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"The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make."
William Morris was born in 1834 in Walthamstow, north London, into a wealthy middle class family. His father moved to London from Worcester in the 1820’s to join a firm of City stockbrokers. When William was ten his father acquired 272 £1 shares in a new Devonshire copper mining company. Within six months the shares, due to the discovery that the mines were richer than first believed, were worth £200,000 a fortune for those times. Of course, one consequence was that William and the rest of the family didn't have to worry about money. But Morris's father's 'good fortune' is also an indication of the economic and political changes that were being wrought in society.
While William was growing up, British society was changing incredibly rapidly. The watershed politically was 1848, the year the British working class in the form of the Chartists suffered a historic defeat at the hands of a rapidly maturing British state. The period was marked by what John Saville has defined as 'the consolidation of the capitalist state'.
This stability brought a period of continuous economic expansion between 1848 and 1874, shaping the world which Morris was to grow up in. This meant that for some 30 years British capitalism was in the happy position of living in a world in which an expanding market and ever-increasing profits seemed to be a law of nature, in which even the least efficient manufacturer could prosper and the more pushing and resolute prospered fabulously.
This expansion created rapid urbanisation and industrialisation. The slums and smoke stacks, that were simultaneously a mark of Victorian prosperity, were also a symbol of, as Morris himself put it, 'all the incredible filth, disorder and degradation of modern civilisation'.
The worst aspects of these slums were dealt with, beginning in the 1840s, after repeated epidemics of cholera, typhus and smallpox demonstrated to the ruling class that certain reforms in sanitation and sewerage systems were desirable from their point of view. However, that did not mean that the working class of the cities were lifted in some philanthropic way out of the degradation imposed on them. It was rather that, as Engels put it in 1892, 'the bourgeoisie have made further progress in the art of hiding the distress of the working class.'
What drove him into revolutionary activism was his anger and shame at the injustices within society. He burned with guilt at the fact that his "good fortune only" allowed him to live in beautiful surroundings and to pursue the work he adored. He fulminated that real art could not exist while people were divided into "cultivated and uncultivated classes". Often perilous experimental social mixes were a feature of the Morris-inspired arts and crafts communities as they developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Cotswolds being the favoured destination. Morris had invented a new species in society, the gentleman – and lady – artisan.
“Deeply concerned with the problems of industrialization and the factory system, Morris believed that a return to the craftsmanship and spiritual values of the Gothic period could restore balance to modern life. He rejected tasteless mass-produced goods and poor craftsmanship in favour of the beautiful, well-crafted objects he designed. In 1888 Morris decided to establish a printing press to recapture the quality of books from the early decades of printing.”
His Kelmscott Press began to print books in 1891 recapturing “the beauty and high standards of incunabula (texts produced when books were still copied by hand), and the book again became an art form.” Eventually Morris designed decorative borders, initials and three bespoke typefaces, Golden Type (1890), Troy Type (1892) and Chaucer Type (1893), based on types from the 1400s. “Morris’s concept of the well-designed page, his beautiful typefaces, and his sense of design unity—with the smallest detail relating to the total concept—inspired a new generation of graphic designers. His typographic pages, which formed the overwhelming majority of the pages in his books, were conceived and executed with readability in mind, another lesson heeded by younger designers.
Morris’s searching reexamination of earlier type styles and graphic-design history also touched off an energetic redesign process that resulted in a major improvement in the quality and variety of fonts available for design and printing; many designers directly imitated the style of the Kelmscott borders, initials, and type styles. More commercial areas of graphic design, such as job printing and advertising, were similarly revitalized by the success of Morris.”
Morris’s first typeface was the serif font “Golden Type,” designed exclusively for his Kelmscott Press, in 1890. This “old-style” serif font was based on a type designed by engraver and printer Nicolas Jenson in Venice around 1470 and it is named for the Golden Legend, which was intended to be the first book printed using it. The Golden Type sparked a trend of other typefaces in a similar style commissioned for fine book printing in Britain.
News From Nowhere
One of the most relevant aspects of Morris’s work today is the framework for a commons-based world of cooperation that he sketched in his utopian novel News from Nowhere written in 1890. In News from Nowhere, Morris imagined a world in which human happiness and economic activity coincided. He reminds us that there needs to be a point to labor beyond making ends meet – and there is. Unalienated labor creates happiness for all – consumer and creator; whereas modern capitalism, in contrast, has created a treadmill in which this aspect of work has been lost. Capitalism, he explains, locks the capitalist into a horrible life, which leads nowhere but the grave.
News from Nowhere, it is well known, was written in indignant response to Edward Bellamy's socialist utopia Looking Backward, published to huge popular acclaim in America in 1888. Morris, after a decade of energetic proselytizing for the socialist cause, was appalled at Bellamy's vision of socialism. Reviewing Looking Backward in The Commonweal, he described Bellamy's scheme as 'State Communism, worked by the very extreme of national centralization'. Bellamy's mind, said Morris, was 'fixed firmly on the mere machinery of life'. Every aspect of socialism was conceived by him in terms of organization. There was a 'mechanical' answer to every problem — including, of course, the problem of production. In the face of laborious and alienating work, Bellamy's solution was not the humanization of work but its abolition, by progressively mechanizing it.
News from Nowhere was wrung from a somewhat reluctant Morris as a necessary antidote to Bellamy's vision of socialism. Bellamy's book, said Morris, had 'produced a great impression on people who are really enquiring into socialism', and 'will be sure to be quoted as an authority for what socialists believe'. In his review of Looking Backward Morris offered the rudiments of an alternative socialist vision. He provided in effect a programmatic statement of the utopia that he was to publish in the following year.
“It is necessary to point out that there are some Socialists who do not think that the problem of the organization of life and necessary labour can be dealt with by a huge national centralisation, working by a kind of magic for which no one feels himself responsible; that on the contrary it will be necessary for the unit of administration to be small enough for every citizen to feel himself responsible for its details, and be interested in them; that individual men cannot shuffle off the business of life onto the shoulders of an abstraction called the State, but must deal with it in conscious association with each other: that variety of life is as much an aim of a true Communism as equality of condition, and that nothing but an union of these two will bring about real freedom: that modern nationalities are mere artificial devices for the commercial war that we seek to put an end to, and will disappear with it. And, finally, that art, using that word in its widest and due signification, is not a mere adjunct of life which free and happy men can do without, but the necessary expression and indispensable instrument of human happiness.” - Morris
But News from Nowhere did not simply provide a different description of socialism. Morris was not simply concerned to replace one account of the organization of society by a different account of an alternative organization. More fundamentally he wished to show his vision of socialism by means of a different way of writing and portraying utopia. Bellamy's failure, according to Morris, was not simply due to a wrong-headed conception of socialism; more seriously it was a failure of temperament, of an inability to conceive socialism in anything other than the prosaic terms of the professional middle classes. 'The only safe way of reading a utopia', said Morris, 'is to consider it as the expression of the temperament of its author.' Bellamy's utopia revealed a temperament ‘perfectly satisfied with modern civilization, if only the injustice, misery, and waste of class society could be got rid of’. Looking Backward was ‘a cockney paradise’, an updated version of the Land of Cockaygne where the prime concern of life is to avoid pain, hunger and hard work of any kind.
Morris's temperament was evidently of a quite different kind. News from Nowhere is the clearest evidence of this, even if we did not have all the other writings to judge him by. In seeking to express this temperament, Morris was led to draw on all the resources of his earlier engagement with poetry and history. News from Nowhere picks up and develops, in the most unselfconscious way, many of the themes of the romances in poetry and prose for which he had become famous.
We know from all his other writings that Morris not only believed deeply in socialism but also in the practicability of its realization. He did not expect to see it in his own time, and increasingly came to regard it as a project that might take several generations to accomplish. But there seems no reason to doubt that News from Nowhere is a vision of a future that Morris both hoped and expected to come into being. That project though depends crucially on a collective sharing of hopes and intent: for only “if others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream."