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Is John Ball a dream?

It’s a tough one, this. William Morris’s novella A Dream of John Ball paints a heroic picture of one of the most complicated and contested episodes in English history: the so-called Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. The main character, dreaming his way back to the 14th century from Morris’s dirty, depressed and over-populated London to a clean and well-kept Kentish village, discovers he has arrived at exactly the moment when John Ball, the excommunicate priest recently sprung from Maidstone jail by a growing body of rebels, arrives to preach and incite the locals to take up their weapons and march on London. The villagers are decent, happy to share what they have with the stranger, and all too glad to follow John Ball to bring down the feudal system and reinstate the primordial communism known by the first men and women, when there were no gentlemen. But was it like that?

I’ve been homing in on the Great Rising from two different directions. Firstly, this blog, and my all interest in Morris and his political messages, and secondly, from the book of Suffolk ghost tales I’m researching and writing at the moment. Suffolk was the original home of the hated Chancellor, Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon of Sudbury, and the county exploded into rebellion as Kent and Essex rebels were marching on London. These are dark tales. There’s no surprise that there are ghost stories associated with the rising. The rebellion in Suffolk, especially around Bury St Edmunds, Mildenhall and Lakenheath, was brutal, full of revenge, petty and great.

And that’s one of the problems, for me. This communist uprising with its noble aims of distributing the wealth to one and all was no such thing. Did John Ball even write his letters? The famous phrase, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?’ was in the common parlance. Did Wat Tyler taste power and have it go to his head? Did Jack Straw even exist? What then was going on?

Well, as with everything in life, it’s complicated. The 14th century was a tumultuous one – I remember reading when I was a teenager Barbara Tuchman’s magisterial (but now rather out of date) A Distant Mirror, which calls it a calamitous century. The Hundred Years War, the Black Death, revolt and rebellion, it was all kicking off. And yet, for many, in the latter half of the century, things had improved in southern England, at least. Much of the population had meat on their tables, wore better clothing, had the chance of better wages. The successive plagues had more than decimated the population, and so there were opportunities for those who were left. As you can imagine, landowners were not keen to face up to this. Parliament pushed through statutes that artificially suppressed pay. Not popular. Worse, the war with France wasn’t going well in the aftermath of the last illness of King Edward III and into the minority of his son, Richard II. And war was costly.

It’s a tough one, too, because I approve of taxation. Unlike Morris, whose ideas tended towards a stateless anarchism, my experience of living in the safe, peaceful society that has been Britain for the majority of my forty-plus years on this earth has led me to believe that a form of taxation that allows us to pay when we can (i.e. when we have an income) for things that we might need when we can’t – things like the our universal health care system, our free schooling, our state pensions, our welfare state, and, when I was young, for the fees and grants that allowed everyone to go to university, if they made the grade. And the peasant’s revolt is a lot about taxation, and not wanting to pay it.

But how much do you tax? And whom? There can be no doubt that a line was crossed by parliament. It was Simon of Sudbury who demanded the last and largest amount – £160,000 (a labourer was paid roughly 5p a day, just to contextualise that). Over a 3 or 4 year period a bewildering number of different taxes were laid on the country, and everyone, rich and poor alike, had to pay. There’s even an account of a sergeant at arms, John Legge, lifting girls’ skirts to see if they were old enough for sex i.e. had pubic hair, and were thus old enough to pay the tax, liable from age 15. Nice. The tax collectors turned up with bully boys, and corruption was rife. The burden of the later taxes fell hardest on the poor.

 

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Chelmsford celebrating John Ball in this painting by Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, 1938, in the County Hall.

And people were already angry. Angry with successive wars, Angry with a venal church that cared little for the pastoral needs of the ordinary folk in their parishes. Angry with the continuing burden of petty rules and regulations, particularly for serfs, who were effectively owned by their landlord – they had to pay, for example, merchet, a kind of fine to get married, and owed time and produce to their lord. It must have seemed they got little in return for this bargain. More people were making their way off the land and into towns, and in the towns and villages too were itinerant preachers, ready to speak of a better way of being – as John Ball is supposed to have written, ‘Now pride reigns as prize, covetousness is held wise, lechery without shame, gluttony without blame, envy reigns with treason and sloth is in high season. God bring remedy, for now is time…’ To rise up? Yes.

 

But to rise as they did, looting and murdering? That’s what I find hard. There are moments of calm, such as when John Wrawe, in Suffolk, and his men, repair to an alehouse in Long Melford for a pipe of wine, and pay the landlord from their takings, Robin Hood style. But contrast that with the treatment of John de Cavendish and John de Cambridge, a king’s justice and Bury’s prior respectively. One waylaid and executed at Lakenheath, the other at Mildenhall, and their heads paraded around Bury for the amusement of the people. Then there’s the looting. Some of it reasonable – take the records and burn them, that’s a great way to start a new world order, as we are then, in theory, created as equal as we were when we were born. But much of the violence seems meaningless. It reminds me of the riots in Britain in 2011 after the trigger incident of a police killing. And again, the revengeful outpouring of hate and violence that erupted after Trump was elected. The people are angry. They will take revenge.

 

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The skull of Simon of Sudbury at St Gregory’s, Sudbury.

The times are more dangerous now, the stakes far higher. John Ball was a sort of left-wingish (if we can say such a thing of a medieval character!) populist. The populous were whipped into action all too easily because they had cause to be angry and had no voice. Then, the rebellion was put down hard. Nobody listened. The chroniclers vilify Ball and Tyler and the rest. They try to make people like Simon of Sudbury and John de Cambridge martyrs, and my goodness, these were not nice men they were trying to sanctify! But they were the establishment, and it had enough might to suppress pretty much anything, then. Does it today? Do we want to be able to? Do we want more surveillance? Do we want harsher laws to ‘protect’ us? No. So we mustn’t make the mistakes of the past. We must listen to those who are angry and find common ground, the common ground of our thoughts and the decency with which we all believe we are living our lives. And those who are angry need to listen, too. Need to see that revenge and violence against whoever the scapegoat might be – whether the establishment, or whether against a random ‘other’, such as the forty unfortunate Flemish clothworkers murdered during the Revolt in London – is not the way to make their own lives better.

 

And so, for once, if we are going to dream of John Ball, let’s make him a not rabble-rouser but a peaceable man.

Images:

  1. An illustration of the priest John Ball on a horse encouraging Wat Tyler’s rebels  of 1381, from a c. 1470 manuscript of Jean Froissart‘s Chronicles in the British Library.
  2. John Ball by Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, 1938, image copyright Essex County Council
  3. The skull of Simon of Sudbury, copyright Evelyn Simak

Bloody Sunday – a reminder

dusk-the-day

When Alfred Linnell set out to see what was going on at the protest in Trafalgar Square he can have had no idea what was going to happen. He might have expected some violence – after all, the previous Sunday had been pretty vicious, but the day was getting on and he was only going for a look. Once there, he saw that the mounted police were there before him, riding, it seemed, without a thought for the humans through whom they plunged. As they came closer to him, he added his voice to those shouting at them. The mounted police dove towards those shouting, while the police on foot started to drive the people away. People panicked and fled, Linnell among them. A charger knocked him down, and as he lay there looking up at the huge beast, it trampled him down, smashing his thigh. He was left there to lie in agony, even though there was a police ambulance nearby. Bystanders took him to the hospital at Charing Cross. Twelve days later he was dead.

The 20 November 1887 isn’t the more famous of the two Sundays in November when protesters took to the streets around Trafalgar Square. The previous Sunday, the 13th, 129 years ago to this day, has gone down in history as the first ‘Bloody Sunday’. Many were injured. Three died. But it was Linnell, a seemingly innocent bystander only lately arrived at the protest scene, who became the martyr for the cause. His death became a rallying point for the socialists and anarchists in London to join with the ordinary people and to mark a dark day in the way the police were allowed to treat people, how the law ran roughshod – literally – across the demands of those ordinary people. People who were still, in the main, disenfranchised and with few of the rights we take for granted today. Linnell’s death was a small stepping stone in raising public awareness to social injustice in the Victorian world.

Bloody Sunday came only two days after the execution of the four Chicago Anarchists. Their deaths acted as an impetus to galvanise the various groups of socialists and anarchists in London to protest – and there was a readymade protest group just sitting there in London waiting for them. The 1880s were the hard times in old England – the country was deep in the ‘long depression’, and there was mass employment. Many people came to London, but found the streets were not paved with gold. Only greater hardship awaited them – no benefits of any kind then, of course. Trafalgar Square had become a gathering place for the unemployed, giving speeches, organising themselves… But it wasn’t just them. There were supporters of Irish Home Rule protesting there as well, against the Coercion Acts. On 8 November protests were outlawed. This also galvanised the socialists, the anarchists, the radicals, who not only supported workers’ rights but also, critically, the right to free assembly and speech.

On Sunday 13 November more than 10,000 protestors marched towards Trafalgar Square. Estimates say that there were 30,000 people there that day. Waiting for them in the Square were up to 4000 police and troops – those latter armed. The protesters were marching into a trap. William Morris said afterwards ‘into the net we marched’[i]. Marching from Clerkenwell was the Socialist League, including Morris, Annie Besant, Eleanor Marx and others.  There were speeches, there was a band playing. But it didn’t last.800px-1887bloodysunday

Morris was walking in the middle of the crowd with Fabian playwright George Bernard Shaw, and, through some sixth sense, guessed there was trouble ahead.  Pushing to the front he saw the police were there. Their banner was torn out of the hands of Mrs Taylor, despite her determination to keep it[ii], and the band’s instruments smashed.[iii] The police didn’t care if you were a man or a woman. They actually got hold of Eleanor Marx, but she managed to escape with only a whack from a truncheon and a blow to the head…[iv] Morris, in the thick of the action, said, ‘I shall never forget how quickly these unarmed crowds were dispersed into clouds of dust…’[v] Many of the protestors lost their nerve. Shaw says, ‘Running hardly expresses out collective action. We skedaddled … I think it was the most abjectly disgraceful defeat ever suffered by a band of heroes outnumbering their foes a thousand to one.’[vi] Morris didn’t run, but his words give a sense of his fear in that moment, ‘I found myself suddenly alone … and, deserted as I was, I had to use all my strength to get to safety.’[vii]

Morris pressed on, reaching the Square, where he found the police and troops in control. It was a rout. That night, the police sang Rule Britannia and shouted out ‘Hurrah’ all night. The Times reacted to the protest, saying, ‘It was … no serious conviction of any kind, and no honest purpose that animated these howling toughs. It was simple love of disorder’. It described the protestors as ‘howling roughs’ and ‘criminals’.[viii] Those who were there told a different story. Walter Crane said ‘I never saw anything more like real warfare in my life – only the attack was all on one side.’[ix]

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When Linnell died the following week Crane and Morris came together to create a pamphlet to help raise money for his orphaned children. They were already in the workhouse. Linnell was poor, copying law documents for a very bare living, and when his wife had died he couldn’t keep the family together. The girl was in Mitcham, the boy, Harwich. Nobody even told them that their father was sick. What happened to them afterwards isn’t known. Did the pamphlet help? It includes a cover image by Crane and a poem by Morris set to music by Malcolm Laswson, and an account of Linnell’s life and death.

Linnell was given a grand funeral. A huge procession walked from the West End of London to the East, swelling to tens of thousands. On that drizzly December 18, it was dusk by the time they reached Bow Cemetery. Speeches were read by lamplight. Morris gave an emotional eulogy, including the words, ‘let us feel he is our brother’, and his Death Song was sung.[x] The verse at the top is from Morris’s poem.

This bald account of those three dramatic days may serve as a reminder of how hard the fight was to gain what we have today. The Chicago Anarchists, perhaps, went into the fight with their eyes open as to the danger. But Alfred Linnell? His two children, orphaned that day? We’re seeing the first queasy suggestions that these rights may be eroded away when we leave the EU. Maybe they won’t be. But I fear that it will be only if we fight for them once more. So, here is this, another memory that shows that once we did fight through, and having done it once, we know we can do it again.

Notes:

[i] Fiona MacCarthy William Morris: A Life for Our Time (Faber & Faber, 1994), p. 568

[ii] EP Thompson William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (Spectre, 2011), p. 490

[iii] MacCarthy, p. 568

[iv] Rachel Holmes Eleanor Marx (Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 299

[v] Taylor, p. 490

[vi] Holmes, p. 299

[vii] Taylor, p. 490

[viii] Ibid p. 491

[ix] http://spartacus-educational.com/Jcrane.htm, retrieved 8 November 2016

[x] MacCarthy, p. 573

Images:

  1. Illustration from the Illustrated London News, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1887BloodySunday.jpg retrieved 8 November 1887
  2. http://www.andrewwhitehead.net/political-pamphlets.html, retrieved 8 November 1887

‘Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?’

We’re all in shock today. Again. How many unthinkables can one take in a year? Today seems a triumph much of what’s wrong in the world: racism, sexism, hate-mongering, predatory sexual behaviour, unthinking capitalism, climate change-denying, intolerance, deliberate misunderstanding, lying etc. All those thing repressed can now, it seems, come to the fore. It is frightening. The future is a dark place now, and the positives gone out the window, despite media spin. It would be all too easy to retreat. I know I have been. As the US elections neared I cracked open my old Mercedes Lackey Heralds of Valdemar books. Why them? Well, they are moral fairy tales, in which reasoned thought to do good wins over the irrational and evil every time. I’ve read them many times. I now feel like clinging to them. I don’t want to watch or listen to the news. Everything screams: hide!

And it’s not just that. I’m tired. There are other, smaller fights, everyday fights, that have to be fought. From small, recognised injustices to the simple fight to put bread on the table and keep up with the pace of today’s life. I’m tired. I don’t want to fight.

And it’s not that. We’ve been hiding a while, haven’t we? We retreat into bake-offs, knitting, endless nature books about Britain, cosy nostalgic things. And these are good things, worth doing. But they are inward looking. Morris was inward, too, at first. He didn’t want to see outside his art, his deep and abiding passion for all things medieval that manifest in his designs and his poetry. The title of this blog comes from his great epic poem, The Earthly Paradise, 1868-70. He describes himself, in the same verse, as a ‘dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time,’. And I’ve felt that. Not that I’d want to really live in another time, but that I want to dwell in a dream of it. I’m a writer – so, like Morris, that’s part of what I do,. I dream in a fantasy world. After all, here I am writing a blog about a Victorian medievaliser!

But Morris decided to fight. He had a tipping point. Having been stalwartly uninterested in politics through his youth, but falling on the Liberal side of things, an issue in the mid-1870s opened his eyes. Once open, he could not again close them fully. In 1876 Europe was gripped in a crisis concerning Russia and Turkey (plus ça change!), and Morris was inspired by the words of the then leader of the opposition, William Gladstone, and his impassioned writing against the atrocities that the Turks had committed against the Bulgarians. Morris joined the Eastern Question Committee, he took his first tentative steps into fiery political writing. At the next election, Gladstone got in … and didn’t fulfil Morris’s hopes. But his eyes were open. He had to keep fighting. So he found another forum in which to fight.

And he used what he knew, what he could do. Okay, Morris was a famous poet. And he did what he did best. He drew upon his medieval roots and concocted an idealised, but still potent vision inspired by them. He wrote and wrote, and he lectured. He wrote novels that espoused his political thought. He tried hard to embody his theories. Maybe he failed, some of the time. But he fought. It didn’t stop him hiding a bit as well. Morris always had his obsessions – translating Icelandic sagas, calligraphy and illumination etc. etc.- and he could lose himself in that work as well as the ‘bread and cheese work’ of his design company, Morris & Co. But he channelled it, he made what he loved into the fight.

It’s hard to fight, and it’s hard to realise, as Morris did, that the fight is something that you can’t win, yourself, in your lifetime. But, like Morris, let’s not give in to hiding – let us strive to set the crooked straight. Stick to our ideals, and remember that to be idealistic is a good thing. Maybe then…

Remember, remember to stand together

Solidarity. What does the word mean to you? For me, as a child of the 80s, it automatically means a trade union in Poland. Despite the fact that Solidarity was formed within and contra to a communist state, it was still to fight for the rights of workers and the oppressed. It seems an unavoidably socialist word, but all it actually means is ‘unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group.’[i] So, for example, ineffectual as it might be, we show solidarity with the Standing Rock protesters in the Dakotas by logging in there on facebook. Our nifty new social media networks connect us with others who think and feel the same (let’s not talk about bubbles and the shock of encountering a counter opinion). We sign petitions by the score. We blog. If we’re lucky, we reach wider fora. We might donate. We might march. We might join a party or a group. We might even go and stand by our fellows in person. It’s all solidarity. We might also create art, but does it do any good?

Although it’s facilitated by social media these days, it’s nothing new. This blog is about solidarity, of a kind, from an Arts and Crafts artist (not Morris, sorry!) to a very contentious cause. One that seems appropriate to blog about on the 5 November, as it’s all about that point where protest meets terror. Not what you’d expect a mild-mannered artist (definitely not Morris!) to involve themselves in. But involve himself he did. ‘He’ being Walter Crane, the artist of the British socialist movement bar none, and he was a great believer in unity and solidarity in the rapidly fragmenting world of left wing activism in the late 19th century.

 

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Walter Crane photographed by Frederick Hollyer,

 

The tale involves protest against injustice, homemade bombs, police infiltration and miscarriage of justice. And it really isn’t about Guy Fawkes! It’s about anarchy in the USA, not, for once, in the UK. The end game happened 129 years ago – not on the 5 November but on another potent day in our calendar, the 11 November. Now, we all know 11 November as Remembrance Day, the day where we remember those who fought in the two world wars – and beyond, to the wars that, despite the prayers of those at the end of both the First and Second World Wars, have kept on and kept on happening. Now, I could go off at a tangent as to why I wear the Peace Pledge Union’s white poppy (available from these outlets should you wish for one…) not the red, why I want to remember of those who have died in war, but I’d better not! Suffice to say, we’ve mostly forgotten to remember what happened on that 11 November 1887, even though what happened that day and for the long 16 months before it on 4 May 1886 inspired the institution of International Labour Day, the 1 May. How many remember now that it was the Haymarket Affair that triggered it?

 

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The Anarchists of Chicago by Walter Crane, 1894

 

The Haymarket Affair is still, as far as I know, a mystery. It happened as part of a rally in support of strikers in Chicago who were, as many were at the time, campaigning for an eight hour day with no reduction in day. There was a body of anarchists in the city, and it’s hard to know who within those groups was keen to pursue direct action and who preferred the semi-legality of rallies and marches and speeches. Certainly, a leaflet had gone out inciting people to go armed to the meeting – although it had been swiftly withdrawn. That 4 May, the police came en masse to break up the rally, the crowd was dispersing, the leaders stepping down … when a bomb was thrown into the path of the advancing police. It exploded, fatally wounding a policeman. What appears to have happened next is that the police, afraid, opened fire. Shots were fired back – some folks were armed.

To this day we don’t know who threw the bomb. There is some certainty that it wasn’t any of the 8 men arrested. The only suspect for the actual throwing, Rudolph Schnaubelt, got away. All 8 men were anarchists. Some, such as Louis Lingg, were involved in bomb making. The others? Well, they were certainly anarchists. They were also all found guilty. Three were sentenced to life in prison. Five were sentenced to hang. Lingg committed suicide in prison the day before his hanging. The other four were executed the next day, 11 November 1887.

This trail was not a local issue. The bomb sent shock waves around the world. This was a new kind of protest – it was the beginning of the kind of terrorism that we know today. It marked a black moment in the history of protest, signalling that the protestors were as likely as the establishment to use extreme force, and in this destabilising, terrifying way – not by force of numbers, but this anonymous piece of kit. From this moment, nothing would be the same.

And yet, the socialists and anarchists around the world rallied behind the eight men. Not because they thought the bomb was a good idea (although some no doubt did), but because they saw a grave miscarriage of justice unfolding. These eight men were being scapegoated, and their movement destroyed. Walter Crane was there from the beginning, ‘an outspoken advocate for the defendants from 1886 onward and vocal in his support of the movement to pardon them’[ii]. It made free speech a hot topic in 1880s London, with Morris’s Commonweal publishing many articles. Crane himself had two poems in defence of the men published there. Poems? Sounds feeble? Well, poems could be printed and taken to meetings to be recited[iii] – actually powerful!

In 1891 Crane was in America for the first time. He was a successful artist, and this was a retrospective of his work. It was also the fifth anniversary of the affair. Crane spoke at an anarchist event in Boston, reciting his poems and giving a speech. When he returned to his hotel ‘he found a letter informing him that public espousal of the cause of the Anarchists meant “hopeless ruin” to his social and artistic prospects in America’[iv]. Crane did respond to this, saying he didn’t support violence, but that he did support the key anarchist idea of ‘a life of voluntary association, of free individual development – the freedom only bounded by respect for the freedom of others’[v].

In 1894 he produced an image to commemorate the Chicago Anarchists. In 1893 the men had been pardoned, but at the same time the idea of bombing had taken off. Crane was perhaps more ambivalent to the cause, and had turned away from anarchism back to the safer embrace of socialism, but he still showed solidarity with the idea of fair justice for all in law, as had not happened for the those arrested for the bombing, even if his own allegiances had shifted. He always strove to create unity. His images are all about unity – the figures of Liberty and winged Freedom embrace us all. He was a member of several different groups – from Fabians to the Hammersmith Socialists, was friends with anarchists like Kropotkin, and published in all the journals, cunningly trying to draw the ideas together. He produced art for all the groups, and his art defined the style used for much socialist – and suffrage – art up to the First World War.

So, a poem can show solidarity. So can a piece of visual art. Although speaking out and protesting is necessary, we remember Walter Crane’s art (maybe not the poems!), Morris’s poetry and novels, Shaw’s plays more than much that actually went on at the time. They still speak to us today, and maybe can encourage us to use our creativity to stand firm – with Standing Rock, perhaps, and with any other injustice that speaks to us – and stand together in the best and most fitting way we can, that which speaks to our creative talents. So, sing, recite, paint, act, joke – even yarn bomb. But remember Walter Crane’s words of 1894 in Freedom, an anarchist journal, on how violence fails because ‘people cannot be forced into perceiving the right way, any more than thought can be stopped by force’[vi].


Note – much of the content and all the quotes of Walter Crane’s involvement in the Haymarket Affair are taken from: ‘Cartoons for the Cause? Walter Crane’s The Anarchists of Chicago’ by Morna O’Neill, originally published in Art History, 2014, and can be found here.

You can find out more about the Haymarket Affair here.

[i] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/solidarity sourced 5/11/2016

[ii] O’Neill, Morna ‘Cartoons for the Cause? Walter Crane’s The Anarchists of Chicago’, Art History, 2014, p. 112

[iii] Ibid, p. 113

[iv] Ibid, p. 120

[v] Ibid, p. 120

[vi]Ibid, p. 124

Images:

  1. Detail of The Worker’s Maypole by Walter Crane, 1894, retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/subject/mayday/ 5/11.2016
  2. Photograph of illustrator, designer and painter, Walter Crane (1845-1915). Detail of photo by Frederick Hollyer (1837-1933) Platinum print Width 14.5 cm x height 10.3 cm Victoria & Albert Museum Museum no. 7725-1938 Given by Eleanor M. Hollyer, 1938. retrieved 5/11/2016 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Crane#/media/File:Walter_crane_small.jpg
  3. The Chicago Anarchists by Walter Crane, 1894 retrieved from http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/5/31/1388994/-Beltaine-with-Walter-Crane  5/11/2016

William Morris is dead, long live William Morris

hdr-william-morris-updated-415-detailWilliam Morris died #OTD exactly 120 years ago. The 3 October 1896 was a bleak day for his friends and family. The Great Man was only 62, but had been failing for some time before. Nonetheless, that July Morris had travelled to Norway with a friend – his doctor knowing that this would be his last voyage. Apparently on the boat Morris asked to seated so his could see ‘the younger and prettier women…’ but the trip didn’t raise his usual enthusiasms for the wild landscapes of the north. His dear friends Sydney Cockerell and Emery Walker met him from the boat, and were informed that congestion of the lungs had now set in. He was still working – his last novel, The Sundering Flood, was finished through dictation to Cockerell that August, but things were ending. Walker and Cockerell knew they couldn’t fill Morris’s shoes and decided not to continue Morris’s Kelmscott Press after he was gone – though both continued to advance and enhance the world of both private and commercial printing throughout their lives. His friends visited – Georgie and Edward Burne Jones, Philip Webb, F S Ellis – old friends. His wife, daughter May (his elder daughter, Jenny, was sick herself, and couldn’t come), Georgie and a couple of other friends were with him at the end, with Walker, Cockerell, Webb and Edward Burne Jones all there the day before, and immediately after. Georgie said he died ‘as gently, as quietly as a babe who is satisfied drops from its mother’s breast.’

20150912_163145He is buried in a quiet corner of Kelmscott churchyard, where Janey, Jenny and May later joined him. It is an unassuming gravestone by an unassuming church. Morris loved Kelmscott church, a quiet 12th century building with little spectacle. Webb designed the gravestone, based on a piece of stonework that Webb found in the churchyard, making Morris’s tomb utterly of the place. Webb understood his old friend very well – their enthusiasms matching each others in art, architecture and socialism along the way – and I think Morris would have been pleased with the simplicity of it.

549px-kelmscott_manor_news_from_nowhereWhat would William Morris say to his legacy? The obituaries of the day heralded him as a poet. Today his verse is little read. We know him as a designer, mostly, someone who created nice wallpapers and fabrics – and maybe we know he was the father of the Arts and Crafts Movement. We know him, perhaps, as someone who’s love life was tangled. We might know the ‘useful and beautiful’ quote – but maybe not what prompted him to need to write that and all the other essays on living through and in art. We may know that he was a socialist and a ‘dreamer of dreams’. We know his prose better than his poetry, and maybe we might have read News from Nowhere. We know, some of us, the Icelandic sagas he helped bring to the British public. We’ve been in, perhaps, some of the buildings the organisation he founded, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, saved in their original state for the nation. We may also have seen the stained glass his firm placed in many  ancient – and new – buildings. We might not know all of him, but we do know him.

What would William Morris say to #OTD on twitter? I dread to think! But I so think he might sneakily pleased that all aspects of his life are still being brought to the world, even if he might abominate some of the media that dies it!

And as for what happened next … Although he left the church behind many, many years before to search for many and various earthly paradises, he did apparently say to a friend shortly before he died that he could ‘not believe that I shall be annihilated.’

Note:

To find out more about Morris’s death (and life!) read Fiona MacCarthy’s biography William Morris: A Life for Our Time (Faber & Faber, 1994)

Images:

Image 2: Kelmscott churchyard copyright Kirsty Hartsiotis.

Dr Richard Morris and medieval inspiration

richard_at_kenilworth_castleThe wonderful and inspirational Dr Richard Morris, who ran the Monastery and Cathedral course I took in my second year at Warwick University, sadly died last year. I didn’t know until writing the Nature of Gothic blog. In fact I was just telling my favourite anecdote about him last night! He was only 71. By far my favourite lecturer at Warwick (although they were all outstanding!) he inspired in me this love of medieval architecture, the Romanesque, the Herefordshire School of sculpture and – most importantly – inculcated a fascination in early medieval British and Irish sculpture and architecture. He manfully tutored me outside his comfort zone when I did my dissertation on Irish High Crosses – but it’s this course, and the third year ‘Perp’ course (sorry, I actually can’t remember what the course was called – but we were studying the Perpendicular period in the late 14th – 15th centuries! Oops!), in which I really remember him. We had field trips every Friday, and I have ‘fond’ memories of standing in freezing cold parish churches in Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and the Welsh border country, so cold that my legs went numb up to my knees. Cathedrals were a treat. They have those round Victorian heaters. I know them well. We knew from the beginning he was a live wire. In lectures in those dim and distant days of the early 90s there was no Powerpoint, just slides. Slides frequently jam. When they did, Richard would race up the steps of the lecture theatre, disappear into the projector room at the top and swear loudly until he had fixed the problem… On field trips, though, he came into his own. Drives were always white-knuckle rides in the minibus down unsuitable and bumpy lanes at breakneck speed. There was often mud and rain and crumbling stone staircases to climb. There was always enthusiasm. The anecdote I was relating last night was this – one time we hadn’t gone far for our fieldtrip, just to Kenilworth and Warwick. It must have been in the third year, when the Perp and Englishman’s Home (is his castle…) courses were out looking at castles. He was illustrating the point that different types of sandstone have different qualities. Kenilworth Castle’s stone, for example, is very hard, very durable. Warwick … not so much. To demonstrate this, he jumped up the wall of the castle and grabbed at the stone – which crumbled away down the wall. We were mortified! But, it certainly made the point. Another local field trip led us experimentally through the cellars of the houses that run down from Basil Spence’s cathedral in Coventry to the bus stop at the bottom where the small fragments of west front the Romanesque abbey church of Coventry stand. We were searching for fragments of medieval masonry. I don’t think we found any – but we felt part of the research. His lectures and his field were always fun, and it’s not surprise I went on to study Medieval Studies for my MA. RIP Richard, you were the best teacher.

For more obituaries of Dr Morris, click here.

The Nature of Gothic – travelling with William Morris

40Last year my husband, Anthony, and I went on holiday to France. Our aim – or at least mine – was to follow in the footsteps of William Morris and his friends Edward Burne Jones (EBJ) and William Fulford and their dash around the great gothic churches of Northern France in 1855. They were there for three weeks, we for two. They saw more than 14 churches from Abbeville to Avranches, and we saw 8 of their 14+ from Abbeville to Louviers, falling down before Rouen and scuttling to the coast for beachside R&R on our last few days. Over that time I took notes in each church, and Anthony wrote poems. Woven in among the blogs on this site will be a series that chart that journey and Morris’s parallel one 160 years before.

Why were they so keen to go? Morris was only 21, and full of all the uncertainties of that age.  He and EBJ and several of their other college friends had already thought to lock away the modern world by starting a religious community – a monastery. But it was on this trip that Morris and EBJ decided that they would put aside the church and dedicate their lives instead to a more fickle mistress, art. Neither man ever wavered from that new path. It must have been a powerful holiday.

Why did I want to do this? I had long wanted to see the northern gothic cathedrals. I studied art history at university, and one of the courses I did was ‘Monastery and Cathedral’, which looked at the Romanesque and early Gothic churches of France and Britain. I loved that course. I suppose I was attuned to many of the same tastes as Morris and his friends, and probably came to that in part through my early love of the Pre-Raphaelites, discovered aged 13 when seeing a ‘hippy picture’ at my father’s house … he was shocked I didn’t know that the artist was Burne Jones, and bought me the Thames and Hudson The Pre-Raphaelites book. I read it so much it fell apart. So began my own lifelong passion for art and architecture. As part of the degree, we had a short trip to Paris, in which I saw two of the churches on Morris’s route, Notre Dame in Paris and Chartres. But no others. So I longed to see the other greats – but I also wanted to get under Morris’s skin a bit more, and give myself a purpose, all these years later, for seeing the churches.

Why Gothic? Britain – and France – were deep in the throes of a gothic revival. New gothic buildings – including our Houses of Parliament – were springing up everywhere, and Morris and EBJ were in love with the middle ages. They had studied medieval manuscripts, read medieval romances, steeped themselves in King Arthur – and, critically, they had read the works of John Ruskin. Ruskin, an art critic, had recently published a book called The Stones of Venice, about Venetian art and architecture. In this mammoth tome one chapter would come to be deemed by Morris as ‘one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century’ when he published it many years later. From this chapter, ‘The Nature of Gothic’, Morris would take what might be said to be the central tenant of his life – that work should be meaningful and pleasurable. But at this young age, instead, Morris was drunk on the architecture itself. Gothic architecture – and especially that of the 13th century – was the apogee of art for him at that time. Three weeks in the presence of that art, and among the ancient towns and cities and the gentle rolling countryside of France, so like his own southern Britain, but less tainted, it seemed, by the march of progress.

Gothic’s not my personal favourite of the medieval architectural styles. I’ve long been a fan of the Romanesque, that monumental style that owes its genesis to the architecture of Rome, but has a solid, raw power all of its own, and even of the scrips and scraps that remain of the Saxon architecture that preceded it here in England. But in the 19th century, Gothic was the favoured style, representing home-grown mastery, a simpler, better time, its soaring stone pillars and ribs took you into a time of romance and chivalry, its organic carvings and brilliant glass took you into a pre-industrial, religious time – a time that was starting to seem a distant dream in Britain’s rapidly industrialising cities, filling up as they were with factories, slums, smog, pollution and people, people, people. Gothic was a gasp of fresh air, ad for Morris – taking his lead from Ruskin – it was the simple Gothic of the 13th century that caught his imagination, that point when the new style, with its pointed arches, complex vaulting, huge deep-dyed windows and realistic statuary was at its most austere. At its most pure?

For Morris, looking back on his life, this holiday often seemed to him to mark a moment of clarity. In his lecture 1880s lecture The Aims of Art, he says, ‘Less than forty years ago – about thirty – I first saw the city of Rouen, then still in its outward aspect a piece of the Middle Ages: no words can tell you how its mingled beauty, history, and romance took hold on me; I can only say that, looking back on my past life, I find it was the greatest pleasure I have ever had.’[i] His greatest pleasure, looking at a building? Greater than the camaraderie of friends, the first flush of his marriage, greater than being a father, than all the work he had done? Perhaps. How to capture that rush of ecstasy he must have felt standing there? ‘Ecstatic’ is the word he uses most to describe his feelings on that holiday. The nature of gothic would haunt Morris throughout his life, playing over and over in his art, his writing, his politics, his very way of seeing the world.

But next words of the lecture bring us back down to earth and to the present: ‘and now it is a pleasure which no one can ever have again: it is lost to the world for ever.’ Morris was speaking about the march of progress of 30 years. How much more had 160 years wrought? For me, on that journey around France, a France twice wracked with war, was a very different place to that described then by Morris. The ecstasies of a 21 year old were not for me on this trip – indeed, I had a shock on the trip that reduced me to tears in one church, so great were the changes wrought in a place that had engendered the same pulsing uplift of ecstasy some 22 years before when I was 20 – instead, a more thoughtful approach had to be taken. I hope in these occasional blog posts I can try to bring together the buildings themselves, and the faceless men who built them, Morris and his friends with their aching feet, Anthony and I trundling about in our comfortable car (and our less comfortable campsites) and the modern world that we and those churches now inhabit.

[i] Taken from the excellent Marxists.org website, which has a pretty comprehensive set of Morris’s lectures: https://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/1888/signs/chapters/chapter5.htm

Image:

Entrance to the South Transept, Rouen Cathedral by John Ruskin. Photograph from a watercolor. Source: Works, facing XXXV, 371. Photograph (2010) Scanned image and text by George P. Landow. http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/ruskin/wc/40.html