16 July 2018

Morris in the Thames Landscape

This spring, with the help of the Morris Society’s Dunlap Award, I conducted research in the UK. The work I undertook there will support my PhD dissertation, “’The beauty of the bough-hung banks’: William Morris in the Thames Landscape, ” which combines art historical and landscape studies methodologies to explore Morris’s personal and creative  relationship with the river and its tributaries. It also contributed to a new, related research project on Morris and the Indian indigo industry, the results of which I will present at the North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA) annual conference this October.

William Morris, Wey, 1883. Victoria & Albert Museum. A pattern named after a Thames tributary.
 My research led me to many collections – from Morris manuscripts at the British Library and the National Art Library, to business ledgers and maps in the London Metropolitan Archives, to indigo samples in the economic botany collection at Kew Gardens – but it also gave me access to Morris’s sites themselves. Those site visits are an important part of my work, and I thought that for this blog post I would explore some of my experiences of and reflections on those site visits, in an attempt to show the type of work I have been doing with the Morris Society’s support.

As a landscape historian, I seek to understand the spaces of Morris’s life, their interrelations, and how they affected his designs and writing. I concern myself with the physical forms of sites and with the natural systems and human lives they contain and shape. In order to do this, I study historic records and visual evidence, building an interpretation of what sites were like in the past and how individuals and groups interacted with them and interpreted them as part of their culture. When possible, I also pursue “boots on the ground” research, a traditional method in British landscape studies that favors visiting a site and comparing modern and historic records to the physical landscape in order to better understand its forms, aesthetics, and usages, and its change over time. (One of the primary proponents of this method was W.G. Hoskins, whose 1955 classic The Making of the English Landscape has recently been re-issued by Little Toller Books. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the British countryside or the discipline of landscape studies.)

Visiting sites and occupying physical landscapes, as I was able to do this spring, can lead to revelations both large and small, adding insight and color to the research I do in historic and art and design collections.

Sometimes these revelations happen by chance – as when I set off to drive from Lechlade to Kelmscott Manor one morning this June and was met just before the turn-off to Kelmscott by a steam tractor, merrily chugging its way up the road through the fields: beautifully polished, captained by amateur enthusiasts, and looking like a visitation from another time – Morris’s time, to be precise.

Steam tractor parked near Kelmscott Manor
Kelmscott, despite its current chocolate-box appearance and its pastoral idealization in Morris’s writings, was a very early and important site in the industrialization of agricultural processes. Steam tractors would have been quite at home in the fields of Morris’s innovative neighbors, the Hobbses, and the unexpected appearance of not one, but two of them in Kelmscott that day – on their way to a steam rally in Lechlade – opened a multi-sensory window into the diverse and changing agricultural practices of Morris’s time. Their presence in the present showed not just their historic existence, but also a hint of how they might have been experienced: tall above the flat fields and the hedges, with billowing steam adding to their visibility; shining, noisy, and smelly; and fast (for their time), though they hold up traffic in the present.

These personal experiences help to contextualize the research that landscape scholars like me undertake in other, more methodical ways. Thorough study of the physical and agricultural history of the Kelmscott landscape, for example, will form much of the backbone for my chapter on the site. My primary sources are the evidence of maps, field systems, and the built environment, as well as – of course – Morris’s own writings and designs, May Morris’s reflections on the place and her father’s life, and the imagery produced by Morris’s circle, such as Marie Spartali Stillman’s watercolors and Frederick H. Evans’s photographs.

The phenomenology of Victorian technology at the site is not conventional research, but it helps to add context and color, as does the experience of seeing pollarded willows along the Thames, or inspecting how flowers beloved by Morris still grow wild in the summer hedges and ditches. Such things may seem incidental, but when one is writing thousands of words about how Morris reacted to and drew inspiration from the landscape, they are important. The Dunlap award gave me access to these moments of insight, and I thank the Morris Society for the opportunity.

Enjoying the riverside willows at Kelmscott

Sarah Leonard, a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the University of Delaware, is winner of the Morris Society's 2017 Dunlap Fellowship. 

23 June 2018

Unexpected Encounters with William Morris

Over the past few months, I’ve had several unexpected encounters with William Morris.  Flipping through a magazine or perusing a website, I’ll notice something familiar in the background, usually unnoted in the article, that looks like a Morris design.  It is a bit like seeing an old friend in an unfamiliar place—you’re not sure it is them, but then, on closer inspection, you wonder how you could have ever doubted it.  The diversity of these contexts—in a travel article, in a review of contemporary art, and in a fashion magazine—suggest the ongoing power and importance of Morris’s work.   Yet it also reminds that the meaning of a pattern is malleable and that in our current moment, it can take on specific—and sometimes contradictory—meanings. 
The New York Times Style Magazine recently had an article on the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. As author Neel Mukherjee chronicles the difficulties in reaching the remote archipelago of St. Kilda on a pilgrimage to landscapes that inspired the great British filmmaker Michael Powell, the photographs by Mitch Epstein powerfully evoke the windswept landscape: a stone wall, a lone telephone booth, the rugged coastline.  But then, there it is: William Morris’s Fruit wallpaper (also known as Pomegranate), first issued in 1866, on the walls of the Western Isles Hotel in Tobermory, the central town in the Isle of Mull.  

This encounter with Fruit reminded me of the enduring popularity of the design and well as its importance in Morris’s development as a pattern designer, as it was only the second or third pattern he designed.  The interweaving of pomegranate and limes in the design creates a seamless repeat, and the use of distemper colors heightens the flatness of the design, signaling the rejection of illusionism in pattern design that would come to characterize mid-Victorian design reform. The pattern was popular during Morris’s own lifetime and can still be purchased today.  The hotel’s website describes the establishment as the “Grand Old Lady” of the village, and it is unclear if the Morris paper is meant to signify the truth or the quaintness of this claim—or both. 

Fruit serves as both the background and the covering in the installation Imaginary Indian by the contemporary Tlingit/Aleut artist Nicholas Galanin. The artist uses mass-produced Northwest Coast masks and totems that he then covers in popular European prints from the eighteenth and nineteenth century.   In one series, he used French toile, covering masks and hanging them on a toile-covered gallery wall, as the installation layers adaptation and appropriation: traditional forms manufactured for a tourist trade covered in a French pattern popular during the Enlightenment age of exploration but now one that carries a whiff of kitsch.  For a version of this work at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria in British Columbia, Galanin covered a carved, winged totem poll with Morris’s Fruit.  

The wallpaper selection resonated locally, as rooms in the nearby Spencer Mansion, built in 1889 for Alexander Green, a banker in Victoria who made his wealth in the Australian gold field, and now part of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, also feature the wallpaper pattern. As one reviewer suggested, the artist “brings to the fore the idea of indigenous cultural elements being transformed into commoditized objects created for the tourist dollar.” 

From this perspective, the ways in which Morris’s designs also wrestled with the idea of the commoditized object is lost, overcome by the ways in which the Spencer Mansion and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria also participate in a tourist economy that manufactures totems and masks.  If Fruit suggests the Victorian quaintness of the Isle of Mull in the New York Times, then the same pattern participates in the commodified manufacture of indigenous identity in Galanin’s installation.

Manufacture and commodification also feature in a third iteration of unexpected encounters with William Morris: the Fall/Winter 2018 capsule collection for the Spanish luxury fashion brand Loewe, by its designer Jonathan Anderson, who hails from Northern Ireland.  Anderson recounts that his interest in the work of William Morris began with self-identification.  As he explained, “I have to design everything.” 

He felt a kinship with Morris’s understanding of design as “all or nothing,” “almost like a religion.”  He adapted four iconic Morris patterns to designs for handbags, scarves, sweaters, and even a biker jacket with fox and foliage drawn from Morris’s Forest. As the designer explained, he wanted to restore a sense of Morris’s radicalism by uniting his designs with a punk aesthetic.  He reimagines Strawberry Thief and Honeysuckle for cardigans and carry-alls, and he even managed to turn Morris’s Acanthus pattern into a kind of camouflage, with matching parka and trousers.

The photographs for the look book were taken in the Morris & Co. interiors at Standen House and Garden, furthering the idea of a Morrisian gesamtkunstwerk.  For me, this unexpected encounter—like running into William Morris at Barney’s in New York—is the most fun and the most disappointing encounter.  Fun because it is exciting to see Morris’s designs reimagined in this way, design reform dictums about the suitability of patterns for specific purposes notwithstanding.  Morris is part of a longer history that unites considerations of dress and the body with conceptions of the body politic, reminding us that the “artistic” dress of Jane Morris was as radical in its day as the anarchic chic of punk.  At the same time, most of these items are listed as “price upon request,” the fashion-friendly way of saying: “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”  A velvet pouch featuring a shy hare from Forest will set you back $1,250.

This price-point only serves to re-inscribe a tired critique of Morris’s designs: the socialist designer still managed to make very expensive things.  The Loewe collection, like much fashion, flirts with the absurd.  While Galanin’s Imaginary Indians uses Fruit to raise questions of identity and commodity, the Loewe collection seems to confuse commodity and identity.  But it leads me to ask: Where will Morris show up next? 

--Morna O'Neill, Wake Forest University

29 May 2018

Still Relevant: Morris's "Socialist Diary"

I was pleased when a few years back Ross Bradshaw, the proprietor of Five Leaves Press, asked to reissue my edition of Morris’s Socialist Diary. The pages of this now quite rare 1981 Journeyman Press edition had yellowed, and I further wanted to improve its biographical notes based on the scholarship of the past three decades. In particular, I wished to emphasize the role women had played in the socialist movement, and also offer any possible new information on the lesser-known socialist and anarchist pioneers of the movement, often impressive persons in their own right.

In preparing the first edition, it had taken me about a year to document three months of Morris’s 1887 socialist activities – a testimony to Morris’s astounding energy and breadth of interests. The need for such density also reflects the dramatic nature of the Diary’s contents, as Morris struggled to calm the differing factions of the Socialist League and deliver multiple lectures in London, northern England and Scotland. As the editor of Morris’s journalism, Nicholas Salmon, noted in 1996:

Between 1883 and 1890 he was probably the most active propagandist in the whole country. In a seven year period he addressed over 1,000 meetings and was heard in person by as many as 250,000 people. His articles and editorials reached thousands more. As [E. P.] Thompson has written, “every group of Socialists included some who had been converted by his words.” . . . His lecture campaign of 1883 to 1890 remains one of the most impressive ever undertaken by a British politician. (Political Writings, xlvi-vii)

Returning to the Diary enabled me to think through once again how Morris’s political concerns during this period—Irish Home Rule, the Paris Commune, police violence, the threat of upheaval and war—affected his views of revolution and a possible socialist future, as well as how the opinions and personalities of his fellow activists may have influenced his views.

H. H. Champion
Since my academic field is literature, I was grateful when a British labor historian, Stephen Williams, volunteered to help gather information on some of the Diary’s more obscure figures for the biographical notes. Stephen was adept at using databases to trace down the earlier occupations, residences, and at times inflammatory statements of our subjects—anarchists such as James Tochatti and Henry Charles, socialists such as Henry Barker and Alexander Donald, and the interesting cadre of émigrés which included Gustave Brocher, Victor Dave, and Andreas Scheu. Stephen’s knowledge of labor history also enabled him to locate photographs of members of the Social Democratic Federation and other labor and socialist activists such as H. H. Champion and Jack Williams, helping to provide a more rounded portrait of the socialist milieu of the time.

From his youth Morris had been attracted to other languages and cultures, and the Socialist League practiced an active internationalism through welcoming many foreign members. Stephen’s researches also uncovered several American connections, as unemployed or underemployed socialists emigrated to the United States. Henry Charles, for example, became an anarchist publisher and promoter of alternative health remedies in New York, and James Allman, sentenced to imprisonment during the period of the Diary, was most likely the James Allman who sixteen years later published in Chicago a volume consisting chiefly of a socialist oration purported to have been delivered in London’s East End. More important, such researches reveal that a high proportion of Morris’s early fellow socialists were lifelong committed activists, who had participated in labor and socialist movements before joining the Socialist League and would continue their activism after its demise.
Andreas Scheu

To mark the official March 2018 appearance of the Diary, I was invited to give three presentations in Britain, with book signings at each. These invitations surprised me, since few of my previous books and editions had elicited more than academic interest. I attributed the change entirely to Jeremy Corbyn and the renewed interest in socialist origins inspired by the recent resurgence of the British left. As a consequence, all three audiences were composed of persons who had thought long about the obstacles attendant on efforts to transform a capitalist society, and they listened with recognition and nodded frequently as I spoke.
Five Leaves Bookshop
The first talk was scheduled in Nottingham March 18th as part of the Five Leaves Bookshop lecture series. Unfortunately what in Iowa would have been a minor snowfall had closed down much of the Nottingham bus system, and when I arrived Ross Bradshaw said he feared that few of the 35
persons who had signed up to attend would be able to make it. As it turned out most of them did, so that the room was quite crowded with a friendly audience. Two who attended had brought copies of their own publications for me, and I was especially charmed by Ross Longhurst’s gift of a “William Morris Green Communist” button
Five Leaves Bookshop Audience
 This was a sophisticated but occasionally skeptical audience; one woman wanted to know why Morris should receive more attention than Blatchford, for example, and I was stumped when historian David Stewart asked if Morris had visited Nottingham. (It seems he had delivered five lectures on three visits, in 1881, 1887 and 1888.) From my perspective an exciting result of my talk was that Ross Bradshaw later decided to reprint Morris’s Nottingham lectures with an introduction describing what is known of these visits, and three or four other attendees offered e-mail recollections of the venues where Morris had spoken.

On the Wednesday following, March 21st, I took the Metropolitan Line to Kelmscott House, long my favorite place in London, and where my husband, our five-year old son, and I had lived during the summer of 1980 before the closure of its upper floors to the Morris Society. (Something of that experience must have imprinted itself on me, for I have since visited the house some dozens of times, and as this blog indicates, I remain an admirer of Morris’s works.)

The Coach House in Its Early Days as a Socialist Meeting Place

Coach House Audience
 Martin Stott, the president of the UK William Morris Society, had arranged to interview me, and this format worked well, the more so since some of his questions were a bit unexpected—how did this Diary relate to Morris’s Icelandic Diaries, for example? What does the Diary tell us that we couldn’t have learned from his letters or other writings? I offered the conclusions I had arrived at while expanding the biographical notes: the considerable extent to which Morris was influenced by the many anarcho-communists in the Socialist League, especially in the Hammersmith Branch; the ways in which many early socialists had been affected by the model of the Paris Commune; and the degree to which most of them remained hopeful of radical change within their lifetimes or at least a few generations.

Needless to say this Morris Society audience was well familiar with Morris’ ideas, and their questions centered on such topics as his Commonweal articles and relationship with Marxism. I spent the reception signing copies of the Diary, whose sales were doubtless helped by the generous discount offered by Ross Bradshaw to Morris Society members, and afterwards several of us convened to the Dove Tavern to exchange personal news and thoughts about the political situations of our respective countries.

My final event was scheduled for the next evening. Though I had visited many times, I had never before delivered a talk at the William Morris Gallery, and I felt honored to have been invited to present the annual Morris birthday lecture, sponsored by the Friends of the William Morris Gallery. The Gallery, not surprisingly, is known for its artistic exhibits, but this topic drew a crowd with serious political interests for whom Morris was an important inspiration.
William Morris Gallery
The question I remember most was that posed by David Mabb, “Would Morris have approved of Momentum?” For this one I took a leap—all I knew of this left-wing faction of the Labour Party came from reading the sketchy online Guardian—and when I said “Yes!” the audience laughed sympathetically. Who knows what Morris really would have thought? As I sought out more information later, I do believe he would have given his blessing to this effort, but he might still have said, as he did so often in his time, [to paraphrase] “Electoral reform can lead towards social revolution, but in itself it is not enough!”

I believe that the Socialists will certainly send members to Parliament when they are strong enough to do so: in itself I see no harm in that, so long as [they are not] prepared by passing palliative measures to keep ‘Society’ alive. But I fear that many of them will be drawn into that error by the corrupting influence of a body professedly hostile to Socialism: and therefore … I think it will be necessary always to keep alive a body of Socialists of principle who will refuse responsibility for the actions of the parliamentary portion of the party. (Letter, 23 May 1887)

This was another entirely sympathetic audience, and I signed books until the Gallery closed and friends drove me to the Walthamstow tube station. As fate had mandated, I needed to be back in British Columbia by the next evening, and so by 3 a.m. I began the journey to the airport for my 22-hour journey home. This was not entirely the end, however, for on May Day 2018 the British Morning Star published a long discussion of Morris’s contributions to socialism as a review of the Socialist Diary.

In all, I couldn’t have been more gratified that Morris’s ideas are still seen as relevant for their own sake, apart from any antiquarian or celebrity interest. None of my audiences wanted to take him to task for his distaste for parliamentarianism or his skepticism about the ultimate power of trade unions—once heated debates on strategy now relegated to the past.  Instead they viewed Morris within the context of their ongoing aspirations, as the prescient champion of a broad and enlightened vision of socialism. 

Finally, I would like to remark that one small notebook of Morris’s political observations has given rise to a 182 page volume—and yet the Diary constitutes only a tiny fraction of Morris’s political writings during his thirteen years of socialist activity from 1883-96. Apart from partial efforts by Nicholas Salmon, Norman Kelvin, and others, Morris’s socialist journalism has never been fully edited as a whole; his essays and pithy, sarcastic short notes in Commonweal, for example, would benefit from annotation, and a few of his later socialist essays remain unpublished. I can also imagine a useful handbook of branches of the Socialist League and their members, or more broadly, an illustrated biographical guide to anarcho-communists and socialists of the 1880s—efforts which would help balance the tendency to see these movements as populated chiefly by certain otherwise well-known figures such as Bernard Shaw, Emery Walter, or Walter Crane. In recent decades scholars have given less attention to British socialism, and I hope that the recent change in political milieu will prompt younger interpreters to mine Morris’s political writings and their immediate context to uncover their continued relevance.

--Florence Boos, University of Iowa

13 April 2018

Morris and the Gardens of Spring

I find myself often looking for ways to bridge the gap between literature and daily life, between the vivid world of Victorian fiction and the often prosaic realities of lived experience.  One of the reasons that I am drawn to Morris’s work is because his writings are so deeply invested in the materiality of day-to-day living.  Accordingly, when, last summer, I became the owner of a new-to-me but old home in the Philadelphia suburbs, I found myself turning to Morris for inspiration and advice, particularly with regards to the garden.  The home came to us with three dead shrubs, an expanse of weed-filled dirt, and little else by way of landscaping.  I have never had occasion to design, plant, or tend a garden before (city living = potted plants), and of all the many projects that need to be done, the one I have found perhaps most daunting is the project of creating a garden from scratch. 

Discussions of Morris’s environmentalism have, quite rightly, most often focused on connections between his views on socialism and his views on the relationship between humans and their environs.  Yet, I found myself increasingly invested in the smaller, personal side of his approach to nature. What might Morris teach me about creating my own small garden? 

Kelmscott Manor
Morris believed that gardens should reflect the fact that they are cultivated and created by human hands.  In his 1879 lecture “Making the Best of It,” he writes that a garden “should look both orderly and rich…It should by no means imitate either the willfulness or wildness of Nature, but should look like a thing never to be seen except near a house.  It should in fact look like part of a house.”  Initially, the idea of an “orderly” garden felt a bit controlling – why shouldn’t my garden reflect the natural world? Yet, the more I dig and rake, the more that order seems to reflect not control, but care and engagement.  Insofar as the natural world is our truest home, Morris suggests that we treat it with the same thoughtfulness that we extend to our built environment.  In The Quest, he writes that a garden should function as “clothing” for a home, a part of the structure which it surrounds: “The garden, divided by old clipped yew hedges, is quite unaffected and very pleasant, and looks in fact as if it were a part of the house, yet at least the clothes of it: which I think ought to be the aim of the layer-out of a garden.”   

The idea of the garden as an extension of a home has helped me to think about garden spaces not just as decoration, or even just as extra living space, though of course they function as both, but rather as a sign of the importance of cultivating and maintaining the exterior world.  In Morris’s vision, the garden becomes a symbol of a healthy relationship between the individual and the environment, a symbol of the environment not simply as something “over there” (to use a phrase from Timothy Morton), set apart from the human world, but as something that is home and that actively needs tending.  In News from Nowhere, Morris envisions the environment as a garden “where nothing is wasted and nothing is spoilt.”  As Clara points out, in the industrial nineteenth century, the mistake humans made was “always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate — ‘nature,’ as people used to call it — as one thing, and mankind as another.”  In thinking of humans and nature as separate, she argues, “it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them.”  We may still often perceive nature as something “outside” ourselves, but as we become increasingly aware of climate change and more comfortable with notions like the “Anthropocene,” we no longer see ourselves as being “outside” of nature.  For Morris, the garden is a reminder of that reciprocal relationship.  His vision of the environment as a garden enables us to think of our habitat as something which requires human labor and care – we are never simply passive inhabitants of our environs.   

Kelmscott Manor

With Morris in mind, I have begun the process of “dressing” our house in our new garden.  The dead shrubbery has been cleared and fresh soil put down.  It still doesn’t look like much, but as I weed and water, I am encouraged by the prospect that if I invest myself in the project of tending this spot of land, one day my garden might come to look like an “orderly and rich” part of our home.      

Jill Duchess of Hamilton, Penny Hart, and John Simmons. The Gardens of William Morris. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1998.
Timothy Morton. Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

--Kate Neilsen, Boston University

07 March 2018

Wallpaper and Death

An impoverished Oscar Wilde, his health ruined by his time in Reading Gaol, wandered Europe during the last years of his life.  From a dingy room in Paris, he complained to friends about his circumstances with wit and pathos, keeping one eye on aesthetics.  Ailing in a first-floor room in what is now the L’Hotel on the Left Bank, he complained about the wall covering: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death.  One or other of us has got to go.”  One wonders what Wilde made of the wallpaper backdrop at Napoleon Sarony’s photography studio in New York, when he posed in January 1882 while on his lecture tour of the United States.  He advised against the indiscriminate use of wallpaper within the home, but generally recommended it as a safe and sanitary decoration: “You will want a joyous paper on the wall, full of flowers and pleasing designs.”  Yet with Wilde’s death on November 30, 1900, it seemed like the wallpaper won.  The hotel now has a suite named after Wilde, complete with a partial re-creation of Whistler’s Peacock Room wall decorations, upon which Wilde lavished praise: “the finest thing in color and art decoration that the world has known since Correggio.”

While Wilde’s complaint was artistic in nature–one imagines a horrible floral wallpaper like the kind Henry Cole included in his “Chamber of Horrors” cracking and peeling before his very eyes–his desire to connect wallpaper and mortality was not without merit.

Lucinda Hawksley’s recent book Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper and Arsenic in the Victorian Home (Thames and Hudson, 2016) details the fatal role played by arsenic in producing the bright colors of Victorian wallpaper.  Unlike some of the wallpapers it chronicles, the book itself is a beautifully designed object with an innovative structure: it features color facsimiles of 275 wallpapers from the National Archives.  These samples tested positive for arsenic in recent studies.  (The process is documented in a fascinating blog post by heritage scientist Dr. Helen Wilson.) How did this fatal substance wind up in wallpaper? In 1771, the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele discovered that he could produce a green pigment from copper arsenite.  Later experiments by the German industrialist Wilhelm Sattler combined arsenic and verdigris (also obtained from copper) to create a deep and opaque shade of green known as “emerald green,” “Paris green,” or “Schweinfurt green” (Sattler’s dye company was based in Schweinfurt, Germany). This new green could be used alone or to enhance yellows and blues, and it soon appeared in paintings, clothing, candy, and wallpaper.

Frederick Augustus Sandys, Mary Magdalene, Delaware Art Museum

British Wallpapers, 1846-1860. Crown Copyright

As Hawksley discusses, the vibrancy and color fast-ness of this new green made it a boom for the burgeoning wallpaper manufacturing industry.  As she details, “by the 1850s, it was possible to print complex patterns using up to eight different colours at the same time.  In Britain, production rose by more than 2,615 percent, from 1,222,753 rolls in 1834 to 32,000,000 rolls by 1874.”  She notes that the new green fit perfectly with the taste in the 1840s for vibrant patterned wallpaper like the kind seen in the background of Frederick Sandys’s Mary Magdalene (c. 1859).  Although reports suggested that the wallpaper could be a health hazard as early as 1839, and reports of wallpaper poisoning appeared throughout the 1850s, arsenic was not banned until 1883, with the Factory Workshop Act, later revised in 1895.  At least one wallpaper designer thought that danger was exaggerated, when doctors advised their patients to tear down their wallpaper: “As to the arsenic scare a greater folly it is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever.”  His name was William Morris.

Morris’s appearance in Hawksley’s book is not surprising given the prominent role he played in design and wallpaper manufacture from the 1860s onward.  Yet Morris is not the hero of this tale, campaigning against the considerable suffering of those exposed to arsenic. Instead, he benefited financially from his father’s investment in the Devon Great Consols, a mining venture and producer of arsenic in Devon.  Morris would serve as one of the Directors from 1871-5 before selling his shares in 1877 as he began to explore a socialist analysis of society and economics.  Retrospectively, many consider his response is surprising given his socialist politics, his concern for working conditions, as well as his interest in reviving natural dyes.  Bitten by Witch Fever has generated sensational headlines for the revelation that “poison was everywhere in the Victorian home.”  But knowledge of Morris’s use of and attitude toward arsenic has been a topic for discussion since at least 2003 when a study by Professor Andy Meharg analyzed a sample of Morris’s “Trellis” wallpaper for arsenic.  As Meharg concludes, “[Morris] seems to have had a blasé attitude to health concerns. However, we cannot be too harsh on him. ­ He was a product of his time.”

Whatever one may think about Morris’s attitude towards the medical condemnation of arsenic, Hawksley claims that his indifference to the welfare of the miners, including children, is a “great unanswered question.” Yet some scholars have argued that the question can be answered. Patrick O'Sullivan and Florence Boos have examined Morris's involvement with the Devon Great Consols to argue that his experience there led him to socialism. Elizabeth Miller has provided another perspective on this issue in her article “William Morris, Extraction Capitalism, and the Aesthetics of Surface.”  For her, it was Morris’s encounter with the extraction capitalism of mining that led him to think about surface (sunshine, air) rather than depth, and this emphasis on “exteriority” also plays a role in his attitude toward the design of wallpaper patterns.

Frances Glessner Lee striped bedroom. Collection of Harvard Medical School
Although firms were later able to market “arsenic free” wallpaper, the association of brightly printed wallpaper and domestic danger lingered.  As Hawksley suggests, maybe arsenic is to blame for the maddening effecting of a vivid yellow wallpaper on the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella The Yellow Wallpaper (1895).  More recently, the conjunction of wallpaper and death had us at Home Subjects looking again at the exhibition Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery. Lee produced “dollhouse-sized dioramas of true crime” to train police investigators to observe a crime scene to uncover and understand evidence.  Lee, who was both an artist and an investigator, pays careful attention to the domestic interior in the imagined crime scenes.  The Smithsonian has organized the exhibition to appeal to the detective within: “As the Nutshells are still active training tools, the solutions to each remain secret. However, the crime scene ‘reports’ (written by Lee to accompany each case) given to forensic trainees are presented alongside each diorama to encourage visitors to approach the Nutshells the way an investigator would.”  Yet more than one visitor was overheard remarking upon the interior decoration of these dioramas, and Home Subjects couldn’t help but notice a very sinister looking wallpaper in the “Striped Bedroom” with a pattern of pink roses and green foliage.

Maybe the wallpaper did it?

--Morna O’Neill, Wake Forest University

This blog post is reproduced from HomeSubjects.