19 April 2017

What Would William Morris Think?

Whatever would William Morris think? How would he feel seeing how this clever sidewall takes his beloved wallpaper design (the first he ever created) and stylizes it into a series of dots?

Whether it brings to mind the Ben Day dots used in comic books or an LED display, the result seems to have been produced using some kind of modern industrial process. Thus, one could imagine that Morris, whose central philosophy involved rejection of all forms of industrial production in favor of handcraft techniques, would be upset to see his beloved pattern reproduced in this way. However, Morris, the great lover of craft, may still find something to enjoy in this take on his work because it is, despite its appearance, completely handmade. A closer look will reveal that every dot is irregularly-shaped and spaced apart, indicating that someone had painstakingly painted the whole thing. The paper’s distinct style, evoking modern industrial technology, both disguises and is a result of its particular method of production, a fact which no doubt would leave a lot of design reformers of the late 19th-century confused. The paper’s handmade production and use of a classic Arts and Crafts movement pattern is not only tongue-in-cheek but ironically serves to remind us how far the world of design had moved on from the ideals of Morris.

A paper like this, playfully toying with the work of one of the great figures in the history of design, is such a perfect example of Postmodernist design that it’s no surprise that two great figures of the movement were involved in its creation. Harry Moore was a prolific architect most famous for the Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans. Alan Buchsbaum was an architect and interior designer known for being a pioneer of the Supergraphics and High Tech styles. In his interiors for various New York lofts and stores, he pioneered a type of informal, high-design interior style that used pop culture imagery, off-the-shelf objects, and industrial fixtures. For Norton Blumenthal, a New York-based wallpaper company known for selling reproductions of Victorian embossed papers, Buchsbaum contributed several designs. Some, like Chopped Herringbone, reflect his use of Supergraphics, while Trellis Dot shows him, Moore, and another designer Mark Simon making their own Pop ribbing of a cultural icon. It is not often one can describe a wallpaper pattern as clever and humorous, but Trellis Dot is certainly such a pattern and among the Cooper Hewitt’s best examples of late 20th-century wallpaper design.

Giovanni, Joseph. “Alan Buchsbaum, High-Tech Architect, Dies.” The New York Times, April 11, 1987.
“New Styles of Anaglypta and Lincrusta.” Old-House Journal, March 1986. 

--Nicholas Lopes

Nicholas Lopes is a student in the History of Design & Curatorial Studies graduate program at the Cooper Hewitt, and is a Master’s Fellow in the Wallcoverings Department.

23 March 2017

Mark Samuels Lasner: A Genius of Collecting and Connecting

“Mark Samuels Lasner is a genius of collecting, and he is a genius of connecting.” Elaine Showalter’s tribute to Samuels Lasner was part of her keynote address at the symposium “Celebrating the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection,” held at the University of Delaware March 17-18, 2017. The symposium, which marked Samuels Lasner’s donation of his extraordinary collection of Victorian books, manuscripts, and art to the University, accompanied an exhibition of highlights from the collection, which continues in the University Library through June 3. 
UD President Dennis Assanis; Mark Samuels Lasner; Trevor A. Dawes, UD Vice-Provost for Libraries & Museums; Margaret D. Stetz, Mae & Robert Carter Professor of Women's Studies & Professor of Humanities
Elaine Showalter, Professor Emerita of English at Princeton University, began her address with A. S. Byatt’s 1990 novel Possession, which includes a satiric portrait of Mortimer Cropper, a ruthless American collector of Victorian manuscripts. Samuels Lasner, Showalter hastened to point out, is no Cropper, and she praised the aptness of the exhibition’s title—not “Victorian Possessions” but “Victorian Passions.” Samuels Lasner, she said, is a passionate collector more interested in an item’s human interest than in its physical condition or monetary value. His genius for connecting is demonstrated not only in the way his collection places items within a dense narrative web of “creation, meaning, and history”—to use Samuels Lasner’s own phrase—but in his many connections to a range of people interested in the Victorian era, not only collectors and dealers but also librarians and scholars. “Of all the great collectors of Victorian literature,” Showalter proclaimed, “Mark Samuels Lasner is the best connected and the most fun.” 

Exhibition curator Margaret Stetz assembled a variety of items from Samuels Lasner’s collection of more than 9,500 works of literature and art. Four that Samuels Lasner has identified as among his favorites are of special interest to Morris scholars. The most visually sumptuous is Morris’s illuminated manuscript catalogue of his book collection. Morris never completed the project—the eighteen extant pages list only some of the incunabula he owned—but the skill and time he lavished on the catalogue reveal that his passion for book collecting rivaled Samuels Lasner’s.
Another Samuels Lasner favorite is the 1881-1898 visitors' book for North End House, Edward Burne-Jones’s seaside retreat on the Sussex coast. Burne-Jones, whom Stetz labels a “compulsive cartoonist,” decorated the visitors' book with witty caricatures of his guests and family, including a stout, heroic-looking William Morris and a small, woeful Edward Burne-Jones. When the visitors' book arrived in the mail from a dealer, out fell a drawing that Samuels Lasner had no idea was included but that is familiar to everyone interested in the Pre-Raphaelites: Burne-Jones’s drawing of himself in the Red Lion Square studio that he and Morris shared, engaged in decorating a massive medieval-style chair—a chair that is now just up the road from the Samuels Lasner Collection at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington.

The fourth item is one of the newest in the Samuels Lasner collection, a book that only two years ago Samuels Lasner believed it would be “impossible” for him to obtain: a pristine copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer. This great work of art exemplifies the connections that Samuels Lasner values, representing a collaboration among Morris, Burne-Jones, the designers and artisans of the Kelmscott Press, and Morris’s beloved predecessor Geoffrey Chaucer.

Ten speakers were featured during the symposium, all of whom testified to the Samuels Lasner Collection’s value to the study of material culture. Recalling her own academic training during the 1960s and 1970s, Margaret Stetz pointed out that both New Critics and post-structuralist theorists focused on texts, not books themselves; however, the past three decades have seen renewed attention to books and other material artifacts. Barbara Heritage of the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School offered a theoretically sophisticated defense of the importance of special collections at a moment when influential figures within the field of library science are arguing that, in the fully digitized era to come, books will no longer matter. R. David Lankes made that case in a controversial 2014 talk, “Burn the Libraries and Free the Librarians”; Heritage implied that librarians might want to keep their matches in their pockets. 

Several speakers talked about how specific items in the Samuels Lasner Collection make important contributions to our understanding of the Victorian period. Joseph Bristow of UCLA discussed how two illustrated collections of fairy tales by Oscar Wilde broaden our understanding of Wilde’s career. William S. Peterson, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Maryland, described his work in progress on the Kelmscott Chaucer, noting that the presentation copy in Samuels Lasner’s collection, inscribed to Robert Catterson-Smith, a Kelmscott Press designer, reveals the complex collaboration that produced an artifact Burne-Jones described as a “pocket cathedral.” David Taylor, an independent scholar from the U.K., focused on the correspondence of Vernon Lushington, a little-known but fascinating figure in Pre-Raphaelite circles. It was he who introduced Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti to one another, and his daughter Kitty served as model for Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway. 

Margaretta Frederick, Chief Curator of the Delaware Art Museum, described how her study of May Morris landscape sketches in the Samuels Lasner Collection opened up wider vistas on a figure increasingly recognized as a significant artist. She also discussed her research on the artist Barbara Bodichon, who will be the subject of a future exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum. Linda Hughes of Texas Christian University talked about her ongoing research on frontispiece portraits of Victorian women poets, drawing out the problematic relationship during the nineteenth century between the woman poet’s body and her body of work. Frequently, Victorian publishers avoided any visual representation of the woman poet by omitting a frontispiece. However, as the century went on and women increasingly and publicly put their bodies on the line in suffrage demonstrations, poets and their publishers more often included a frontispiece, dealing in a variety of ways with what Hughes called “the troublesome flesh of the female poet.” 

Other speakers included Ed Maggs of Maggs Brothers, a prestigious London book dealer founded in 1853. In the course of a witty and affectionate tribute to his long friendship with Samuels Lasner, Maggs detailed the tribulations of the antiquarian book trade, but he also expressed optimism for the future. The millennial generation, he said, is on a quest for authenticity, demonstrated in their fondness for vinyl recordings and fixie bicycles. Their quest, he said, extends to books, and he predicted that there would be Samuels Lasner-like collectors yet to come.

The quest for authenticity and passion for material artifacts were vividly demonstrated in the talk by Mark Dimunation, head of the Rare Books and Special Collections division at the Library of Congress. In a series of entertaining anecdotes, Dimunation talked about some of the most significant and spectacular items in the Library of Congress collection, demonstrating the rich narratives and immediate pleasures that are at the heart of collecting, collections, and the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection. 

Michael Robertson, The College of New Jersey

20 February 2017

Dunlap Award Winner Sarah Leonard

The William Morris Society in the U.S. is pleased to award the 2017 Dunlap Fellowship to Sarah Leonard, a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the University of Delaware. Her dissertation, “‘The beauty of the bough-hung banks’: William Morris in the Thames Landscape,” promises to be an important contribution not only to Morris studies but to understanding of the natural environment in the Victorian era. Here is Sarah's summary of her project:

My dissertation investigates the disparate riverside landscapes of the Victorian Thames as dominant presences in Morris’s varied and intertwined roles as designer, author, political thinker, and factory owner. As a lifelong London resident, Morris was most familiar with the polluted, industrialized city Thames. However, he drew visual inspiration from the rural landscape of the Upper Thames around Kelmscott for his famous pattern designs, and he put forward the same landscape as a medievalist and Socialist pastoral ideal in his poetry, novels, and political writings. At the same moment, he was searching out clean river water for the industrial production of his fabrics and using that water to wash dyestuffs away from his printed fabrics and downstream into the London river.

James McNeill Whistler, Thames Warehouses (1859; Freer Gallery)

In order to understand Morris’s thoughts on the Thames landscape, the inspiration he drew from it, and the ways he interacted with it, it is essential to consider the Thames and its tributaries as he might have known them – physically, in how they looked and functioned, and culturally, in how they were addressed by the writers, artists, and thinkers with whom Morris would have been familiar. Therefore, my combined landscape studies and art historical approach looks to art, literature, archival records, and the physical sites of Morris’s life to form a broad and detailed account of Morris’s Thames landscapes, their uses and depictions, and their cultural context. This account reveals the ways in which Morris’s physical and cultural landscapes manifested in the design and production of his works, focusing particularly on the series of printed patterned fabrics he named for tributaries of the Thames and its estuary: Cray, Evenlode, Kennet, Lea, Lodden, Medway, Wandle, Wey, and Windrush
William Morris, Wey (1883; V& A Museum)

I will use the funds provided by the Dunlap Fellowship to support a research trip to the United Kingdom, currently planned for summer 2017. During this trip, I will visit a number of council archives and local museums to view documentation and images of Morris’s riverside landscapes. This material, along with research I plan to undertake in the maps collection of the British Library, will help to reveal the historic features of Morris’s landscapes, as well as the changes they underwent both in his lifetime and in the ensuing 120 years. I will also view Thames imagery and ephemera at both the Museum of London and the River and Rowing Museum, Henley, and study Morris’s original tributary pattern designs at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Birmingham Art Gallery. All of this work is essential to my landscape- and ecology-focused interpretation of Morris’s works and legacy, and will contribute particularly to my dissertation chapters concerning Morris’s London and the Merton Abbey factory.

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.