21 November 2013

The Killer Wallpaper that Never Was

Morris's Pimpernel wallpaper design, registered 1876.
During the 1860s, a press campaign began in Britain to raise awareness concerning what were then believed to be the ‘dangers’ of arsenic in wallpaper. By 1883, the well-known design firm Morris & Co. bowed to public opinion, and all their wallpapers became free from arsenic, despite the fact that Morris thought (rightly so, as it turns out) that the scare was groundless.

Today, two popular accusations are still levelled at William Morris, both loosely related to the arsenic scare: that given his Socialism his directorship of the Devon Great Consols mine (a major source of arsenic) was hypocritical, and that his use of arsenical pigments in wallpapers was an act of mass poisoning owing to the supposed formation of toxic gases (TMAs) by these materials.

Patrick O’Sullivan, editor of the Journal of William Morris Studies, has addressed these criticisms in a forthcoming paper in the Reports and Transactions of the Devon Association for the Advancement of the Arts and Sciences: ‘Devon Great Consols and William Morris’. The first is easy to repudiate: Morris relinquished all interest in Devon Great Consols (and ceremoniously sat on his director’s top hat) seven years before becoming a socialist. He did however, before that time, “clearly share in the collective culpability of all mine owners, directors and shareholders of the period for the truly appalling working conditions (at the mine) ... ”.

As the new paper highlights, the second accusation is also fundamentally flawed.  An earlier paper on the subject of arsenical wallpapers, ‘The toxicity of trimethylarsine: an urban myth', by William R. Cullen and Ronald Bentley, (Journal of Environmental Monitoring, 7 (1): DOI: 10.1039/B413752N) states that although TMAs may form in very small quantities under specific conditions—but which are not present in arsenical wallpapers—the gas has “very low toxicity.” They conclude: “It appears to us most likely that TMAs is not and never was a silent poison or killer .… It seems a pity that we should now have to abandon this fascinating urban legend (our italics).”

Throughout his life, Morris remained unconvinced about the alleged dangers of arsenic in wallpapers. In 1885, the year his own wallpapers finally became arsenic free, he wrote to his friend and fellow businessman Thomas Wardle, who had taught Morris about commercial textile bleaching and dyeing. 
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. … My belief about it all is that doctors find their patients ailing don't know what's the matter with them, and in despair put it down to the wall papers when they probably ought to put it down to the water closet, which I believe to be the source of all illness. And by the by as Nicholson is a tea-totaller he probably imbibes more sewage than other people: though you mustn't tell him I said so.
The arsenic produced by Devon Great Consols, and many other mines in SW England, was used in more than just wallpapers, and certainly caused serious harm, both at the point of mining, and in the form of some consumer products. But it must be remembered that Morris resigned from the board of that company in 1875, eight years before he took up socialism.

In one sense, Morris's subsequent career can be seen as an effort to leach the poison back out of the world: ‘Devon Great Consols and William Morris’ argues that Morris's connection to the mine positively influenced his views on environmental issues, feeding his vision for an ecological society as expressed in his romance novel News from Nowhere (1891). The paper, which also addresses a much broader set of issues than discussed here, is forthcoming. We will announce its release at a later date.

23 May 2013

Morris and Mayday

Since the month of May opens with Mayday and a flurry of international attention to workers, it seems a good month to reflect on William Morris and his work.  On seeing newscasts of workers marching in Munich and elsewhere on Mayday, I thought back to the May 1885 issue of Commonweal,* which demonstrates Morris’s commitment to causes that still animate May Day celebrations around the globe.  

The May 1885 issue included two writings by Morris: Part 3 of his serial poem The Pilgrims of Hope and the article “Unattractive Labour.”  In the first, the protagonist and his life partner stand on London streets watching the parade that honors soldiers marching off to war with flags unfurled and music playing.  In Morris’s poem the shops and faces lining the street attract even more attention than the blaring sounds and colorful sights of a parade: “The gaudy shops displayed / The toys of rich men's folly, by blinded labour made” and “Worn feet, grey anxious faces, grey backs bowed 'neath the load.”  As Part 3 concludes,

War in the world abroad a thousand leagues away, 
While custom's wheel goes round and day devoureth day. 
Peace at home!--what peace, while the rich man's mill is strife, 
And the poor is the grist that he grindeth, and life devoureth life?

Morris makes no attempt to heroize workers here, and in fact unsentimentally has his protagonist note the filth and stench of those who “from the lairs they had lain in last night went up in the wind.”  “Unattractive Labour” opens with the barren ugliness of most workers’ houses, in contrast to those of the wealthy able to spend enough to beautify their environments.  In Part 3 of Pilgrims of Hope, Morris both vividly evokes a scene and theorizes it, seeing in the common sight of a martial parade a microcosm of an entire system of capitalism hand in hand with an imperialist state.  Similarly, in “Unattractive Labour” he quickly turns to exposing the larger social and economic structures underlying what might at first seem a trivial point.   

For workers’ unadorned homes are “but one of the consequences of wage-slavery. Until that wage-slavery was completed and crowned by the revolution of the great machine industries, there was some attractiveness in the work of the artisan. There is now none, or next to none and the reason why the ornamental wares above-mentioned are so adulterated is because the very ornament itself is but a part of the machine labour, made to sell and not for use whether it be done by human machines or non-human ones.”  Thus the sole hope left is “The hope of revolution, of the transformation of civilization, now become on the face of it a mere corruption and curse to the world, into Socialism, which will set free the hands and minds of men for the production and safeguarding of the beauty of life.” 

Ever the artist as well as the revolutionary socialist, Morris ends his article by tapping the potential power of this pairing:  “to my mind the unattractiveness of labour, which has been the necessary outcome of commercial industry, will have played a great part in this revolution; the price which commercialism will have to pay for depriving the worker of his share of art will be its own death.”  The world has not followed the path Morris foresaw; but his vision of beauty as so radical a human need and social force that it can remake the world remains a powerful one.  And the beauty of Morris’s own socialist poetry and example of his life are reminders that art and social justice can indeed be joined. 

Linda K. Hughes 

05 May 2013

The William Morris Society visits the National Gallery’s Pre-Raphaelite exhibition

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Bocca Baciata (Museum of Fine Arts Boston)
On Saturday, April 20 a group of 12 dedicated Morrisians traveled to the National Gallery in Washington to view Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848-1900 on a tour led by Diane Waggoner, Associate Curator in the Department of Photography and in-house curator for this exhibition. The show originated in London last fall at Tate Britain, where it was titled Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde. It will be on view at the National Gallery through May 19.

The exhibition was designed as a follow-up to the first major show devoted to the Pre-Raphaelite movement (also held at the Tate) in 1984. The curators of the current exhibition set out to address the substantial scholarship inspired by the earlier show, a goal achieved with great success. The inclusion of decorative arts, photography and work by female artists are just a few of the aspects of the movement brought to light by recent research and placed on display in London and Washington.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Danis Amor (Tate), the central painted panel that once adorned the cupboard
doors of a settle made for William Morris when he lived in Red Lion Square, London
Dr. Waggoner led the group through the sumptuously displayed exhibition, which is divided thematically into thematic sections: Origins, Literature, Salvation, Nature, Beauty, Paradise, and Mythologies. The first gallery includes John Everett Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents (Tate), the painting which raised the critical call to arms when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1850 for its gritty genre-like depiction of a religious subject. It was this painting that goaded Charles Dickens’ scathing review in his weekly magazine Household Words. Also in this gallery, the rarely seen Walter Howell Deverell, Twelfth Night (Private Collection) is not to be missed. From this tour de force opening salvo, visitors are overwhelmed with one Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece after another.

The “Literature” section includes the Rossetti diptych, Salutation of Beatrice in Florence and Salutation in the Garden of Eden (National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa) hanging alongside the same artist’s Dantis Amor (Tate), thus uniting three panels from the cupboard doors of the settle originally made for Red Lion Square and now in Red House.

William Dyce's Pegwell Bay, Kent – A Recollection of October 5th1858 
(Tate), an example of Pre-Raphaelite technical brilliance.
 “Salvation” is a visually incongruous mix of paintings selected to hammer home the close relationship of faith and morality during the Victorian period. Religious images, such as Ford Madox Brown’s compelling Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (Tate) hang across from images of modern life. These scenes of contemporary London include Rossetti’s Found (Delaware Art Museum), the depiction of a young countrywoman fallen on hard times, collapsed at a London street corner, and John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s Thoughts of the Past (Tate), depicting a prostitute in her room just after the departure of a client.

The gallery devoted to “Nature” includes William Dyce’s technically brilliant Pegwell Bay, Kent – A Recollection of October 5th, 1858 (Tate) which captures with microscopic accuracy the rock formations of Ramsgate and commemorates the historic passing of Donati’s comet. Also not to be missed in this gallery are two similarly detailed paintings of the outdoor world from the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Brown’s An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead and Millais’ The Blind Girl.

The gallery focusing on the theme of “Beauty” includes Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (Tate), Bocca Baciata
(Museum of Fine Arts Boston), and Lady Lilith (Delaware Art Museum) representing a triumvirate of Pre-Raphaelite stunners – Elizabeth Siddal, Fanny Cornforth, and Alexa Wilding. Throughout the exhibition sculpture and photography associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement enrich our understanding of the influence of this group of artists utilizing varied media and methods. Also included in this gallery are photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron and sculpture by Alexander Munro.
A caricature of William Morris by Edward Burne-Jones, from Jones's
North End House visitor's book. (Mark Samuels-Lasner Collection),
displayed in the companion show, "Pre-Raphaelites and the Book."

The extent of this cross-pollination concept is further demonstrated in “Paradise,” the room following, devoted to the decorative arts. Here a chair from Red House (The Arming of a Knight, Delaware Art Museum) shares space with embroideries, tapestries and Kelmscott Books, including TWO Chaucers! 

And speaking of books, also on view at the National Gallery is a small “perfect marvel” of an exhibition, Pre-Raphaelites and the Book. The exhibition includes volumes of Rossetti’s poetry, wood-engraved illustrations by several Pre-Raphaelite artists, and materials related to the Kelmscott Press. Beautifully illustrated Kelmscott books are displayed alongside Morris' elaborate ornament designs and his own manuscript illumination. The works in the exhibition are drawn from the National Gallery of Art Library and the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, on loan to the University of Delaware Library.

Margaretta Frederick
Chief Curator of the Delaware Art Museum
Curator of the Bancroft Collection 

20 April 2013

"Crisis and Mobilization Since 1789" Conference, Amsterdam, Netherlands, February 22-24, 2013, Part II

The venue: the International Institute of Social History, in Amsterdam.
The keynote speaker at the “Crisis and Mobilization Since 1789” conference was University of Michigan historian Geoff Eley, and he set a great tone for the conference. In his talk, he outlined the central argument of his 2002 book Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe: 1850-2000, framing his discussion around the question, “What produces democracy?” His answer, writ short, was “conflict.” Between 1850 and 1968, he argued, it was the conflict between capitalism and socialism that produced the most dramatic democratic advances in Europe, especially in the period between 1945 and 1968.

Eley made it clear that revolutions are inextricably linked to the rise and advancement of democracies. As he put it in the introduction of Forging Democracy,

[D]emocracy is not ‘given’ or ‘granted.’ It requires conflict, namely, courageous challenges to authority, risk-taking and reckless exemplary acts, ethical witnessing, violent confrontations, and general crises in which the given sociopolitical order breaks down. In Europe, democracy did not result from natural evolution or economic prosperity. It certainly did not emerge as an inevitable byproduct of individualism or the market. It developed because masses of people organized collectively to demand it”

In his assessment of social democracy at high tide, that is, between 1945 and 1968, he argued that World War II had broad cultural ramifications that veritably remade Western European democracy. In Chapter 18 of his book, he explains this concept: “The destructive hiatus in governing orders created by Nazi rule, the discrediting of prewar elites, the confused end-of-the-war transitions, and the heady hopes of the Liberation created openings for radical transformation” Although the revolution was incomplete, post-war Europeans were better off than they'd been before the war.

Eley's argument is keenly aware of the limits of the post-war European social democratic vision—especially as it stood after 1968— despite the major democratic gains in parliamentary governance, social security, and economic planning achieved at that time. As Eley saw it, social democrats inadequately redefined themselves after 1968, when the age became increasingly marked by identity politics and late stage capitalism. By failing to define themselves, he argues, they hampered their own political efforts.

Ultimately, Eley was deeply pessimistic about the prospects for revolutionary change in contemporary Europe. As he put it during the discussion that followed the lecture, “It’s over.” But it may be worthwhile for Eley to remember the words of William Morris, whom he quoted in the preface of his book, “I … pondered how [people] fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other [people] have to fight for what they meant under another name.” If history is any guide, austerity politics may produce its own set of revolutionary responses.

Jason D. Martinek
Assistant Professor of History
New Jersey City University
Jersey City, New Jersey

19 March 2013

"Crisis and Mobilization Since 1789" Conference, Amsterdam, Netherlands, February 22-24, 2013

Manuscript of Morris's "Why I am a Communist," one of IISH's holdings.

Part I: The Venue, The International Institute of Social History

Recently, the International Scholars' Network History of Societies and Socialisms (HOSAS) hosted its second conference at the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam, Netherlands. In addition to the IISH, other co-sponsors included Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Duitsland Instituut, and the Jena Center. The conference theme was "Crisis and Mobilization since 1789."

A more perfect venue could not be had. The International Institute of Social History was founded in 1935 by Nicolaas W. Posthumus, a leading light of Dutch social and economic history. A social democratic insurance company De Centrale supported the Institute in its early years, allowing for it to save archival materials related to left-wing movements from all over Europe.

Before World War II, the Institute played a key role in saving papers by and about Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels from the Nazis. As the Institute's website explains, "In the period 1935-40, attention was focused on saving material from all over Europe. The most important collection acquired in this period was the archival legacy of Marx and Engels. The Institute's extremely active first librarian, Annie Adama van Scheltema-Kleefstra, actually smuggled Bakunin's manuscript (part of the famous Nettlau collection) out of Austria, just before the Nazis marched into Vienna. Libraries of Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries who had fled Russia were also brought to Amsterdam."*

Forced to close the Institute during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam, Posthumus had already smuggled the most valuable papers to Britain. The Nazis removed most of the archives to Germany during the war, and it took the Institute nearly a decade after the war to return to a state of normalcy. Since 1989, it has been housed in a former cocoa warehouse in Amsterdam's Eastern Docklands area.

Although the IISH is most well known for its Marx and Engels collection, it has significant holdings related to William Morris's socialist activities. Among the items related to Morris are the papers of the Socialist League, the Hammersmith Socialist Society, and the manuscripts of "How We Shall Live Then," "As to Bribing Excellence," "and Why I Am A Communist."**

Jason D. Martinek
Assistant Professor of History
New Jersey City University
Jersey City, New Jersey

*"History of the IISH," International Institute of Social History, http://socialhistory.org/en/about/history-iish.

**"William Morris," International Institute of Social History, http://www.iisg.nl/archives/morris/.

13 February 2013

"The God of the Poor" for Sale

The famous Hollyer portrait of Morris, one of the sale's offerings.

In April and May, there will be a highly interesting sale at Bonhams in London, of items from the collection of Roy Davids. The offerings include a photographic portrait of William Morris, taken by Frederick Hollyer in 1886; and the autograph revised manuscript for Morris's poem “The God of the Poor.” There are many differences between this manuscript and the printed version of the poem. From the official description:

THIS MANUSCRIPT, THE ONLY ONE KNOWN OF THE POEM, PRESERVES A TEXT VERY SUBSTANTIALLY DIFFERENT FROM THE RECEIVED VERSION. Of the 260 lines in 52 five-line stanzas in the printed version many do not appear in the present manuscript at all, and vice versa, and many lines and stanzas were very significantly rewritten. According to Fairfax Murray this manuscript was written in the early 1860s, but the poem was only sent for publication in theFortnightly Review in 1868. Between those dates Morris clearly rethought and very extensively rewrote the poem so that whole stanzas in this manuscript do not correspond in any way with those in the printed text and were completely replaced; others have been so reworked as to be almost unrecognisable, and vice versa. The following examples are but two instances of those where any comparison can be made at all:

The third stanza in this manuscript ends:

...Many a fair maid white & red
By him was deflowered.
Deus est Deus pauperum.

The printed version ends:

...Whatso man loved wife or maid
Of Evil-head was sore afraid.
Deus est Deus pauperum.

The first four lines of the sixth stanza in this manuscript read:

But Boncoeur knew it was in vain
To strive to take him by force plain;
Therefore he made a crafty wile
God gave him wit and much good guile.

29 January 2013

MLA Annual Convention: Boston 2013

L to R: A Beardsley illustration for the Morte D'Arthur; an Edward Burne-Jones window in Trinity Church; and the Frontispiece for The Wood Beyond the World.

This year, the Society sponsored two very well-attended sessions at the Modern Language Association Convention. During our first session, “Morris and New England,” we were treated to talks by Michael P. Kuczynski, Associate Professor of English at Tulane; Maureen Meister, affiliate Professor of Art History at Tufts; Paul Acker, Professor of English at St. Louis U; and Margaret Laster, PhD candidate at CUNY Graduate Center.

During Kucynski's talk, “Morris and Company Windows at Trinity Church,” we learned about Morris and Burne-Jones's stained glass work for Boston's Trinity Church in the 1880s. He spoke about the famous then-rector, Philips Brooks, who had a passion for “pure color” and whose vision guided the church's decoration. From Meister's talk, “Arts and Crafts Architecture in New England,” we learned about the inter-tangled worlds of Arts & Crafts architecture in Britain and New England, and the group of New England architects that deliberately mirrored the "quiet beauty" of England's restrained ornament. Then, from Acker's presentation “Morris and Company Windows for Vinland Cottage,” and Laster's talk “The Vinland Windows in Newport,” we learned much about a remarkable set of Viking-themed windows created by Morris & Co. for the American tobacco heiress, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe.

The second session, “Print and Beyond: Publishing Rossetti, Morris, and the Aesthetes,” was co-sponsored by the Society for the History of Authorship, Readingand Publishing (SHARP), and brought us talks by Laura Golobish, Gallery Assistant/Curator from the Nashville Public Library; Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, Associate Professor of English from UC Davis; and Britten LaRue, an independent lecturer, scholar, and curator.

Golobish gave a talk entitled “Printing a Pocket Cathedral: Morris's The Wood Beyond the World,” using the titular theme to explore the architectural features of The Wood Beyond the World, from the architectural frontispiece that invites readers to walk into a separate space, to the “textual landscape” created by illuminated capitals and dingbats. Miller's talk, “William Morris and Socialist Print Culture,” traced Morris's role in the “outlaw” Socialist press as distinct from the mainstream, capitalist press. Miller argued, among other things, that Morris thought of Socialist print as an entirely separate news sphere, aimed at “making a clean sweep of existing institutions all at once.” LaRue's talk “Marginal Figures, Marginal Texts: Aubrey Beardsley’s chapter headings for Le Morte D’Arthur” was rich with imagery of Beardsley's pictorial work for the 1893-1894 Morte D'Arthur in two volumes. Beardsley plays with gender and strange juxtapositions throughout, creating images including androgynous knights, peacocks and angels. LaRue discussed how his themes of gender, “hybridity and transformation” form a counter-text to the masculine Morte d'Arthur.

MLA 2013 was another year of excellent presentations; next year in Chicago, we hope for more of the same. If you'd like to submit an abstract to our proposed panel on “any aspect of text, illustration, or design of Pre-Raphaelite, Aesthetic, or Fin de Siรจcle children's books,” submit an abstract to florence-boos@uiowa.edu and philnel@ksu.edu. If you'd like to submit an abstract to our guaranteed panel on "Morris and Arts and Crafts in the Midwest," please write to florence-boos@uiowa.edu. Abstracts for both sessions are due by the 15th of March.