Morris, the English Nesting Doll

At the end of a three-hour lecture about William Morris, I was overcome by two feelings:

(01). Complete awe and admiration at Morris’s immense talents (02). Utter shame and self loathe (I believe this is self-explanatory)

And as I dwelled more into Morris’s life, his works and him as a super-artist (similar to super human but way cooler), I began to realise that Morris was a man of so many things and for me to understand him and his works better, I needed to peel off his several layers one by one. And so with that, William Morris transformed into a nesting doll in my mind. And as time is of essence and as I do not want to cause anyone to come with violent rage at reading an extremely lengthy essay, I have concise the many layers of William Morris to five main layers.

First Layer / Impression of William Morris

I have started to think of him as more than a human. A machine or even a humanoid, perhaps? Likening Morris to a machine obviously began as a way to justify my inadequacy in the field of arts and craft as compared to him. But the more I think of it; William Morris is truly one of a kind. I mean I can barely manage my two regular (mediocre) hands to complete this essay but Morris, oh Morris, he was a man with many hands. He is like the Kali (Hindu goddess) of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Morris lived and breathed art. He was a poet, artist, philosopher and typographer. He was a man of many skills, and although the saying goes as “jack of all trades and master of none”, I would like to differ and say that Morris is a master of all trades.

Second Layer / Beauty versus Effectiveness

 This is a layer that highlights Morris’s flaw. Yes there are arguments that say that Morris work is only aesthetically pleasing and has no other use. This may appear to be a Dada perspective but in general, the summary of the debate is that although Morris work, particularly his books showcases the intricacy of the patterns and illustration, the overall appearance is too busy which makes the content- the words, to become less significant, further fueled by his choice of typography which makes it harder to read. Thus making the effectiveness of a book as a tool to share and spread knowledge ineffective, in the case of Morris’s works.

Yes, it is true that aside from the beyond beautiful books that he created, he also dwelled in furniture making, which any layman would agree that  it is a functional work. However, the “effectiveness” I am referring to is once again focused on the works capability to spread its wings beyond the creator’s hands to the hands of many; the receivers.

Because he thrived for his works not to be cheap, vulgar, unrefined and distasteful, this meant creating a work worthy enough to put on a pedestal. A pedestal so high up that the only ones who could reach his works were the ones who could afford; the ones who wore heels or had the ability to at least purchase a ladder to receive the goodness of his works. It was out of a reach for the masses of simple laymen.

Third Layer / Man versus Machine

Is William Morris a man or a machine? This is a question that will probably linger in my head for a long time to come. I began my essay by likening him to a machine (layer one). He has definitely proved himself to be the man who makes everything out of scratch from the paint he uses, to the contents of his book (collaborating with illustrators ofcause) and even binding the book himself. He literally starts and finishes a book. His mind and hands seem to be working at a hyper intense speed, so uncommon to a regular human. And this may highly only relate to me, but we can all agree that Morris stretches the limitations of a human’s capacity and capability. But he was still only using his ability as a human (regardless of how magnificent they were).

Having said that, although this is how Morris began his mark in the Arts and Crafts Movement, he eventually moved to forming his own printing press in 1891. Does this mean that Morris eventually went against his views about mass production? Yes and No. But mostly no, because unlike cheap mass production, it was a press focused of printing high quality book. Yes, it was a printing press that produced more than one copy of the same book but it was done at such a high quality that meant costing more and time spent on it was higher. The supply produced in the press was low. This also meant that the price of the books, unlike a regular mass production, would be costly. Therefore yes, William Morris, at the later stages of his career did blur the line between a man or a machine as he tried to infuse both the elements together. I emphasis on using the word try as this plan eventually did not work out too well as the press only survived for six years before finally shutting down.

Forth Layer / Value of His Work in Today’s Context

With the power and influence of the Internet, there is almost nothing in the today’s world that is out of our reach. That includes the knowledge and content of William Morris and his works. We can receive almost everything about his works digitally now. However, is that really the same as having the ability to hold and touch and get real up close to a book that was hand made by the one and only William Morris? No, nothing could come close to that experience. With the digital world available for everyone and anyone, the value of owning a tangible copy of an original or a copy that has only a few duplicates is like owning your very own sorcerer’s stone. It gives you life. You feel infinite. Morris’s work, in today’s context, is an even more rare procession, a collectible, than it ever was in the olden times. And it is also a reminder that, technology still has its limitations (such as the 5cm metal typeface), while the creativity and ability of a human mind is limitless. William Morris is a reminder that when we think creativity is scarce, all we have to do is peek behind the one of his intricate floral wallpapers and there awaits a world of wonder.

Fifth Layer / Personal Thoughts

I chose not to explore the personal life of this revolutionary man because he is more than a plump man with curly hair and an unhappy wife. However, with the assumption that everyone reading this is probably aware of the personal life of Morris, I have short letter to him that I’d like to share:

Dear William,

You were able to see the beauty in everything and everyone except yourself. I wish you did though. Because then, you would have surrounded yourself with a woman who could love you back and a friend who understood the value of friendship. I wish you had put yourself in a greater pedestal, just the way you did for the arts and crafts.

(and when he gets light headed from reading that)

Also, if it wasn’t for easily available mass-produced books, which eventually evolved to computers, technology and the Internet, we may have never learnt about you, and that would have been really unfortunate. I would not have been able to ogle at your handsome face at the computer screen, Morris. So ease up a little on the idea of mass production. With mass production comes mass in knowledge and knowledge is usually a good thing. So, you need to be a little more forgiving towards the concept of mass production ok? (But I still adore you).

Regards, Hemani

(I know you’re an avid collector of new skills and talents, but don’t try to acquire the skill to pronounce my name. Just don’t.)