William Morris: A Study in Contradiction

(Here’s some of the material cut from the CNQ article, therefore a tad disjointed.)

William Morris is generally credited as founder of the English Arts and Crafts Movement, and is remembered best for his floral wallpaper, rugs and upholstery patterns which grace the walls, floors and furniture of wealthy chatelaines to this day. He wrote: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Later in his life, he applied his skilled design hand to books, thankfully.

Morris believed that Victorian design had strayed from the core aesthetic of beauty, that being nature. “Everything made by man’s hand has a form,” he said, “which must be either beautiful or ugly; beautiful if it is in accord with nature and helps her; ugly if it is discord with nature and thwarts her; it cannot be indifferent.”

Anyone in design will be aware of Morris and his influence, but outside of that world he is not widely known. In terms of contemporary understanding, if Adam Smith equals Gutenberg, then Milton Friedman would be Morris. Morris would have blown a gasket, or even stroked out completely (he was known for occasional violent outbursts, even fits), over that unabashed capitalistic comparison, he being a committed late 19th century socialist, or what would be considered today by many North Americans, a communist.

Taking a page from Ruskin, Morris tapped the art and guild crafts of the European middle ages for his ideal union of form and beauty. This dovetailed with his own romantic notions of the middle ages, forming one of several contradictions in Morris’ philosophy that perplex critics to this day, in this case the harsh reality of social and artistic life in medieval times as opposed to its romantic ideal. He founded Morris & Co. to create objects of beauty for the working man, but could not produce them within reach of any other than the wealthy, who bought Morris’ designs and brought them into their homes with pleasure, cost being no objection. Needless to say, his personal brand of aesthetic socialism caused Morris, himself a gentleman of considerable independent wealth, some headaches.

I’ve never had much interest in his politics, although as socialists go, he came at it from an interesting angle: while most of the other radicals had eye on the money, or redistribution of said money, Morris was concerned about how things would look after the revolution. Inevitable political discouragement came for Morris, but his leaving the party coincided with reinvigorated enthusiasm in printing books from the Kelmscott Press, which was a lucky stroke for posterity.

The same contradictions in Morris’ philosophy find a home in his book designs. The socialist in him believed beautiful books could be made for every worker and housed in a library on every street corner. Yet, he could not restrain in himself the compulsion to adorn his books so richly that only the wealthy could afford them. Morris even extolled the virtues of cheaper papers and the most modern mechanical process to print and bind books, but when it came to his own creations – he simply could not help himself – old iron presses, custom made paper, ink imported from Germany, wood engravings (already made obsolete by photomechanical processes), costly bindings etc.

It’s hard to be a creative ideal contortionist without being something of a romantic. Morris had the utter audacity to dream big; he believed his books and designs would change the course of civilization. He said “if others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream.”

As someone who prints books by hand, I have some sympathy for Morris and the contradictory nature of his thinking. Printing this way is senseless, yet it offers a satisfaction that one cannot find in contemporary processes. I don’t have Morris’ ambitions, let alone a fraction of his genius. My goal isn’t to change the world; rather, I hope to make the lives of a few people in the world richer by printing beautiful books.

I could go on, but instead I’ll let Morris sum it up with elegant, old world polished prose, and the quote I used for the CNQ Keepsake:

I began printing books with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time they should be easy to read and should not dazzle the eye, or trouble the intellect of the reader by eccentricity of form in the letters. I have always been a great admirer of the calligraphy of the Middle Ages, and of the earlier printing which took its place. As to the fifteenth-century books, I had noticed that they were always beautiful by force of the mere typography, even without the added ornament, with which many of them are so lavishly supplied. And it was the essence of my undertaking to produce books which it would be a pleasure to look upon as pieces of printing and arrangement of type. Looking at my adventure from this point of view then, I found I had to consider chiefly the following things: the paper, the form of the type, the relative spacing of the letters, the words, and the lines; and lastly the position of the printed matter on the page.

Three type faces designed by William Morris, along with the Kelmscott printers mark.

Kelmscott Press treatment of Ruskin's 'The Nature of Gothic'

A page from the Kelmscott's Troilus & Cressida

The CNQ Morris tribute keepsake on the press at Greyweathers.

A glimpse at the keepsake magnesium plate.

A detail of the printed keepsake, showing the intricacy of the border, Morris' Golden type, and Greyweathers' house font Italian Oldstyle riding up the vertical.

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4 Comments on “William Morris: A Study in Contradiction”


  1. […] word that the most recent issue of Canadian Notes & Queries has come out complete with the article I wrote on William Morris and (to subscribers) the letterpress keepsake. My friends from Weathervane Press […]

  2. Abbie Jones Says:

    where was William Morris’s quote at the end taken from? what is the source?

    • Larry Says:

      It is from “The Ideal Book”, a collection of essay by Morris on book design. The essay is titled “A Note by William Morris on His Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press” published the year he died, 1896. My edition is edited by Peterson, University of California Press, 1982.

  3. Abbie Jones Says:

    Thank you so much, it will help with my dissertation!


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