06 January 2017

How the Cat Will Jump: Reading Morris after the Election

William Morris had no faith in electoral politics or its capacity to effect real change. As he wrote in Justice, following a Liberal parliamentary win in Hackney in 1884, “for the workers this is just a battle of the Kites and Crows.” While the Liberal press was exulting in the Hackney victory, Morris instead was “lamenting that, the Hackney Radicals, who have lately issued so Democratic a programme, should have been so blinded by the excitement of an electoral contest as not to see this fact.”

I admire Morris’s skepticism about the import of one Liberal victory; for me, however, living in a different time, and temperamentally less optimistic than Morris, his words produce little comfort in the wake of this past November’s election. In the months following the election of George W. Bush, I can remember being inspired and encouraged by Morris’s resolute commitment to a politics beyond electoral politics. But 16 years later, confronted with ever more urgent and intractable global problems such as climate change and the refugee crisis, and facing the quasi-fascist overtones of the rise of Donald Trump – it was Benito Mussolini, after all, who most famously rallied his followers around the call to “Drain the Swamps!” – Morris’s rejection of electoral politics has lost its power to inspire me.

For Morris believed in progress, and in this matter I find we are at odds. He believed that the arc of history was moving toward social equality, even if this progress moves, as he put it in “The Manifesto of the Socialist League” and “The Arts and Crafts of To-day,” in a spiral rather than a straight line. As we face the dawn of 2017, I can’t help but see this belief in progress – whether spiral-shaped or otherwise – as akin to religious superstition.

I find myself turning instead to the words of George Bernard Shaw – a political thinker with whom I am usually much less likely to agree – in his 1892 pamphlet Vote! Vote!! Vote!!!. “There is no excuse for not voting,” Shaw wrote, “Even when there is no candidate worth voting for, there is always some candidate worth voting against.” Contrast Shaw’s pragmatism here with Morris’s purism in response to the Radical vote in Hackney: “If they had no candidate whom they could vote for with a clear conscience, why should they have voted at all?”

It is important to note that Morris’s rejection of the ballot box was not entirely a retreat from electoral strategy. He went on to say, “Abstention from the poll accompanied by a protest so distinct as to make it obvious that the abstention was organised, and was the result, not of political languor, but of political insight, would have read a sharp lesson to those politicians, so called Radicals, who are hanging about waiting to see how the cat will jump.” We can hope that low turnout in the 2016 election will produce an effect similar to that which Morris describes; that we will see a turn toward more inspiring candidates, in the mold of Bernie Sanders, who represent a clearer alternative to capitalism as usual.

But we cannot wait about to see “how the cat will jump,” that is, to watch the course of events from the sidelines. I choose to dwell not on Morris’s rejection of the ballot box, but on his call for “a protest so distinct” as to register a vote of its own. January 2017 looks set to see some of the largest protests nationwide that have ever been assembled in the United States. Through protest, I will seek a new fellowship, and I will remember Morris’s words in A Dream of John Ball: “he who doeth well in fellowship, and because of fellowship, shall not fail though he seem to fail to-day.”

--Elizabeth Carolyn Miller,  Professor of English at UC Davis


For more thoughts on Morris and the election, I would encourage you to read this recent post by Eleanor Courtemanche.

14 December 2016

Some Hints on Wallpaper Design

Morris 'Trellis' pattern, (via V&A)
According to shelter magazines, decorator blogs, and even HGTV, wallpaper is back. As designer Sefton Freeman-Bahn pointed out recently in the Guardian, “the possibilities wallpaper offers to create or change a space are amazing,” and many young wallpaper designers have embraced digital printing in order to explore new techniques and finishes, as well as enhance the speed of production. Designer Linda Hasking takes these processes one step further, creating photographic collages and then digitally printing them as wallpaper.

It is a period of exploration and inventiveness in wallpaper design that recalls the pioneering work of William Morris and others in this field. What is lacking in the current moment, however, is any sense of debate over the appropriateness of digital printing or the use of photographs in pattern design. As a way to provide some historical perspective on this wallpaper renaissance, it is interesting to consider the vigorous debate in the Arts and Crafts movement over the appropriate parameters for wallpaper design, including the use of the human figure in creating repeating patterns. Although this concern may seem esoteric today, it reveals the seriousness with which Morris and his Arts and Crafts colleagues approached wallpaper, especially when it came to establishing criteria for good design.
Morris's later 'Rose' pattern (via V&A)

Morris discussed the symbolic potential of wallpaper in his lecture “Some Hints on Pattern-Designing” from 1881, stating that decoration is “futile” and degraded unless it reminds the viewer “of something beyond itself, of something of which it is a visible symbol.” However, he suggests that natural forms are the most appropriate inspiration for such work. One of Morris’s earliest and most popular wallpaper designs, Trellis, which he designed for his own home at Red House in 1862, uses the geometry of the garden trellis as the structuring principle for the grouping of roses, birds, and even the occasional bee.

Crane's Sleeping Beauty 'Nursery' paper (via the V&A)
His later Rose pattern of 1876 again uses roses, but replaces the trellis with Morris’s signature “branch” framework for a repeating pattern, balancing symmetry and asymmetry in the same paper.

Morris’s friend Walter Crane also suggested that wallpaper could be visually and intellectually satisfying in his essay “On the Structure of Decorative Pattern”. Yet rather than focus on the potential of natural forms, he concentrates instead on the central role of figurative art in ancient religions: “the ancient religions of the world were nothing but figurative systems—personifications and symbols of the forces of nature.” The figurative element, he suggests, endures throughout history because it is based in human experience and on the human body. According to Crane, the mind naturally seeks out figurative art. The human figure conveys meaning in a way that recalls his previous discussion of allegory. Crane refers to “the mental vitality of art” as the “life-blood” that “circulates freely through the whole body of art.” And the human form becomes the allegorical agent.

In a series of published debates on the nature and use of ornament from 1902, Crane and the designer Lewis F. Day disagreed over the use of the human form in pattern design. Day found them “a disturbing influence” that could not be adequately conventionalized in a repeating pattern. Crane argued for the human figure as a formal element in pattern design, as its “forms give me certain lines and masses decoratively valuable and not obtainable by other means. They give life and movement in ornament.” Furthermore, elements of the human form can function as both image and emblem in pattern design since “by the use of such forms, also, symbolic meaning may be expressed (or concealed) fanciful allegory or playful ideas. In short, they make ornament more interesting and amusing.” And Crane makes clear here that figurative art conveys an “imaginative conception” through the human figure.

The interesting explorations of this theory of design are Crane’s so-called “nursery papers,” wallpaper designs that transform figures from his popular children’s book illustrations into units of ornament. He first suggested the decorative capacity of the human body to communicate meaning in a wallpaper design based on his Sleeping Beauty nursery book illustration from 1879. Like Morris’s Rose, Crane also uses the rose as the flower as the determining principle of the design. But here the energetic swirl of the rose branch that structures the wallpaper is a direct quotation from Crane’s illustration, identical to the pattern on the curtain that shelters the sleeping heroine.
Crane's 'Sleeping Beauty' illustration. http://www.1890s.ca/HTML/crane_bio.html

Crane places figures from his illustration within this branch structure and orders them against this backdrop: we find Sleeping Beauty herself, her courtiers (including her aged father, the King), the old crone at her spinning wheel, and even the sleeping hound. The tail of a peacock falls just over the shoulder of the prince, making it appear at first glance that the prince has wings. The victorious prince emerges from the thicket to wake the sleeping princess, and the repeat of the wallpaper pattern imagines the event as a perpetual recurrence. One can imagine that this message is one that William Morris would have appreciated: the awakening of beauty, especially in the home. But for Morris the wallpaper would have failed as a pattern since it relied upon the human figure. For the most part, wallpaper designers today tend to avoid the use of the body in pattern design, although the possibility of photo-collage and digital printing raises new questions about the relationship between wallpaper and the real world.


-Morna O'Neill.

Morna O'Neill is Assistant Professor of Art History in the Department of Art at Wake Forest University

08 December 2016

MLA 2017 Sessions, our Annual Meeting, and a Library Visit


The Dandelion Pub, where we will convene for our meeting & lunch. Image by Karrisa Olsen.
Please join us at the Modern Language Association 2017 Annual Convention, 5-8 January, Philadelphia for one Morris Society sponsored session, and one co-sponsored session.

Non-MLA members may obtain a guest pass; to arrange this, please contact Linda Hughes, l.hughes@tcu.edu

421A. Craft and Design in Literary Study: The Legacy of William Morris
Friday, 6 January5:15–6:30 p.m., 202A, Pennsylvania Convention Center 
Presiding: Jason Martinek, New Jersey City Univ.
1. "The Ecology of Pleasure: Craft and Design in the Work of Ruskin and Morris," Balázs Keresztes, Eötvös Loránd Univ.
2. "'A Thoughtful Sequence': Text as Tapestry in William Morris's News from Nowhere," Lindsay Wells, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison
3. "H.D. and William Morris: 'There Was Comfort in the Table,'" Sara Dunton, Univ. of New Brunswick, Fredericton
Responding: Meghan Freeman, Manhattanville Coll.

489. Useful and Beautiful: William Morris and the Art of the Book
Saturday, 7 January10:15–11:30 a.m., 112A, Pennsylvania Convention Center 
Presiding: Jane Carlin, Univ. of Puget Sound Library
1. "Pocket Cathedrals and Private Presses: Decorated Books as Architecture and the Medieval Inheritance of William Morris’s Arts and Crafts Aesthetic," Brandiann Molby, Loyola Univ., Chicago
2. "Enlargements: Technology and William Morris’s Typefaces," Anna Wager, Univ. of Washington, Seattle
3. "Reading Celia Levetus," Rebecca N. Mitchell, Univ. of Birmingham
Responding: Jane Carlin

The US William Morris Society will also host an off-site Event on Saturday, January 7 directly after our MLA session we invite all interested Morrisians to walk (20 minutes) or cab to The Dandelion (http://thedandelion.me/), a British gastropub where we will have reserved a quiet space for an informal gathering and fulfillment of Annual Meeting duties.

After lunch we will proceed to the Free Library (a 15 minute walk), for a 2:30 pm show and tell hosted by Janine Pollock, Head, Rare Book Department, and Derick Dreher, John C. Haas Director, Rosenbach Museum and Library.

Maximum for Free Library visit is 20 persons. Please rsvp to Jason Martinek to hold a spot (jmartinek@njcu.edu).

29 November 2016

“Women, Art, and Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise”

The Newcomb Pottery, active in New Orleans from 1895 to 1940, has long been regarded as one of the premier producers of American Arts and Crafts pottery. In addition, from its origins it attracted attention because all of its workers were women. The pottery was a division of Newcomb College, the women’s college attached to Tulane University. The exhibition “Women, Art, and Social Change,” co-sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and the Newcomb Art Gallery at Tulane, brings together more than 125 objects for this traveling tour, which began in New Orleans in 2013 and concludes this October in Nashville.

The objects in the exhibition are uniformly stunning. Best-in-show may be the lamp that, in the installation at the Princeton University Art Museum in summer 2016, greeted visitors as they entered the galleries. The lamp’s base, in shades of yellow and green, features a repeated motif of cat’s claw flowers, while the cunningly designed shade, an irregular swirling outline of magnolia flowers, allows light to escape through the fine metal mesh on which the brass flowers are laid. The lamp embodies the best features of Newcomb Pottery wares: superb execution of sophisticated Arts and Crafts designs that almost always make use of Southern motifs, both flora (pecan branches, crepe myrtle, forests’ worth of Southern pines and live oaks) and fauna (dragonflies, bullfrogs, blue crabs).

A wall-sized photographic blowup in the first gallery showed the Newcomb craftswomen at work. In their sensible shirtwaists, they could be versions of Philippa, the female artisan in William Morris’s utopian novel News from Nowhere. The Newcomb Pottery enterprise had strong Morrisian dimensions. The insistence on hand-crafted products, the decorative motifs derived from natural forms, even the typeface used in printed materials—all have their origins in the work of Morris & Co. and the Kelmscott Press.

Post-Civil War New Orleans was, in general, desperately poor, and the opportunities for women artists—or women workers of any sort—were few. Pottery director Ellsworth Woodward, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, had considerable ambitions for the enterprise: he wanted to promote regional pride, create distinguished art objects, and provide artistic, educational, and economic opportunities for women. “I am hopeful,” he said in 1901, “that we can here provide a livelihood for that large number of women who have artistic tastes, and who do not find the schoolroom or the stenographer’s desk or the [retail] counter altogether congenial.”

As the excellent accompanying catalogue by David Conradsen et al., The Arts and Crafts of Newcomb Pottery, reveals, only the ambition to create beautiful artworks was fully realized. Over its forty-five year history, the pottery employed less than one hundred women, most of them part-time, and it was not able to provide any of the artisans a stable, decently paid career. Director Woodward lured the Charleston artist Sabina Wells to Newcomb with promises of artistic freedom and handsome earnings. After she arrived, she wrote home in a letter, “I am much dissatisfied with the narrow style of design, but could stand it if I were paid for doing so, but without pay and without any prospects, I am almost in a state of open rebellion. I am supposed to be one of their clever designers & I will make this month $40.00 & last month $30.00--& that at a pottery where the theoretic pay is $100.00 per month!”

Wells’s letter lays bare some of the tensions at the heart of the Newcomb Pottery enterprise. Newcomb was supposed to provide a means of artistic expression of women, but it actually demanded a “narrow style of design” focused on stereotypically Southern motifs in order to satisfy marketplace demands. It promised economic independence for women, but as an acute catalogue essay by Adrienne Spinozzi reveals, Newcomb consistently underpriced its wares in comparison to other art potteries, as if embarrassed to claim too much on behalf of genteel Southern women.

The enterprise also exemplifed tensions surrounding gender in fin-de-siècle America. Newcomb boasted of women’s abilities in the decoration of pottery, but it did not advertise the fact that all its pots and vases were actually thrown by men. That gendered division of labor persisted until the enterprise was disbanded in 1940, with the exception of the jewelry and metalworking departments, which were added in the early twentieth century. The women in those fields both fabricated and decorated the products. A fascinating wall-sized photograph of the metalwork shop shows a young woman wielding an industrial-strength torch, her expression suggesting pride in her seizure of Promethean powers.

Two additional, fundamental tensions existed within Newcomb Pottery throughout its existence. The first was between the Pottery’s ambitions and its actual achievements. The enterprise was in part a utopian social experiment, a collective for women artists intended to challenge, in Morrisian fashion, the shoddy products of the industrial era. In reality, it was never more than a small regional workhop that produced a limited number of objects for affluent collectors. The second tension was central to the entire Arts and Crafts movement, from the establishment of Morris’s firm in 1861 to the closure of Newcomb Pottery in 1940. As Jackson Lears argues in his analysis of the Arts and Crafts movement in No Place of Grace, the craft revival was in part a form of antimodern protest, but it also accommodated itself to the demands of the capitalist marketplace and to existing hierarchies of class and gender.

Less than a triumph, far more than a failure—in its achievements and shortcomings the Newcomb Pottery enterprise exemplifies the inevitable tensions in the work of William Morris and his artistic heirs.

Michael Robertson

11 September 2016

Modern Day “Morrisans”: The Arts & Crafts Press, Tacoma Washington

Photo Courtesy of  Jane Carlin.
The William Morris Society in America and The Book Club of Washington recently joined together to visit this wonderful press in Tacoma, Washington. Learn more about the Press by visiting their web site: http://the-arts-crafts-press.myshopify.com/ Travel down South Tacoma Avenue, in Tacoma, Washington, and the last thing you would expect to find is a bustling Arts & Crafts Press. But find, you do! Nestled between warehouses and industrial buildings is the castle like building with a bright red door that beckons you to open it up and discover the wonders inside.

This wonderful building is home to the Arts & Crafts Press, founded  by Yoshiko Yamamoto and Bruce Smith in 1996.  The building, originally built for the Tillicum Toy Company in 1929 on Route 99, was once the largest wooden toy manufacturer in the Pacific Northwest. The original 1920’s castle like structure is the perfect setting for this press.

Originally established as a publishing house which focused on the Arts & Crafts movement, the Press has expanded to include limited-edition prints and greeting cards, all printed from hand cut blocks inspired by the movement. Yoshiko and Bruce started out in California and were inspired by many printers from the Bay Area, but the beauty and grandeur of the Pacific Northwest drew them to Tacoma.   The landscape of this region is the inspiration behind many of the beautiful and colorful designed developed by Yoshiko.   On December 11, 2015 The Arts & Crafts Press was featured on the Celebration episode of PBS's national show Craft in America.  

Photo Courtesy of Jane Carlin
Some of the earliest publications of the Press, such as The Tabby: A Chronicle of the Arts & Crafts Movement, were inspired by the little magazine movement. This small publication exemplifies the principals of the Arts & Crafts movement and resonates with the mission of the press.  To paraphrase Bruce, “the work and craft we do is as important at the art we do.”  Both Bruce and Yoshiko draw inspiration from the work of William Morris, but also from Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters, Dard Hunter, Will Bradley and Frederic Goudy. Their personal collection of Arts & Crafts publications and ephemera, including a printer’s scrapbook, serve as a foundation for much of their work.

Noted William Morris scholar and collector Jack Walsdorf reflected on the contributions of Yoshiko and Bruce:  
Clearly, Bruce Smith, as a long time author and collector in the fields of both William Morris and Arts & Crafts printing history  has a deep love, understanding and admiration for the influence of  Morris.  The many examples he showed the group of books printed shortly after Morris's death, as well as those printed well into the early 20th century, helped us all understand how their own The Arts & Crafts Press came into existence.  Yoshiko Yamamoto, the artist/printer has clearly learned a great deal from the study of the works of Morris, Dard Hunter and others of the Arts & Crafts movement.  But her early life in Japan, her study of their wonderful wood block art form have resulted in her own true unique style.  Her colors are bold and bright and totally pleasing to the eye.  Her printing, be it on note cards, pictures or broadsides are always of the highest quality.
Photo courtesy of Arts & Crafts Press:
http://the-arts-crafts-press.myshopify.com
Both Bruce and Yoshiko are also committed to social justice and sustainability.  The Press seeks to embrace environmentally sustainable materials and ways of printing.  Recycling all their paper and metal and using many soy based inks and vegetable oil for cleaning are just some of the ways they care for our environment. The Press serves as a model for responsible printing and as shared from their web site:  "We print, because we care and love our friends, family, and environs. So why not take it one step further and print kinder to ourselves and our earth?"

Recently, Bruce and Yoshiko participated in the annual From Hiroshima to Hope: Lantern Ceremony in Seattle.  An annual event to promote peace event in memory of victims of Hiroshima/Nagasaki and all victims of violence and war. The block print Lantern Floating commemorates this event.  Yoshiko Yamamoto designed, carved and printed this linoleum block print with the help of another Tacoma based artist, Taylor Cox.

Handsome former President of the William Morris Society
 proudly displays his printed keepsake
One of the true highlights of visiting The Arts and Crafts Press was being able to print a keepsake, designed by Yoshiko , using the 1889 Morris quotation; "We are only Trustees for those who come after us."

This keepsake holds special meaning as Yoshiko has just returned from a visit to the UK where she visited many of the Morris landmarks; including Kelmscott Manor. She is working on a new project to illustrate News from Nowhere, which will no doubt be a most impressive artistic endeavor. 
Yoshiko and Bruce are inspiring a new generation of printers, artists, and lovers of Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement.  They work hard to maintain work that is both affordable and accessible to all, and of the highest quality. 

Mark Hoppmann, a well-known Tacoma artist, and President of the Puget Sound Book Artists has this to say about their work:

Thoreau once said “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”  Not so, with Yoshiko Yamamoto and Bruce Smith.  Surrounded by both vintage and modern letterpress equipment, both Bruce and Yoshiko are leaving a legacy in their own right, to the arts and crafts movement begun in the late 19th century.

It will be through the writing and collecting efforts of people  like Bruce Smith and the art and printing of Yoshiko Yamamoto, that collectors and lovers of fine books and prints will be able to afford what William Morris wanted throughout his life, art for the people.

Jane A. Carlin, Director, Collins Memorial Library
University of Puget Sound

16 July 2016

Report on the May Morris Conference, William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow May 13 and 14, 2016

May Morris, embroidered binding for Ernest Levebure
Embroidery and Lace, translated by Alan S Cole 
(London, 1888). Courtesy of the Grolier Club of New York
The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, UK recently hosted a two-day conference devoted to the life and work of May Morris (1862-1938), youngest daughter of William and Jane. May’s biography has often been overlooked and her work interpreted only as an aspect of the life of her famous father. But as the conference papers revealed, she was a remarkable designer, artist, and writer whose work contributed significantly to the spread of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic.

From her youth, May developed an interest in embroidery. She trained at the South Kensington School of Design and was appointed manager of the embroidery department at Morris and Company in 1885. She studied the history of embroidery and published a series of articles promoting the craft, culminating in the book Decorative Needlework (1893). In 1909-10 she embarked on a lecture tour of the United States, preaching on a variety of topics including the importance of the rich British tradition of embroidery.

Upon her father’s death, she edited a 24-volume compilation of his written work. Each volume of the Collected Works of William Morris includes an introduction in which May contextualizes the passages which follow through recollections of her father’s life. These reminiscences reveal her warmth and respect for him, as well as the manner in which her life was shaped by their association. A particularly revealing aspect of these lyrical descriptions is the love of the English landscape which they both shared.

May Morris’ creative debt to her father is without question. However, as revealed by the 13 speakers who presented over the course of this conference, she was a creative force unto herself. The two-day study event presented new research of May’s life and work in advance of an exhibition which will be presented at the William Morris Gallery in the fall of 2017. On Friday, conference attendees visited the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Clothworkers’ Center at Blythe House where Jenny Lister, Curator of Nineteenth Century Textiles and Dress, reviewed a stunning selection of May’s embroidery, including both her hand- and design work. These objects included a vine-and-leaf design table cloth made for the Hodson family of Compton Hall, Wolverhampton; the famous “Orchard” portiere designed by May and worked by Theodosia Middlemore for Melsetter House in Orkney; and the superfrontal designed by Philip Webb and worked by May. There were also examples of ‘starter’ embroidery kits, in which a small portion of the design was embroidered as a model for those clients who wished to carry out their own handwork. Of particular interest was a Morris and Company day book dating from May 1892-November 1896, listing orders placed with the company, often including the names of those who were responsible for the stitch work. For the second half of the day a riverside walk in Hammersmith was offered, including a stop at the William Morris Society.

On Friday evening the keynote lecture was given by Jan Marsh, who’s Jane and May Morris – A Biographical Story -- the first significant investigation of May’s work -- was published thirty years ago. Marsh gave an overview of May’s life and work weaving her various roles, interests and accomplishment into a compelling narrative. On Saturday lectures were presented on topics including May’s needlework; her role in the founding of the Women’s Guild of Arts; her critical writing; her relationship with Kelmscott Manor; socialism; her teaching at the Birmingham School of Art; the lecture tour of America; and the architectural project for Kelmscott village in collaboration with Ernest Gimson. A full conference program can be found here. These papers will be published through the generous sponsorship of the Friends of the William Morris Gallery in time for the exhibition in the fall of 2017.

A great deal of new information was presented, including the recent re-discovery of an embroidered book cover by May Morris in the collection of the Grolier Club in New York. The binding is of green silk embroidered with colored silks, gold braid and beads. It covers Ernest Levebure’s Embroidery and Lace (published London, 1888) as translated by Alan S. Cole. The book is a history of embroidery from antiquity to the present, a subject which would have been of particular interest to May. The initials E.L. and A.C. (assumedly those of author and translator) appear on the front cover. A tiny initial “M” is stitched at the bottom of the spine. The book is known to have been in the collection of Samuel Putnam Avery of New York City as early as 1891. Avery was an art dealer, collector, and one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The book’s presence in Avery’s collection suggests knowledge of May’s craftsmanship in the U.S. preceded her arrival by some 20 years!

Margaretta S Frederick Chief Curator and Annette Woolard-Provine Curator of the Bancroft Pre-Raphaelite Collection, Delaware Art Museum mfrederick@delart.org

22 September 2015

A Visit to "J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free"


Yesterday I visited the Turner show currently featured at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Titled “J. M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free,” it focuses on Turner’s work in the last 15 years of his life, including watercolors as well as oils, night scenes as well as blinding sunlight, and seascapes as well as fire and smoke (sometimes at the same time, as in Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth [1842]).

The exhibition’s labels cited John Ruskin frequently as Turner’s first and best interpreter, and as the contemporary critic most presciently alert to Turner’s power and significance. This continual reference to Ruskin made me think of William Morris, and made me wonder whether and how Ruskin’s highly favorable view of Turner may have rubbed off on Morris, given Ruskin’s vital influence on Morris’s aesthetic vision.

In so many ways, Morris and Turner would appear to be opposed in their approaches to art. Morris revived the crafts – the “low” arts – as art forms in their own right; Turner painted for the Academy. Turner’s protoimpressionistic compositions offer nothing like photographic verisimilitude; Morris is associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, whose creed of “truth to nature” can be seen in Morris’s botanical designs. Perhaps most strikingly, there is a quality of abstraction and elementalism in Turner’s work that seems at odds with the ornamentation and lushness of Morris’s designs.

And yet, there are similarities too. Many of Turner’s paintings were originally exhibited with bits of poetry – often Turner’s own poetry, though Byron shows up frequently too – which reminded me of the Pre-Raphaelite tendency to weave together painting and poetry, and of Morris’s lifelong interest in visual-textual interplay. One room of the exhibition focused on Turner’s innovative approach to the shape of the frame and his experiments with square, round, and octagonal compositions, which brought to mind the crucial role of the border and the frame in Morris’s artistic work. There is, too, a hint of social criticism in Turner’s dazzling representations of smoke, fire, and disaster; these recall the ugliness of modern civilization that Morris so hated, as well as the impermanence and mutability of civilization that gave him hope.

After the exhibition, I looked for references to Turner in Morris’s writings and found surprisingly little. But Mackail’s biography of Morris includes a wonderful description of Morris reading Ruskin on Turner, reading aloud as though he himself were on fire:
Morris would often read Ruskin aloud. He had a might singing voice, and chanted rather than read those weltering oceans of eloquence as they have never been given before or since, it is most certain. The description of [Turner’s] Slave Ship, or of Turner’s skies, … were declaimed by him in a manner that made them seem as if they had been written for no end but that he should hurl them in thunder on the head of the base criminal who had never seen what Turner saw in the sky.” (46-7)
This anecdote reveals, perhaps, the most important quality that Turner and Morris shared as artists: a resolute appetite to challenge orthodoxy. Certainly this was a quality shared by Ruskin, too, and it is a quality that unites and triangulates the intersecting careers of the painter, the critic, and the craftsman.

-Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, Professor of English and Department Chair at UC Davis.