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Introducing ‘How We Might Live: The Vision of William Morris’

2013 April 23
by lucinda matthews-jones

Laura French and Amber Kohl

 

Fig1: Exhibit Poster 'How We Might Live: The Vision of William Morris'

How We Might Live: The Vision of William Morris is a University of Maryland exhibit examining the life of William Morris, focusing on his written works, political activism, and artistic endeavors.  The exhibit showcases rare books, pamphlets, and ephemera from the William Morris Collection in Special Collections.  The collection was established in 1985 with the purchase from collector Jack Walsdorf of approximately 340 books and related material printed by or about William Morris.  It has become a comprehensive research tool for studying Morris’ work as a typographer and book designer, and for examining the development of late nineteenth-century illustration and design.   Our 2011 acquisition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer printed at the Kelmscott Press is the crown jewel of the collection and its purchase served as the impetus for developing our exhibit.

In the early stages of research for the exhibit, we were immediately drawn to the

Fig2 – Caption: photograph of the Kelmscott Chaucer on display as part of How We Might Live: The Vision of William Morris

breadth of William Morris’s accomplishments.  People are perhaps most familiar with Morris as designer/founder Morris & Company and the Kelmscott Press.  However, historians know him as an early English socialist or outspoken advocate for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB). Literary crowds on the other hand, are most familiar with Morris the Earthly Paradise poet.  During his life Morris was an artist, author, poet, socialist, teacher, designer, craftsman, printer, bibliophile, preservationist, translator, typographer, and literary scholar.  It was declared that the cause of his death was “having done more work than most ten men”, and we wanted to honor that boundless spirit.

Figure 3: Portrait of William Morris, 1887

Much of Morris’s work centered on his vision to make the world a better place and return to an idealized society inspired by the Middle Ages. Morris came to believe that people in the Middle Ages lived meaningful lives because they worked in harmony with beautiful handcrafted objects, art, and buildings. This vision animated his quest to revive traditional crafts and preserve the literary, artistic, and architectural legacies of the medieval world.  His design work, literature, and political beliefs sprang from his love of all things medieval.  Morris was also a forward thinking individual.  His vision matured within the context of the Industrial Revolution in 19th century England. He was particularly critical of the dehumanizing impact of mass production. His vision was not solely political, but interwoven with his artistic sensibilities.  For Morris, true beauty was created from pleasurable work, and modern capitalism in England had deprived workers of pleasurable work in exchange for profit, wealth, and division.

How We Might Live highlights the various roles Morris embraced during his life:  Morris as Author, Morris as Designer, Morris as Printer, Morris as Socialist, and so on. There is something about his life that can appeal to most everyone.  Art lovers, DIY crafters, fantasy literature fans, even anarchists can uncover a connection they might not have expected from a Victorian designer.  What strikes visitors most is not that William Morris was socialist, a printer, a translator, or a designer, but that he was all these things simultaneously.  In 1886, Morris was busy lecturing to crowds in England, Ireland, and Scotland on behalf of the Socialist League, designing patterns for Morris & Company, translating The Odyssey, attending annual meetings for SPAB, and writing A Dream of John Ball.

For those already familiar with Morris, we wanted to shed light on lesser known aspects of his life.  For instance, Morris’s Icelandic and medieval translations nowadays often overshadow his own literary works.  Morris developed a great affinity for the mythology and landscape of Iceland.  He made several trip during his life, and with the help of his friend Eirikr Magnusson, Morris taught himself Icelandic in order to translate Nordic tales. It was a profound connection.  Of his second journey to Iceland in 1973, he wrote: “I feel as if a definite space of my life had passed away now I have seen Iceland for the last time”.

Figure 4: This exhibit panel displays William Morris’s 2nd trip to Iceland

A great deal of Morris’s vision can be seen today, most notably in the continued popularity of his designs, but also in his views on the importance of art, beauty, and social equality.  Tolkien fans might be surprised to hear William Morris’s fantasy novels were an inspiration to the author of The Hobbit, and his influence can be seen in the modern fantasy genre. How We Might Live also highlights Morris’s influence on book design, the Arts & Crafts movement, and popularity of collecting Morris books and ephemera.

Figure 5: an example of an #EarthlyParadise tweet by @WmMorrisUMD

With so much to cover in such limited space, we turned to social media to expand the scope of the exhibit and reach out to a larger audience.  The twitter account @WmMorrisUMD highlights William Morris’s personal life, career, and philosophy. We tweet out events from his life, as well as personal quotes by Morris using #WilliamMorris. And there is no shortage of material to drawn from.  Morris’s collected works, his personal letters, and a comprehensive timeline by Nick Salmon were essential resources.  Excerpts from his poetry, fiction, and lectures bring life, and brevity, to his literary works and social commentary.  #EarthlyParadise features couplings from Morris’s most popular work, the epic four volume collection of poems published between 1868 and 1870.

Figure 6: An example of an #BurneJones tweet by @WmMorrisUMD

One of the more endearing aspects of Morris’s life was his lifelong friendship with artist Edward Burne-Jones. The two met as new students in Oxford and collaborated on projects for both Morris & Company and the Kelmscott Press.  Burne-Jones, a renowned Pre-Raphaelite artist, often sketched cartoons to poke fun at Morris. Tweets labeled #BurneJones feature these humorous drawings.  Whether it is a plump William Morris attempting a cartwheel, or Morris reading Earthly Paradise to a napping Burne-Jones, these cartoons reveal a playful side of the man his friends nicknamed ‘Topsy’.

Morris designs have made the exhibit well suited to outreach via Pinterest and Flickr. Morris’s visually stunning craftsmanship, from his wallpaper and stained glass designs to pages from his Kelmscott Press books, intrigues knowledgeable Morris fans and newcomers alike. Both sites serve as a stunning visual representation of his aesthetic and influence on art and design.

The culmination of our William Morris exhibit will be our Wayzegoose event, which will be held on May 9, 2013. A Wayzegoose is traditionally a fall event put on by a printer for his pressmen to mark the changing of seasons. From 1892 through 1895, William Morris hosted a Wayzegoose Dinner for the employees of Kelmscott Press. The inspiration for our event came from the Wayzegoose Dinner menus and programs on display from our William Morris collection. The event will honor the celebratory spirit of Morris’s Kelmscott dinners, featuring music, food, and all things Morris.  Upcoming details will be announced on our website and on twitter using #UMDWayzegoose.

Fig7 – Caption: Save the Date for Wayzegoose: Celebrating How We Might Live: The Vision of William Morris)

How We Might Live: The Vision of William Morris highlights the extensive life and enduring appeal of William Morris.   It provides the opportunity to showcase our collections and also pay homage to a multitalented artisan who is too often overshadowed by his Pre-Raphaelite colleagues.  Most of all, it gives people the chance to appreciate Morris’s works up close and in person, to admire Kelmscott Press books alongside socialist pamphlets, wallpaper samples, and beautifully illuminated poetry.  Our hope is that people exit the How We Might Live overwhelmed by the beauty and art that encompassed Morris’s life, and develop their own opinions on the legacy of William Morris.

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Laura French and Amber Kohl are members of the William Morris exhibit team in Special Collections at the University of Maryland Libraries.  How We Might Live: The Vision of William Morris is currently on display in the Hornbake Library Gallery at the University of Maryland through July 2013.  An online version of the exhibit is available at here.

How We Might Live on Twitter

How We Might Live blog

3 Responses leave one →
  1. April 23, 2013

    Looks like a very fine exhibition of Morris’s work, though what I miss from this account is 1. ‘The Defence of Guenevere’ volume, since it is these sharp, edgy, powerful early poems rather than the ‘Earthly Paradise’ tales which constitute Morris’s claim on the poetry reader today; and 2. ‘News from Nowhere’, arguably our finest English-language utopia, certainly the place where Morris’s political and aesthetic interests are best fused, and a text in which he repeatedly uses the term “communism” (rather than socialism) for the ideal society he envisages. Well done for putting this together – wish I could get over to see it.

  2. April 24, 2013

    How wonderful to find something of interest like this, and I live right in College Park. But I wouldn’t have know about it except for your blog post.

    I’ve loved the Arts and Crafts style for a long time, since I was a typesetter back in the early ’80s. I wrote a graduate research paper on Morris a few classes back and would really like to see some of the originals.

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