Pattern for successors to follow

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
Two major exhibitions opening this month celebrate the achievements of William Morris in London and Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow. Michael Clark, left, and Deirdre Macdonald report

There can be no doubt about William Morris's fame and influence. A political thinker, social reformer, educator, conservationist, writer, poet and visionary, he has spawned a veritable industry.

But it is as a designer that he is best known. His wallpapers and textiles are sold across the world and his image of the domestic interior - glowing with colour, its natural materials sympathetically worked into stylised natural patterns and forms - remains the preferred model for any number of middle-class homes.

Yet, even as a designer, Morris is more diverse and complex than is generally acknowledged. The first major figure in Nikolaus Pevsner's seminal, inter-wars book, The Pioneers of Modern Design, he would have been no more sympathetic to the functionalist design ethic than he would the machine aesthetic. He eloquently and persuasively celebrated the simple dignity and beauty of quite ordinary utensils (unintentionally supporting the reformists of industrial design). He was committed to the tradition of handcraftmanship and the symbolic status of objects, and would never embrace ergonomics, least of all mass-production using synthetic materials.

Taken in his teens to the 1851 Great Exhibition, Morris reportedly refused to go inside Paxton's Crystal Palace, already convinced that he would not like the things on display, and for the rest of his life he attacked the mimicry that characterised most manaufactured goods and the alienating effects of mechanised labour. When he and Edward Burne-Jones came down from Oxford to share rooms in London, the furniture then available was so distasteful to them that they set about designing and making their own.

Subsequently, on his marriage to Jane Burden in 1859, Morris built and furnished a home, Red House, Kent, from scratch and later established Morris, Marshal, Faulkner and Co, a shop and workrooms dedicated to the production and distribution of objects of a "genuine and beautiful character".

Surrounded by orchards and market gardens and lying on the route once taken by pilgrims from London to Canterbury, the site of Red House suited Morris's obsession with the medieval past and his concern for the network of small, self-sufficient, rural communities threatened by industrialisation and the spread of the railways.

To a great extent, the design and decoration of the house reflected these interests: the choice of locally fired brick and slate relating the house to its neighbours and the wider natural environment; the corner turret, covered well, pinnacled staircase and lancet windows lending a Gothic gloss; the cupboards, chests and hangings hand-painted or embroidered with scenes from the legend of St George, Arthurian romance or Chaucer elaborating on these themes.

But the overall plan and arrangement of rooms decided by Morris and his architect-friend, Philip Webb, was radically modern. Dining room and kitchen were practically related, the usually dark and airless interior corridor was given light and ventilation by being aligned with an outside wall where a horizontal sequence of circular windows as clearly expresses interior function as the two-storey, vertical one in the main staircase turret. Had the design included placing the principal bedrooms and reception rooms along the south and west garden fronts leaving those on the north and east for main entrance and services, Red House would have realised all the essential characteristics of the later Arts and Crafts house and its successors.

The character of Red House was a direct reflection of its owner. Morris had gone up to Oxford with the intention of taking holy orders and, for a while, he and Burne-Jones even considered converting to Roman Catholicism and founding a monastic order. The reveries inspired by medieval romances, however, were soon tempered by a growing awareness of the deep divisions within contemporary society: an awareness that would by the later 1870s cause Morris to oppose the Tory government's pro-Turkish policy in the Balkans, then lend his support to radical social reform through the National Liberal League and subsequently lead to his more revolutionary ideas and activities as joint-founder of the Socialist League.

Morris wrote, "I call myself a communist and have no wish to qualify that word by joining any other to it" but towards the end of his life when he sought to depict the decorative arts of the future in News from Nowhere, he once again went back to the 14th century for inspiration.

Any attempts to syphon off Morris's more extreme views from his art and design misrepresent the man and undervalue his achievments. Virtually all his poems and stories are set in a very remote past but even in the first collection, The Defence of Guinevere and other Poems, published when he was only 24 and effectively the earliest book of Pre-Raphaelite poetry, his representation of women as thinking, desiring, freely-acting creatures anticipates the New Woman elaborated upon in his and others' writing.

Morris's wife was a stable-keeper's daughter and artist's model, facts which could have reinforced conventional prejudices in favour of male superiority, but he willingly accepted so great a freedom on her side that he remained loyal throughout the many years of her liaison with Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Morris shared with Ruskin the belief that, "the art of any epoch must of necessity be an expression of its social life," which readily explains not only his linking creative and political activities but supports the growing suggestion that what unites all his diverse commitments was a deeply-felt sense of community. The continuation of his statement is, however, equally revealing, ". . . the social life of the middle ages allowed the workman freedom of individual expression, which on the other hand our social life forbids him." Hence his opposition to industrialised, capitalist society, his attachment to the medieval craftsmen's guild system, his reworkings of medieval art, design and literature and his pivotal position in our understanding of the role of craftsmanship.

The Victoria and Albert Museum's centenary exhibition, the most ambitious ever devoted to Morris and one of the largest undertaken by the museum, aims to reunite the diverse aspects of the man. As a contributor to the building (Morris and Co were responsible for the Green Dining Room, now called the Morris Room) and its collections (he gave money and his expertise), Morris also used the collections as a source for his own work.

In all his political activities Morris placed great emphasis upon the education of the workers, influenced no doubt by his reading the Christian socialist, Charles Kingsley, creator of the first working men's college. But Morris's definition of art as "the expression by man of his pleasure in labour", and his conviction that, "the cause of art is the cause of the people," implicitly democratise all creative activity and open up the possibility of work as an aesthetic experience.

This is far more radical than his 1881 address to students:"Try to get the most out of your material, but always in such a way as to honour it most, " however much it epitomised the motivating ideas behind the burgeoning Arts and Crafts Movement or the first public teaching institution, The Central School of Arts and Crafts, to be based on its principles.

What then are the central issues determining our estimate of Morris today? His role as political thinker and activist now seems minor. We may sympathise with his belief that art is a social activity transcending its economic base but our social and commercial understanding suggest otherwise. Morris's own activities were dependent initially upon a very large inherited income and then upon his own very capable business enterprise in the organisation and running of Morris and Co. However much he wanted "to execute work in a thoroughly artistic and inexpensive manner," his insistence on high-quality, handcrafted production put the price out of the reach of ordinary people who very likely would not have wanted his merchandise at any cost. Rejecting the cheaper industrialised production pursued by his great contemporary, Christopher Dresser, Morris condemned himself to, "ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich".

Comparable ambiguties surround our attempts to decide just how good or original he was as a designer. The early furniture is not only crude but derivative of pieces by Pugin and his imitator, G E Street, with whom Morris briefly studied architecture.

In the catalogue to this exhibition, Clive Wainwright from the V A's research department convincingly argues that all Morris's ideas on design were derived from those of Pugin, Ruskin and Jones and that even his most accomplished work, that as flat-pattern designer, lacks the originality of Pugin, Jones and, one might add, Dresser and Mackmurdo, the latter a younger and decisive influence on Morris's final work as book designer.

Here and elsewhere there are suggestions that Morris was an inspired amateur with sufficient money to indulge himself and that his business skills coupled with his charismatic personality enabled him to become a succesful interpreter and populariser of other men's ideas. But though his wallpapers, textiles and book illustrations may seem sweeter and more prettily accessible than those of his less well-known but perhaps more innovative predecessors and contemporaries, they retain a convincing coherence in themselves.

In the final analysis, maybe Morris's most lasting contribution will be his work as a conservationist. Prompted initially by the threatened destruction of the tower of Hampstead Parish Church and the wholesale restorations carried out by Sir Gilbert Scott, he set up the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877 which campaigned for proper respect to be accorded to our culture and was instrumental in persuading the newly-founded National Trust to purchase its first property in 1895. If this makes Morris a precursor of our present-day heritage industry, it is not entirely inappropriate. Morris derived so many of his images and techniques from the past that he at least had no doubts that respect for the past could coexist with respect for the present.

Books, dates and places to print on the memory

The William Morris exhibition is at the V A between May 9 and September 1Education Events: An Evening for Educators May 13 William Morris, introduction for teachers May 17 Tapestry Project, worshops Fridays and Saturdays May 10 - August 31 Natural Dyes for Hand Wood Block Printing, practical course May 14 - 17 Sandra Rhodes, masterclasses June 5, 6, 7, 11, 12.

William Morris Reviewed, three-day conference June 21 - 23 William Morris the Poet, talk with readings June 30 Fabric Painting Workshop, wearable Morris July 13 William Morris in Context, design history course for beginners July 15 - 18 Ceramics: Throwing and Handbuilding, five-day course July 23 - 26 Gallery talks in English, and other languages are available throughout the exhibition period. Education Department: 0171 938 8638 Places of Interest Kelmscott House, 26 Upper Mall, London W6 (0181 741 3735) headquarters of the William Morris Society.

Kelmscott Manor, near Lechlade, Gloucestershire (01367 252486) Morris's country home Red House, Red House Lane, Bexleyheath, Kent, Morris's home 1860 - 1865 Wightwick Manor, Wightwick Bank, Wolverhampton (01902 761108) a National Trust property decorated by Morris Co William Morris Gallery, Lloyd Park, Forest Road, London E17 (0181 527 3782) Books William Morris, edited by Linda Parry. Philip Wilson in association with the VA Pounds 19.95 William Morris: a life for our time by Fiona MacCarthy Faber and Faber Pounds 25 William Morris: his life and work by Stephen Coote. Alan Sutton Pounds 18.99 William Morris; art and Kelmscott by Linda Parry. Boydell and Brewer Pounds 16.95 William Morris by Himself: designs and writings edited by Gillian Naylor. Little, Brown Pounds 19.99

A stained glass panel designed by Burne-Jones for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner Co in 1864. Right: Red House, Morris's home in Kent

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