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William Morris - Intelligent Beauty

Portrait of William Morris

Cosmo Rowe (1877 - 1952)

'We ought to get to understand the value of intelligent work, the work of men’s hands guided by their brains,

and to take that, though it be rough, rather than the unintelligent work of machines'.

William Morris

No nation or state of society, William Morris wrote, has ever been without the arts. Indeed, we have all heard of the cave paintings, the palaces of history’s kings, queens and emperors, the sacred architecture of temples, churches, mosques and more, elaborate mosaics in the Roman Empire, ancient Greek sculptures, Egyptian wall paintings, ancient Chinese calligraphy and poetry, the list goes on and on. And these are only some of the highlights of a richly textured and variegated historical world culture, where art has been playing a central role to the well-being and identity of mankind since our very beginning. In fact, William says, ‘…there are peoples not a few, of whom we know scarce anything, save that they thought such and such forms beautiful. So strong is the bond between history and decoration, that in the practice of the latter we cannot, if we would, wholly shake off the influence of past times over what we do at present’.*

The English designer, poet, novelist and socialist activist, acknowledges that the arts have sometimes been ‘…the handmaids of luxury, of tyranny, and of superstition…But it is also true that, among some nations, their most vigorous and freest times have been the very blossoming times of art…’* He writes, ‘These arts…are part of a great system invented for the expression of a man’s delight in beauty: all peoples and times have used them; they have been the joy of free nations, and the solace of oppressed nations; religion has used and elevated them, has abused and degraded them; they are connected with all history…and, best of all, they are the sweeteners of human labour, both to the handicraftsman, whose life is spent working in them, and to people in general who are influenced by the sight of them at every turn of the day’s work: they make our toil happy, our rest fruitful’.*

The Labours of the Month (1862) Hand painted earthenware, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.


Designed by; Ford Madox Brown (1821 - 1893), Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833 - 1898), William Morris

(1834 - 1896), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 - 1882) & Philip Webb (1831 - 1915).

William expresses that Master artists and craftsmen see the coming into being of their creations from beginning to end and have a personal connection with them which provides the conditions for other people to connect with what they have created. In this kind of creative process artists and craftsmen do not necessarily always imitate nature but, he explains, in the act of creation their hands are guided to work in the way that nature does, bringing forms into being that can reveal the essence of her to us. He adds, beauty in and of itself represents being in accordance with nature: when we create beautiful objects, we are creating forms in accordance with nature and through those beautiful forms we are gifted a medium through which we can better contemplate nature itself, indeed our own nature itself. That is nature in the sense of what is all around us and within us, and that includes the beauty to be found in human relationships for example. One need only look and one will see beauty in everything. However, it is true that sometimes we need something like the power of art to help us reach a place beyond our immediate situation where we can come to remember that. In being both beautiful and even perhaps decorative, yet universally meaningful, in the sense that it stirs something within our human being, a work of art can masterfully call our attention and interest back to the vital matters of every day life in the present, when we are lost in our own particular cocktails of destructive tendencies, like being over busy or sluggish, unappreciative or uncaring.

The Pilgrim and the Heart of the Rose (1872-74)


Designed by Edward Coley Burne-Jones & William Morris.

Made by Margaret Bell (1829 - 1886) & Florence Johnson.

Interestingly, there are some striking similarities between William’s philosophical reflections on art and what we discussed in the last instalment of The What is Art? Series: Art as Therapy. Like William Morris, Alain de Botton and Robert Armstrong are also championing beauty in art, crucially not beauty without meaning, but beauty and meaning: intelligent beauty. And that in addition, they all hold that a beautiful work of art must also be useful, it should do what art has always done ‘…more or less striven to beautify the familiar matters of every day life’.* Alain and Robert add a crucial layer to this where they unveil the 7 functions of art and more. But all three thinkers assert that the body of art is highly important, nay indispensable, to the public. Indeed, as William said, without the arts life would be without pleasure, and instead ‘…a mere wearing away of body and mind’.*

The Wood Beyond the World (1894) Kelmscott Press (1891 - 1898)


Written by William Morris & designed by Edward Coley Burne-Jones

This philosophy of the Decorative Arts, which valued mastery, beauty and meaning and which had stretched across centuries and continents was already beginning to decay in the first half of the 18th century. It was a time when the Industrial Revolution was in full sway in Britain and its effects were being sorely felt across the Culture sector. It was not, William reflected, that the potential and knowledge passed down through generations had been extinguished, it was rather that the arts were in ‘…a state of anarchy and disorganisation’.* He wrote, ‘…the present state of the arts and their dealings with modern life and progress seem to me to point, in appearance at least, to this immediate future; that the world, which has for a long time busied itself about other matters than the arts, and has carelessly let them sink lower and lower, till many not uncultivated men, ignorant of what they once were, and hopeless of what they might yet be, look upon them with mere contempt…’*

It is argued that the beginning of the death of the mastery of art and the public’s appreciation of it, came as a direct result of the Industrial Revolution. In that era, the social order, ways of life, attitudes and values changed radically in a short space of time. Previously unimaginable new processes and machines were invented that in many ways ‘replaced men’s hands with machines’, it separated workers from their tools and products, and mass production dwarfed small scale artisanal manufacture. What was valued was ‘mass’ over ‘artisan’, ‘mass’ over ‘quality’: mindless mechanical production over mindful manual manufacture. In this period, William was not the only person who realised what was in store for the arts, the famous Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain was actually a reaction to the damaging effects of the dehumanising aspects of the Industrial Revolution on social conditions and manufacture, and the lack of integrity in mass produced goods. William became a champion of the Movement and would become a highly influential figurehead. He wrote, ’Architecture, Sculpture, Painting…together with Music and Poetry, will be dead and forgotten…we must not deceive ourselves; the death of one art means the death of all; the only difference in their fate will be that the luckiest will be eaten the last…in all that has to do with beauty the invention and ingenuity of man will have come to a dead stop…’*

But William did not think that art was without hope, ‘I hold that men would wake up after a while, and look around and find the dullness unbearable, and begin once more investing, imitating, and imagining…’* The new seed, he said, must sprout. ‘So it has been before: first comes birth, and hope scarcely conscious of itself; then the flower and fruit of mastery, with hope more than conscious enough, passing into insolence, as decay follows ripeness; and then - the new birth again’.*

Honeysuckle, printed cotton


Designed by William Morris, 1876.

Flash forward to 2018 and many are still disillusioned with today’s art world as a whole, they do indeed look upon a lot of contemporary art as contemptible. Clearly, a new birth is necessarily upon us. The historical threads of the mastery of art that had been lain down, are being grasped and pulled into the present once again, revived today for future generations by people and institutions like The Florence Academy of Art. The desire for craftsmanship and the artisan over mass produced products is also returning to the people. The emptiness in living the ‘identical’ life, defined by the buying more and more and always more, cheap and ‘born to break’ furniture, cars, toys, clothes, technology and houses, is becoming undeniable. Mass production and mass consumption are not, in fact, the answer to life’s woes. We ought to heed William’s words, ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’. Art is sumptuously ripe for a global reinvigoration: through restoring the philosophy and knowledge of arts and crafts passed down to us from generations gone before us, beautiful art with universal relevance could flourish again and offer us a glimpse of a more hopeful future, where what we value is in accordance with what is indeed valuable, in this great world of ours.

All images in this article are courtesy of The William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest. The William Morris Gallery is the only public museum devoted to the life and legacy of William Morris. The Gallery is situated in a Georgian house which was in fact Morris's family home from 1848 to 1856. Today this historic building holds an internationally renowned collection of textiles, designs, prints, sculpture, stained glass, furniture and more, offering visitors the opporuntity to learn about the life and work of the remarkable man that was William Morris and his artistic collaborators.



All images are courtesy of The William Morris Gallery, Lloyd Park, Forest Road, Walthamstow, London, E17 4PP.


*indicates direct quotations taken from William Morris’ lecture entitled The Lesser Arts.

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