We ask Berglind about her teaching, about how her lecture went.
̶ Good, she says. It was on William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. The work is so beautiful, the students always take to it.
You’d watched him make the mobile, you’d admired his sense of craftsmanship as he cut and smoothed a concave curve in an aluminium element, used the round-nose pliers to bend the bail wire into the desired shape, or looped the connecting rods with precisely calculated twists. How far back does it go, your intuition that a manual task well-done has something to do with ethics? That the hand teaches the mind no less than the mind the hand, and that for the hand and the heart it’s the same?
The Arts and Crafts movement in Britain was animated by three principal ideas. The first was the ‘Unity of Art’. Arts and Crafts people opposed the hierarchy in which the arts were arranged in late-Victorian Britain: painting and sculpture at the top as fine arts; architecture somewhere in the middle, less artistic but still with high professional status; and the decorative arts at the bottom, their status low both artistically and professionally. They argued that, in the Middle Ages, this hierarchy had not existed; and that in their own day, painters, sculptors, architects, and decorative artists should be on an equal footing again.
The second idea was ‘Joy in Labor.’ The idea was that the ordinary experience of work can become a source of pleasure through the play of imagination. Like so much of the Arts and Crafts movement, this idea was rooted in a Romantic sense of the past, and specifically in a long passage called ‘The Nature of Gothic’ in the second volume of John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, published in 1853. Ruskin read the history of Venice in its buildings, and when he looked at the carved detail of Venetian Gothic buildings, he imagined the workmen to be ordinary workmen of their time. Left to their own imaginations, he thought, they produced carvings which were rough, vivid, and imaginative.
Although Ruskin’s lectures to students and workers in Oxford, London and other British cities drew large audiences, and his writings were widely read and admired on both sides of the Atlantic, it was William Morris (1834-96) whose ideas exerted the longest and most powerful influence. Like Ruskin, he came from a comfortable background which allowed him both the time and the means to select a vocational career. Like Ruskin, too, he became a renowned and revered educationalist, theorist, writer and lecturer. Both men were driven by their revulsion of what they saw as a sick society, Morris writing that ‘apart from my desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life is hatred of modern civilisation’. Morris took Ruskin’s love of the handwrought roughness of the crafts and wanted to see it applied to modern commerce: his goal was to challenge manufacturers to simplify design not only in order to raise standards and keep unit costs at an affordable level but also to draw together the designer and the craftsman. But whereas Ruskin stood clear of politics and the work process he advocated, Morris, reaching maturity during a period of greater democracy and a new status for the worker, became not only an active Socialist but a craftsman and a designer much admired by his peers.
Ruskin had advised artists and designers to turn to nature for inspiration and instruction. Morris’s designs, with their plant and later their bird detailing, were a response to Ruskin but were also, in their flatness, part of the new design movement. They show as well Morris’s interest in historical textiles which stemmed from his time as an Oxford apprentice to the architect G. E. Street (1824-81) in 1856. Street, like Pugin, was an exceptional designer of architectural fittings and furniture and, moreover, was particularly experienced in traditional building crafts. He believed in an interdisciplinary approach to architecture: he thought an architect should be not only a builder but also a painter, a blacksmith and a designer of stained glass.
There were other major influences on Morris at this time. He had met the painter Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) when they were both undergraduates at Oxford. Sharing an enthusiasm for old buildings and historic crafts, and with Ruskin’s Seven Lamps as a guide, they studied at first hand the ‘axe hewn’ and ‘mountainous strength’ of the Gothic architecture of northern France. Morris also looked at the Oxfordshire vernacular architecture with Street’s senior draughtsman, Philip Webb (1831-1915). He and Webb were especially committed to unpretentiousness and honesty in architectural thinking, which distinguished them from most high Victorian architects. They considered, for instance, that an architect’s design should be a reflection both of its site and purpose. Moreover, their detailed study of medieval architecture led them to espouse Street’s conviction that a thorough working knowledge of building materials was as essential to an architect as a happy relationship with his craftsmen.
In 1859 Morris commissioned Webb to design a house for him and his bride, Jane Burden. A functional dwelling without historicist pretensions, Red House, in Upton, Kent, took its name from its construction material, red brick. The garden, designed by Morris, was established on both romantic and practical lines, with a medieval combination of orchards and garden plots separated from long grass walks by rose trellises. Described in 1862 as ‘more a poem than a house’ by Morris’s friend, the Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), the house was decorated by Rossetti, the Morrises and their friends, with murals and embroidered hangings using richly coloured flower, tree, animal and bird motifs. Webb designed many of the fittings, including furniture, some of which was painted by Burne-Jones and Rossetti with scenes from medieval romances, and also window glass, metalwork candlesticks, and table glass made by James Powell & Sons of Whitefriars, London. The type of decoration used in furnishing Red House, with its medieval Gothic spirit and strong colours, presented a more relaxed, intimate alternative to the dramatic, medieval designs of the 1860s by the London ‘art-architect’ William Burges (1827-81).
The launch from this personal scheme into the commercial world was swift and confident. The decorative and fine arts were formally re-united: in 1861 the first prospectus of the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. described Morris and his friends as ‘Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and the Metals’ and their aim to produce ‘harmony between the various parts of a successful work’. The firm could provide mural decoration (in pictures or pattern work), carving, stained glass, metalwork (including jewelry) and furniture. Wallpaper was first produced in 1862 when Trellis appeared, designed by Morris with bird detailing by Webb, a keen naturalist whose animal drawings were also used in stained glass, and later on, tapestry. Based in Red Lion Square until 1865, the firm, like Red House, was a collaborative venture, with artist members, friends and spouses producing much of the work.
The firm moved, with the Morris family, to larger premises in Bloomsbury in 1865 and in 1875 was restructured as Morris and Company with Morris as sole proprietor. Its methods and materials were a mix of traditional and new ideas. The ‘Sussex’ range of chairs designed by Rossetti, for instance, was adapted from English country designs of the mid-eighteenth century and married ebonized wood in current commercial use with natural rush seating crafted by hand. Old and new ideas were also integrated at Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, leased by Morris as a country home from 1871. A sixteenth-century house, Kelmscott was furnished with eastern ceramics and both English traditional and Morris furniture.
Morris expanded the firm in new directions. He opened a shop in Oxford Street, London, in 1877, a workshop for hand-knotted rugs in Hammersmith the following year and, in 1881, a tapestry-weaving workshop at Merton Abbey in Surrey. In the 1860s and 70s he used outside firms to print his own company’s textiles and also supplied designs to others, notably the Royal School of Art Needlework. Established in 1872 to provide ‘suitable employment for poor gentlefolk’ in the restoration of old work and the creation of new, the School’s primary goal was to restore ‘ornamental Needlework to the high place it once held among the decorative arts’. Like the Ladies’ Ecclesiastical Embroidery Society founded by Street’s sister in 1854, the School used both traditional designs and those supplied by enthusiasts including Street and a fellow Gothic architect G. F. Bodley.
William Morris’ revival of tapestry was one of his last commercial ventures, and he was drawn into it simply by his love of the beautiful tapestries of the Middle Ages. Tapestries have been woven both on the high-warp and on the low-warp loom for thousands of years; and they are still woven on the high-warp loom at the Gobelins works where Morris went to see the process. But there, though the process was right enough, it was employed merely to make copies of paintings, so that all the beauties peculiar to tapestry were lost in the vain imitation of another art. Morris wished to revive not only the right process, extinct in England, but also the right principles of design. And to do this it was necessary for him to understand thoroughly the process for which the design was to be made, to be both artist and craftsman himself. Only the high-warp process could content him; for with the low-warp, where the frames are placed horizontally with the ground, the lace of the tapestry looks downwards and the workman only sees the back of it. Thus he can only copy his design mechanically, matching colours as close as he can get them. But with the high-warp loom the frame stands vertically and the front of the tapestry is reflected to the workman in a mirror, so that he sees what he is doing and can translate his design into tapestry, making the picture in the material and suiting it to all the qualities of the material.
In 1878 Morris began to think of practicing the art, and he said that whatever he did he must do chiefly with his own hands. ‘Tapestry at its highest,’ he said. ‘is the painting of pictures with coloured wools on a warp. Nobody but an artist can paint pictures.’ It was in the same year that he went to live in Hammersmith in a house so close to the river, that he could go by water from it to his other house at Kelmscott. There he had a tapestry loom set up in his bedroom and could work upon it for hours before breakfast. Sometimes he would give ten hours a day to it, and even when at Kelmscott he longed to get back to his weaving.
Having learnt all he could at home, he set up a loom at his works at Queen Square. Then he began to teach what he knew to his workmen, and he found that boys learnt most easily. Three of them were taught at Queen Square, and, though chosen almost at random, they soon became expert and carried on the work on a larger scale in the greater space at Merton, where the finest tapestries of modern times were produced, many of them, such as the Adoration of the Magi, from designs by Burne-Jones.
In many of these tapestries the workman himself invented most of the colour and a good deal of the detail; this would have been impossible with the low-warp tapestry in which the workman, since he cannot see his work, must be a mere copyist. Thus, while designers like Burne-Jones and craftsmen like Dearle, who was the first boy trained by Morris, all played a great part in the revival of the art of tapestry weaving, they would never have had a chance of accomplishing anything in the field had Morris not first taught himself what he afterwards taught to others. All his fertility of design—and he designed nearly six hundred patterns of different kinds—would have been useless if he had not brought the artist and the craftsman once more together in his own person. It was he who discovered that to separate them is to deprive the artist of his art and the craftsman of his craft; and, having discovered the disease, he proceeded at once to prove, by his own example, the cure.
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