Past Meetup

William Morris Exhibit in College Park

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Two bits of good news - One is that the weather forecast is for a warm sunny day; and the other is that a librarian will give us an overview of the special collections held by the University of Maryland, including historic maps, architecture and preservation, State records, rare books, etc. Those of you who are interested in the big Pre-Raphaelites exhibit coming to the National Gallery of Art, can join me in a visit to the William Morris exhbit at the Hornbake Library of special collections on the campus of the University of Maryland. Morris was a poet, writer, artist, and political activist, whose life bridged the timespan between the early 19th-century romantics and the turn of the 20th-century Craftsman, and later Art Deco movements.

We'll meet at the Prince Georges Plaza Metro Station and then walk through the lovely town of University Park to the campus of the University of Maryland. We'll take a quick campus tour past some of the notable buildings on our way to the exhibit on William Morris at the Hornbake Library. Then we'll make our way toward the College Park Metro with an optional stop for refreshments.

Artist, author, social activist, teacher, designer, craftsman, printer, bibliophile, preservationist, translator, and literary scholar are just some of the terms that describe William Morris. But his greatest achievement was as a creative visionary who acted on his beliefs and produced beautiful things.

William Morris the visionary sought to make the world a better place and return to an idealized society inspired by the aesthetic of the Middle Ages. Through his study of culture and history, Morris came to believe that people in the Middle Ages lived meaningful lives because they worked in harmony with beautiful handcrafted objects, art and buildings. This vision animated his quest to revive traditional crafts and preserve the literary, artistic and architectural legacies of the medieval world.

Morris developed his vision in the context of the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. Thus he stands as among the first to articulate a cultural critique against the dehumanizing impact of mass production. And he was not alone in his views. William Morris inspired many with his vision for how we might live, which remains relevant in a world where we continue to debate the merits of modernity, class distinction and corporate dominance.

William Morris was famous in his lifetime as a poet and author of literary works. He began writing as a student at Oxford University and published throughout his life. His output encompassed several genres and styles, including narrative poetry, novels, essays, and short stories. When describing himself, Morris would proclaim, "I am a literary man and an artist of a kind. I work both with my head and my hands."

In his literature, Morris incorporated elements of classical poetry and the vernacular romances of the Middle Ages. His poems and novels often contrast the simplicity of life in medieval times with the class barriers that characterized life in the industrialized modern era. Yet, Morris retained a romantic vision of hope in his literary works. His tone of prophetic doom was mitigated by positive themes of love, equality, and the promise of change.

As a young man, William Morris cultivated an appreciation for gothic architecture and medieval texts. At Oxford University he launched his lifelong passion for acquiring and studying manuscripts from the Middle Ages. Morris's love of medieval texts inspired his determination to master the arts of illumination and calligraphy. He taught himself fine handwriting styles from a Renaissance instruction manual for scribes, and learned the art of gilding to add texture and luster to his pages.

For his most ambitious projects Morris ordered vellum from Rome. By 1875 Morris had completed eighteen illuminated manuscripts consisting of more than 1,500 pages, including drafts and fragments. Ever the collaborator, Morris often prevailed on his friends and Morris & Co. associates to provide drawings or ornaments for his manuscripts.

William Morris founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, & Co. in 1861. His motivation was to remedy the pervasiveness of cheaply-made, mass produced furnishings that lacked any sense of beauty or style. Morris recruited friends in organizing "The Firm," including Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Phillip Webb, Ford Maddox Brown, Charles Faulkner and Peter Paul Marshall. In 1875, Morris restructured the business with himself as the sole proprietor.

Morris & Co. produced objects that emphasized traditional craftsmanship and the beauty of natural materials. Morris envisioned elevating crafts to a level of artistic importance he believed existed in the Middle Ages. He also hoped to provide quality goods for the masses at an affordable price. The prospectus of the firm stated that "good decoration, involving rather the luxury of taste than the luxury of costliness, will be found to be much less expensive than is generally supposed." While Morris & Co. was not able to deliver on this promise, the firm did increase the availability of 'useful and beautiful' furnishings. Morris later lamented: "I spend my life ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich."

William Morris began publishing translations of the Icelandic sagas in 1869. The sagas, composed after Iceland was settled by Norse immigrants in the 9th century, combine history with folklore. Just as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey provided ancient Greeks with mythical accounts of their forebears, the sagas provided Scandinavian people with dramatic stories of Iceland's first settlers. For Morris this mixture of history and mythology fit his vision of employing art to interpret and understand the past.

In addition to the numerous Icelandic tales that Morris translated with Magnusson, Morris translated medieval French tales. His Kelmscott Press published three small format editions of these tales. Morris also produced translations of Homer's Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, and Beowulf. Critics panned Morris's classical translations and the Beowulf, but his goal was never to please the scholars. Translations, for Morris, were meant to capture the spirit of the original text without undue reliance on the actual words.

William Morris was a born organizer. He often attempted to galvanize public opinion for important causes by forming advocacy groups. His love of architecture and disdain for the kind of building restoration he saw on prominent landmarks inspired him to found the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) in 1877. Morris's vision for preserving historic buildings owed much to the influence of the noted art critic, John Ruskin. Ruskin and others celebrated the architecture of the Middle Ages, but were disturbed by elements of the Gothic Revival, a style popular throughout most of the nineteenth century.

While the Gothic Revival drew renewed interest to the medieval aesthetic, some architects sought to restore old buildings to an ideal state by removing original detail and adding new construction- trends Ruskin and Morris both found troubling. Morris championed an alternative building preservation model based on retaining all surviving building fabric, no matter how flawed by the passage of time, while employing minimal, non-intrusive reinforcement of the existing infrastructure to prevent future damage. He coined the name, "Anti-Scrape Society" for the SPAB, a humorous shorthand that embodied his philosophy of honoring the artisans who constructed old buildings by preserving their work without alteration.

William Morris was deeply disturbed by the inequities and income disparities he observed in Victorian society. In 1883, he joined the Social Democratic Federation, the first official socialist party established in England. Like many in the movement, Morris struggled to define his vision amid the many competing views on the ideal organization of society. He advocated radical revolution and change through government reform at different times in his life.

With Eleanor Marx, the daughter of Karl Marx, and other prominent party members, Morris formed the breakaway Socialist League in 1884. Ultimately frustrated by ideological differences between anarchists and reformist party members and exhausted from his relentless schedule, he abandoned all organized political activity in the early 1890s.

Morris's enduring contribution to the cause of social equality was largely educational. He financed, edited, and wrote for the Socialist League's monthly publication, Commonweal, and was a popular speaker at party meetings and on street corners where he explained the merits of socialism. Even after resigning his Socialist League membership, Morris continued to champion socialist ideals in his writings and endeavors.

William Morris founded the Kelmscott Press in January 1891 near his home in Hammersmith, London. The name came from his much-loved Kelmscott Manor house in the Cotswolds. For seven years the Press, which Morris referred to as his typographical adventure, produced 53 works (comprising 66 volumes) in limited press runs averaging 300 copies each. Morris oversaw every detail including designing three types for use in printing, finding a source for custom handmade paper, and designing ornamental initials and borders for the books. Although Morris was in poor health and nearing the end of his life, the Kelmscott Press would be his crowning achievement. The Press became the grand summation of his vision for life as expressed in a beautiful book.

The Kelmscott Press was William Morris's brainchild, but it was also a collaborative effort involving printers, engravers, editors, craftsmen, and illustrators, as well as those handling the business side of the press. Ephemera and letters shown here demonstrate the complexity of the "typographical adventure" Morris embarked on.

William Morris was not the first Western printer to lament the decline in quality caused by industrial book production, but he was among the most forceful in articulating a clear vision for the ideal handmade book. His essays on book design emphasized the importance of form and quality, embodied in clear, closely-spaced type, well-proportioned margins, fine paper, and a balance between text and ornamentation. Paramount to Morris was the idea of the book as a work of art produced through the individual efforts of multiple craftsmen. Morris and the Kelmscott Press exercised a major influence on the resurgence of fine printing and a renewed emphasis on quality design.

William Morris believed people should be surrounded by beautiful, well-made things. This vision inspired the emergence of the Arts and Crafts movement in the 1860s. Morris's lectures and essays on art and his rediscovery of traditional craft techniques helped spread the movement, as did the decorative designs and products from his company: Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.

As a diverse international movement, Arts and Crafts encompassed many characteristics. There was no single manifesto and no one style to which it adhered. Several Arts& Crafts guilds, organizations, and schools helped fuel the movement.

The core characteristics of the Arts and Crafts movement are a belief in craftsmanship which stresses the inherent beauty of the material, the importance of nature as inspiration, and the value of simplicity, utility, and beauty. The movement often promoted reform as part of its philosophy and advanced the idea of the designer as craftsman.