a dramatic monologue from the point of view of Guenevere, the wife of King Arthur, who defends herself after being accused of adultery with the King's trusted knight, Sir Launcelot.
Morris's use of archaic terms is characteristic of his medievalism – and the poem itself is part of a broader Victorian tendency to see the mediaeval period as one of a lost pre-industrial simplicity. Yet, there is also a trace of the more modern influence of Tennyson in the poem's complex imagery and psychological insight – as well as the use of the dramatic monologue, a form invented by Morris' contemporary Robert Browning.
Morris is a creative inspiration because of his immense scope over many creative industries. His approach was typically Victorian, diligent, focused and determined. I'm grateful he continued steadfastly on his creative path, so we have many examples of his exquisite works today.
I'm still working my way through his poetry, which is so rich and ornamental. I am thankful he didn't listen to the critics and continued working away. Yet again, like most other creatives, Morris reinforces the most important lesson to always remember as a creative professional: to always continue with your work. Believe in your value and what you say, and never give up.
I hate to be long-winded, so I will stop here for now.
I'll keep trying to write something worthwhile, well thought out and new here every week, perhaps more often if I get in the zone.
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