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Doing it in style

William Morris A Life for Our Time, By Fiona MacCarthy, Faber amp; Faber Pounds 25. 0 571 14250 8.

Frances Spalding welcomes a biography of William Morris Peter Fuller's epithet - radical conservative - aptly sums up the contradictions in William Morris: a progressive, who nevertheless regarded trains as "abominations", he swore allegiance to the Socialist cause yet spent his life, in his own words, "ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich". He worked for the future yet allowed his taste to be shaped by his love of the past, of medievalism in particular. A large man in every sense, he is not contained by the period in which he lived, but, as E P Thompson put it,"is one of those men whom history will never overtake".

This genial giant is the subject of Fiona MacCarthy's major biography. Undaunted by the massive scholarship on Morris, she reverses the trend towards specialisation and re-opens his life, analysing anew his relationships as well as every aspect of his multifarious career. What should seem over-familiar becomes newly surprising. Characters who have been slotted into certain roles, like historical puppets, here become idiosyncratic individuals, vital and complex. The story of Morris's life is a mix of high romance and immense labour. When he was dying a physician assessed his disease as "simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men".

He seems to have worked unceasingly, both with his hands and his head. A practical man, he familiarised himself with all the skills necessary to make the furnishings that his firm sold. At one point he kept a loom in his bedroom and would begin the day with a couple of hours of weaving.

This love of the tangible was married to visionary ideals. "O how I long to keep the world from narrowing on me", he wrote, "and to look at things bigly and kindly". It is impossible not to respond to what Fiona MacCarthy calls "his vast simplicity".

Like all idealists, he suffered from the mismatch between his desires and actuality. He raged against the dullness of the British middle classes,insensitive church restoration and ecclesiological reformers, and many aspects of modern civilisation. A Christmas pudding, which he thought sub-standard, was hurled downstairs. His sudden bursts of temper became legendary. His painter-friend, Burne-Jones, once found Morris trying on armour, unable to lift the visor of his helmet, "dancing with rage and roaring inside". Bernard Shaw blamed his petulance on early pampering, for as MacCarthy brings out, Morris came from an extremely wealthy background and had been indulged as a child, cosseted on calf's foot jelly and beef tea.

Even when young he had an appetite that exceeded most. He claimed that by the age of seven he had read all Walter Scott's novels. Not surprisingly, he did not think much of his schooling, dismissing Marlborough as a "boy farm". Education, he thought, was a life-long process, and therefore it was necessary to work towards that which would make this possible - an ideal community, leisured but not greedy, in which everyone could afford time to grow.

At Exeter College, Oxford, he read classics but, disliking the pompous, dry way in which they were taught, escaped into the study of history. He found it visibly expressed in architecture which, when satisfactory, gave him an exhilarating sense of freedom and space. As a schoolboy he had studied Gothic architecture in depth; on leaving Oxford he went on a tour of the cathedrals and churches of northern France. There he abandoned the idea of taking Holy Orders and, once back in England, apprenticed himself to the architect, GE Street. Though he never became an architect he learnt from Street, MacCarthy argues, how to create a grand effect out of a myriad components. A Morris interior may be dense with pattern, texture and small motifs, but all amalgamate into a rich, disciplined whole.

"Morris loved things; but he despised the superfluous." With such epigrammatic asides, Fiona MacCarthy points her tale. She also has a flair for quotation: when discussing Morris's and Burne-Jones's love of heightened emotion she reports the latter's remark on Browning's funeral - "how flat these English are." An easy grasp of cultural and historical connections allows her to carry the reader across the centuries: she links,for example, Morris's speech to striking miners in 1887 with the confrontation between Mrs Thatcher and Arthur Scargill at Orgreave in 1988.As her title suggests, Morris's concerns are far from obsolete; his insistence on the need for joy in labour, for example, points to social and economic problems which new technology, far from removing, has accentuated.

"Avoid vagueness", Morris said, when designing his crisp but fluid designs for fabrics. MacCarthy likewise brings precise attention to the ebb and flow of relationships in Morris's life. We find him bravely coming to terms with the failure within his marriage to Janey Burden. Neither lost affection or respect for the other, despite Janey's affairs with D G Rossetti and W S Blunt, two notorious philanderers. Morris gained some solace from the amitie amoureuse that he enjoyed both with Aglaia Coronio and Georgiana Burne-Jones, wife of his friend. However, much of his emotional life during the latter part of his career was taken up with his two daughters, one of whom became a victim of epilepsy, Morris's tenderness towards her, according to J W Mackail, his first biographer, became "the most touchingly beautiful element in his nature".

The richness of his nature and his many achievements, his craft-revivalism, political activities, his translations, poems and press, as well as his work with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, make this a biography that will appeal to many. It is a handsome publication, well illustrated and directed, chapter by chapter, by Morris's strong feeling for place. In today's entrepreneurial climate it reintroduces a sane innocence. "Having nothing in your houses," Morris advised, "that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful". And still more trenchantly: "What business have we with art at all unless all can share it?"

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