Painted truths: how the Victorian polymath William Morris anticipated the concerns of our times

As a new exhibition examining the life and work of the Victorian artist, designer and thinker opens in London, Nick Leech speaks with its curator, Fiona MacCarthy, about his legacy.

The mural We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold, painted by Stuart Sam Hughes, shows William Morris throwing Roman Abramovich's yacht. Paul Tucker
Powered by automated translation

On November 5, this year's Abu Dhabi Art will open to the public. The last fair before the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi includes a programme of exhibits, talks, performances and events that not only looks forward to the opening of Saadiyat Island's new museums, but will also attempt to address the wider issues raised by their opening. For example, who are art and museums for? What should they do? What role can creativity play in our daily lives? How can cultural heritage survive as a vital, living tradition? How should we consider our relationships with each other and with the built and natural environments?
If the concerns sound ambitious for an event that involves an international cast of artists, curators, galleries, performers and thinkers, it seems impossible that they might be successfully encapsulated within the span of a single career.
As a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London suggests, however, this was precisely the achievement of the Victorian polymath and political radical William Morris, a man whose legacy continues to frame contemporary debates about art, culture, creativity and the environment, wherever they might take place.
"Now in the 21st century our art and design culture is widespread. But its global sophistication brings new anxieties," Fiona MacCarthy, the curator of Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy 1860-1960, has said.
"We find ourselves returning to many of Morris's preoccupations with craft skills and the environment, with local sourcing, with vernacular traditions, with art as a vital force within society, binding together people of varying backgrounds and ­nationalities."
It is exactly 20 years since the publication of MacCarthy's landmark biography, William Morris: A Life of Our Time (1994) and as the title of the book and the new exhibition suggest, MacCarthy sees Morris as a figure of such achievements that he continues to "resonate with modern life".
"He was so multifaceted," she tells me. "He was visual as well as verbal and he was such a big, energetic personality. People find that fascinating about him."
Even by Victorian standards, the breadth of Morris's achievement was prodigious. An architect, artist and designer of everything from wallpapers, fabrics, furniture, jewellery and ­typography, Morris was also one of the younger members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who dedicated the early years of his life to a campaign against what he saw as the false values of Victorian industrial production and against a world of objects "devoid of art or spirit".
Morris set out to "show people that other things and other kinds of design were possible", MacCarthy explains. "He was operating as a protest movement within the commercial ­marketplace."
The early focal point for Morris's experimentation was his own home, Red House in Bexleyheath, Kent. Designed in an arts and crafts style by Morris and his friend, the architect Philip Webb, Red House was furnished and decorated by Morris, his wife Jane, and his fellow Pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and his close friend and collaborator Edward Burne-Jones.
Before long, the success of the Red House experiments would result in Morris's transformation into a retailer as well as a designer and maker and the founding of a business, which eventually became Morris & Co, that included manufacturing workshops and a shop on central London's Oxford Street.
When Morris wasn't running his business, weaving tapestries, printing books or manufacturing ecclesiastical stained glass, he kept himself busy writing epic poetry, setting up his own publishing house, editing Commonweal, a radical newspaper, and translating Icelandic sagas.
Despite the fact that Morris & Co was to survive until 1940, its success led to something of a crisis of conscience for its founder, as Morris found it impossible to reconcile his passionate beliefs in "art for all" and the democratisation and reform of design with projects that involved "ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich".
"He was all too aware that, as far as he was concerned, it had been a losing battle however hard he tried," MacCarthy says. "He just couldn't get over his ideas about perfectionist design and actually making it at a level that ordinary people could afford. It was really that which drove him to revolutionary socialism in the end."
In the 1880s, Morris became increasingly politicised and in 1883 he joined a revolutionary new political party, the Social Democratic Federation. Morris's diaries from this period record that he made around 100 public talks during his final two decades in which he urged his audiences to consider the prospect of a better and very different life in lectures such as 'How We Live and How We Might Live', 'Useless Work versus Useless Toil' and 'A Factory As it Might Be'.
It was also a period in which Morris became friends with the exiled Russian anarchists Peter Kropotkin and Sergius Stepniak as well as Karl Marx's daughter Eleanor, but the contradictions that defined Morris's work as a designer also surfaced in his political activism. So worn out was his copy of Karl Marx's Das Kapital that, within a year of its purchase, Morris had it rebound with opulent, golden bindings.
"The contradictions are there, but I don't think this detracts from his enormous integrity and it certainly doesn't detract from my admiration for him," Mac­Carthy says of a man whose ideas she has lived with "all of my adult life".
Morris's ideas about design, the value of craft and the development of skills ultimately found their expression in the workshops of Walter Gropius's Bauhaus, and for many commentators it is Morris's contribution to the development of modernism that is his greatest legacy.
For others, however, the utopianism that fuelled Morris's ideas about art, design, society and the environment found their ultimate apotheosis not in an object but in his political novel of 1890, News From Nowhere.
Taking its inspiraton from Sir Thomas More's Utopia, News From Nowhere describes an England of the future transformed by revolution. The result is a communistic paradise of genuine equality freed of private property, as MacCarthy describes.
"The most strikingly original aspects of the story have to do with art and the environment. News From Nowhere is Morris's fictional re-working of the claims made in his lecture 'Art under Plutocracy' for an inclusive concept of art extending to 'the aspects of all the externals of our life. Art was not just painting, sculpture, architecture, it was also "the shapes and colours of household goods"; art was even "the arrangement of the fields for tillage and pasture, the management of towns and of our highways of all kind"'."
Such was the scale and the depth of Morris's achievements that by the time he died in 1896, aged 62, the diagnosis offered by one of his doctors seemed as appropriate as it was self-­evident: "His disease was simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most 10 men."
In an appreciation written in 1934, almost 40 years after her father's death, May Morris asked: "In considering the life of William Morris, we may ask what is the work by which he will be best known in days to come?"
It's a question that is often asked of MacCarthy. "I don't think his genius as a pattern designer will ever be forgotten. His was a really thrilling talent," the curator explains, "but I'm really more excited by his visionary qualities. The way he tackles human life, human feelings and how we can live a better life.
"The perfect life might not be quite within reach, but it is within our minds and lots are people are finding this a very stimulating thought."
One of those people is the Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller, whose 14-minute film English Magic, featuring work that referenced Morris, was recently exhibited at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre in September.
Deller has been making references to his Victorian hero since 2010, when he used a quotation from Morris on a poster that was made for Save the Arts, a campaign against cuts to public funding of the creative industries in the UK.
It was in 2013, however, when Deller was charged with curating the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale, that the artist's affinity with the designer really came to widespread attention.
Deller's installation, also called English Magic, included the mural We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold, painted by the artist Stuart Sam Hughes, which featured a colossal Morris hurling Luna, a yacht belong to the Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich, back into the Venetian lagoon.
The painting refers to an incident in 2011 when Abramovich moored his yacht alongside the Giardini, where the Biennale is held. In Hughes's mural, Morris is imagined as an avenging force, pitting the might of art and socialism against capitalism, a struggle that occupied the whole of Morris's life.
Although the image doesn't appear in Anarchy & Beauty, MacCarthy includes We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold in her afterword to the book that accompanies the exhibition. In it, she quotes Deller, from an interview the artist conducted with London-based newspaper The Observer in 2013.
"'Will we know about Abramovich in 50 years time?' asks Jeremy Deller. 'We will certainly know about William Morris.'"
Whether you agree with Mac­Carthy and Deller's assessment or not, the latter is almost certain to be true.
Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy 1860-1960 is at the National Portrait Gallery in London until January 11.
Nick Leech is a features writer at The National.