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Leaving His Handprint on the Machine Age

In his way, prolific multitasker William Morris led a revolt against industrialism.

April 07, 2002|LEAH OLLMAN

William Morris died only once, although he lived, it was said, the lives of 10 men. The bearish Englishman (1834-96) made a lasting impression wherever he went, and in every field he entered--literature, design, business and politics--he left an enduring mark.

More than a century after his death, Morris' importance as the father of the Arts and Crafts movement continues to grow. The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens purchased, for $5 million, a vast collection of his work in 1999, ensuring him a permanently high profile in Southern California. The collection, amassed over 30 years by the late Sanford and Helen Berger of Carmel, spans all of Morris' professional output, from his published writings to his firm's early stained-glass windows, through decades of wallpaper and textile patterns up to the products of his final labor of love, the Kelmscott Press. The Huntington now stands as the foremost center of William Morris material in the United States, and the third most substantial in the world.

On Tuesday, the Huntington opens its first exhibition culled from the collection. It's a sampler, an appetizer to ready the palate for a comprehensive, more contextualized survey opening in the fall of 2003. Curated by Anne Mallek, the collection's primary cataloger, "William Morris: Creating the Useful and the Beautiful" contains some 70 objects produced by Morris and his workshops. Alongside a luminous stained-glass window depicting the winged figure of Liberty hangs Edward Burne-Jones' full-scale preparatory cartoon for it. Near the display of a sheet of wallpaper teeming with tendrils rests one of the hand-carved woodblocks used in its printing. A rare dye book with hand-inscribed recipes and instructions accompanies examples of Morris and Company's richly patterned textiles.

"The interest with Morris is always in exploring the process," Mallek explains, "because in everything he did, there's so much attention to detail, to historic examples, to the idea that each product should be handcrafted as much as possible. Not that he rejected machines completely, but he wanted there to be some kind of human control with the finished product."

For Morris, every stage of production reflected his commitment to personal and social betterment. Pleasure in life, he felt, derives largely from the expression of natural, creative impulses. Everyone possesses those impulses, but industrial culture--on a revolutionary rise during Morris' time--suppresses them, preventing the common man from experiencing dignified, nourishing work. Machinery deadened labor and rendered it monotonous. Morris supported industrial advances insofar as they relieved workers of dull, repetitive tasks, but was appalled at the way technology distanced workers from the products they made. The increasing specialization of labor, he felt, yielded inequality among men, class differences that he spent the last decade of his life battling against as a socialist activist.

As a young man, he intended to join the clergy. Soon after he entered Oxford in 1853, though, he hooked up with the artistically inclined Burne-Jones, and began reading the art historian John Ruskin, finding resonance with his ideas on the beauty of the Gothic and the need to morally regenerate the culture by reuniting art and labor.

Both Morris and Burne-Jones turned their attention to architecture briefly, inspired by medieval craftsmanship, then to painting, which remained Burne-Jones' primary focus. Morris, not very promising as a painter, met better reception as a poet, publishing his first volume at age 24.

A shared passion for the decorative arts, especially as practiced in earlier eras, brought Morris, Burne-Jones, the Pre-Raphaelite painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and several others to form a business in 1861. Included in the show is a one-of-a-kind logbook that documents the firm's initial commitment to present its designs to the public anonymously, in the model of a medieval craft guild. That resolve faded quickly. Some artists proved more marketable than others, and recognizing this did wonders for the business' bottom line.

The company thrived, following Morris' serial passions. At first, stained-glass window commissions dominated, but eventually inroads were made into a range of home furnishings. Typical of the firm's graceful designs is a section of wallpaper featuring birds and twining pomegranate branches against an indigo background.

"The idea was simple, organic growth, so that your eye would always be led onward and upward," Mallek says. Morris "always wanted meaning in his patterns. He didn't believe in imitation. He wanted you to look at a pattern and it would remind you of something in nature, so you would have to conjure that flower or plant in your own mind and become part of the creative process. In his words, he wanted to stimulate and elevate the mind."

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