‘Grim tatty cities full of spivs, snobs and vandals’: that is a visitor’s verdict on England, a century after William Morris (1834–96). Obviously, he would have been disappointed, having hoped that an ideal society would begin to take shape some time in the 1950s. Obviously, too, people are better fed and housed and have more leisure than in the England Morris knew. Yet we plainly have not achieved what he hoped for, and not just because it was an impossible dream.footnote

Fiona MacCarthy’s excellent biography is subtitled A Life for Our Time because, after all these years, Morris still seems relevant. ‘He is one of those men whom history will never overtake,’ as E.P. Thompson said. To see just how relevant he is, we must separate the Victorian part of him from that which is prophetic and universal.

He is known as 1) a poet; 2) a designer of fabrics and wallpapers which were the ultimate chic in his day and are still being used; 3) a Socialist. This last was and is controversial. ‘What the devil is such a man doing in that galley?’ asked Gissing; ‘why cannot he write poetry in the shade?’ And ever since his death, there has been ‘a whole tradition of supercilious belittlement of Morris’, a suggestion that anything he may have achieved was unconnected with his Socialism.

The last outstanding biography was Thompson’s, published in 1955, and that went much more deeply into the politics of the then British Left than Fiona MacCarthy has done. On the other hand, her book pays much closer attention to the detail of Morris’s life. It is the first to make full use of his private papers, along with those of Rossetti and Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, and it probably gets as close as anyone ever can to establishing what went wrong between Morris and his wife Janey. It explores his whole achievement, as poet, interior designer, businessman and prophet, with skill and thoroughness. Thompson’s book had the passion and bite of a Socialist writing in hard times who wished to reaffirm the enormous importance of his subject. MacCarthy’s is massive, scholarly, perhaps a bit lacking in passion.

The son of a businessman, Morris received a conventional education at Marlborough and Oxford. Having arrived just too late to be sucked up in the Tractarian movement, he and his friend Burne-Jones directed all their emotional energy towards art. The firm he founded, Morris and Co., became ‘a byword for good taste amongst the intellectual classes’. He believed that all the minor arts were in a state of ‘complete degradation’, ‘and accordingly in 1861 with the conceited courage of a young man I set myself to reforming all that’. Of course he was only able to do this because he had capital to start with, and he could not have stayed afloat if he had not understood the market. He seems to have had no religion after his Oxford days, but the firm willingly manufactured stained-glass windows for the many new Victorian churches. (A soulful ‘Annunciation’ is on the back cover of this book.) Furniture, fabrics, wallpapers and book-bindings, all of high quality, followed. He also worried about the wider environment and was a founder member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.