William Morris was a nerd, in the most scathing sense of that word: sexless, gross, overbearing; as nauseatingly sincere in his obsessions as he was inept in his relationships. I’ve disliked the Victorian gentleman craftsman since visiting his Red House in Kent. Here, approaching his thirties, he used to play hide-and-seek and sing medieval ditties with the other uncool kids of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
The house is an L-shaped, faux-medieval affair, with Arthurian murals painted by the gang on every wall. None of them resonated with me. I will not, however, forget the tour guide’s striking explanation of how the yellow stained glass panels in the windows were made: with Morris’ urine. That explained the smell, which, my teacher thought, might otherwise have been coming from all the pensioners who visit the house.
A term-and-a-bit at Peterhouse has obliged me to tone down the malice; the alternative is insanity. There are Morris tiles in the Combination Room; there are more Morris tiles, as well as Morris stencils and Morris glass, in the adjacent Hall. All depict garden leaves arranged in patterns clear enough to charm and complex enough to intrigue. They’re pretty good: elegant, rhythmic, beguiling in their simplicity. My one-word take: tasteful, in a way Morris the man never was. How to square the difference?
Morris had a happy start to life: a comfortable, though housebound, Epping Forest childhood replete with gardens, fishponds and pony-riding. It all ended with the onset of adolescence, when his father suddenly died. Morris was packed off to boarding school, where he was bullied for his nerdiness.
It all messed him up sexually, in classic English fashion. Morris once had to be talked out of becoming a chaste monk and he seems to have seen his wife’s affairs as an opportunity to show how magnanimous he was. His drama-free utopian novel News from Nowhere contains an array of cringe-inducing pronouncements about cuckoldry: ‘The women do what they can do best and what they like best, and the men are neither jealous nor injured by it’; ‘we are not so mad as to pile up degradation on that unhappiness by engaging in sordid squabbles’.
Oxford gave Morris his first experience of friendship, with the Arthurian painter Edward Burne-Jones. The thrill of emotional connection, along with residual memories of childhood, made him a sucker for Burne-Jones’s Pre-Raphaelite schtick about the fraternal idyll of medieval craftsmanship. He proved as powerless as any of us when confronted with a talismanic idea purporting to explain our formative experiences.
Morris liked things better than people. Craftsmanship – a poetry of artisanal skill wedding design to execution in the production of things – is the key to him. He despised division of labour and embraced the ideal of the solitary start-to-finish medieval craftsman. Teasing out the implications of that ideal first took him towards embarrassing, misplaced nostalgia for the Middle Ages, and then towards communism.
When Morris got to work making a tile or a window or a wallpaper, it absorbed all his mental energies. What appealed to him in life – plants, flowers, Arthurian knights – he included as decorative motifs. What confused or frustrated him – sex, death, himself – the act of concentration expelled from his mind. They are similarly absent from the utopian landscape of his novels, where men and women are bound in eternity by nothing more volatile than primary-school niceness.
Building up experience and learning, Morris came to really know his stuff. His wallpaper and textile designs are gorgeous: rich with dense, swirling patterns drawn from nature and a subdued intensity of colour. They were the height of fashion in their day. While his assistants back in the workshop wove fabric for £10 a yard, Morris made a lot of money ‘ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich’ – Queen Victoria included. Some socialist.
He never got over his crankiness. Along with the art came fantasy novels, Viking sagas and communist pamphlets. He also translated Old Norse epics, de-sexing them as he went: one Icelandic line is castrated from ‘I bet they’ve got smaller balls than me’ to ‘Men bide not to measure swords’. Next time you go to the Fitzwilliam Museum, have a look at his illuminated manuscript for The Story of Hen Thorir. You may marvel at how the man could have been so obsessed by so dull a topic.
Morris’s craft is best appreciated the way successive biographers forbid, without reference to his loopy theories. Forget the nostalgic dross, the utopian guff – and just look. Unless you are looking for them, his decorative works are easy to miss. At Peterhouse, both the Hall and the Combination Room are social spaces, with the candlelight and conversation drawing little attention to his unimposing art. Morris always stood apart from the rest of humanity. It’s no coincidence that the only Petreans who might have reason to gaze at his works are those who, in the course of dinner or drinks, find themselves alone.