19 January 2015

The Reach of William Morris and Co.

Caricature of Morris by D.G. Rossetti, image via the Rossetti Archive (© The Trustees of the British Museum )

While searching through W. E. Henley’s Scots Observer lately for a conference paper on newspaper poetry, I encountered an anonymous satiric poem on Morris & Co. In the eyes of the satirist, clearly, Morris and Co. designs had spread everywhere. But the writer also zeroed in on what concerned Morris himself and continues to engage Morriseans today, the conflict between the ideal of beauty accessible to all and the high price of Morris & Co. goods. Here is the poem, from the 7 December 1889 Scots Observer (p. 65):

Playnte Dolorous

Who clothed my chairs with coloured chintz,
In arabesques of pear and quince
That make the very bravest wince?—
My Morris!

Who on my curtains told the tale
Of Arthur and the Holy Grail,
Yet built my bath of Chippendale?—
My Morris!

Who made my rooms (like chimney-shafts)
A mighty colony of draughts,
And then let loose the Arts and Crafts?—
My Morris!

Who smiled an earnest smile, and took
My one and only decent book,
‘That Saunderson* might have a look’?—
My Morris!

Who caused me such atrocious pain
With dinner plates (by Walter Crane),
The paint whereto no man may chain?—
My Morris!

Who built me in with painted glass
So that, by daylight or by gas,
My closest feres** do call me Ass?—
My Morris!

My couch me-seemeth full of stones;
Forth from my flesh protrude my bones;
Were we designed by Edward Jones,
My Morris?

Who sent me that preposterous bill?
And ah! who waiteth for it still?
Before you get it you may grill,
My Morris!

* T. J. Cobden-Saunderson (1840-1922), Arts and Crafts book binder
** An archaic word for friend or mate, here in keeping with the poem’s medieval title and reference to Arthurian legend

The poem responded not only to the popularity of Morris and Co. goods at this time but also, in part, to the second Arts and Crafts Exhibition at the New Gallery, which opened in October 1889. A number of papers reviewed the exhibition. The 12 October 1889 Saturday Review, for example, noted the book bindings of Saunderson, complaining that some were so tight “that some of the volumes will not close properly” but acknowledging that his “gold tooling is simply superb. In beauty of design and manipulative skill we have never seen anything like it” (p. 406). The Saturday Review also reported that Morris and Co. had 46 examples of textiles on display in the exhibition (p. 407).

The Scots Observer itself reviewed the show on 19 October 1889. It spent little time on the details of individual objects. Instead the review’s most telling remark was this: “Plainly, ‘None but Socialists need apply’ is the revered maxim of the Society of the Arts and Crafts, whose second Exhibition has been organised and manœuvred by Mr. Walter Crane and a few friends” (p. 602).

A conservative paper, the Scots Observer was resolutely anti-Socialist. In printing “Playnte Dolorous,” Henley could chaff middle-class readers who submitted to the fashionable taste inspired by Morris and Co. goods, only to rue the bills, and also snipe at Morris and other Arts and Crafts designers who advocated Socialism while reaping profits. If the poem is hostile to Morris, it nonetheless testifies to his influence—his “reach”—in 1889.

--Linda K. Hughes, Ph.D.
Addie Levy Professor of Literature
Texas Christian University

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