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AMERICAN BOOK DESIGN AND WILLIAM MORRIS With a new Foreword by Jean-Francois Vilain. Susan Otis Thompson.

AMERICAN BOOK DESIGN AND WILLIAM MORRIS With a new Foreword by Jean-Francois Vilain.

New Castle, Delaware and London: Oak Knoll Press and The British Library, 1996. 4to. stiff paper wrappers. 318 pages with 113 illustrations. Paperback edition. Reprint of the first edition with additional illustrations and new introduction. With his Kelmscott Press and associations with the Arts & Crafts Movement, William Morris helped raise the public's awareness of fine books to new heights. Morris inspired and influenced a generation of other designers and those working in American typography... READ MORE

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The Arts & Crafts Movement

THE CLASSIC SIMPLICITY of the Aesthetic format kept it from having a dramatic public impact. By 1890 many people were concerned with the possibilities of the Book Beautiful, but they had as yet no inspirational model despite the experiments of the artists. It was then that a man, already well known in other realms, appeared in the domain of books.

The life of William Morris has been recounted many times.1 Born at Walthamstow in 1834, he was the son of a well-to-do businessman who left him a substantial income. He went up to Oxford in 1853 with High-Church sentiments and the dream of taking orders. After making friends with the future painter, Edward Burne-Jones and his Birmingham circle, reading Ruskin’s Stones of Venice (with its crucial chapter, “The Nature of Gothic”), visiting the cathedrals of Belgium and France, and becoming disillusioned with Oxford education, Morris decided to abandon the idea of becoming a clergyman and turn instead to architecture. At this time he was also beginning his long and successful career as a poet. His first book, The Defense of Guenevere, published in 1858, was based on tales of the Middle Ages. On finishing at the university in 1855 Morris remained in Oxford, in the office of G. E. Street, a Gothic Revival architect. This new career did not last long, however; in 1856 Morris came under the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, decided to become a painter, and moved to London in rooms with Burne-Jones at Red Lion Square. Upon finding no furniture to suit him, Morris, who had always been adept with his hands, decided to make his own.

In 1859 he married Jane Burden of Oxford, commissioning his architect friend, Philip Webb, to build a house for them at Upton, Kent. In 1860 they moved into Red House, as it was called, again resorting to the talents of Morris and his friends for the furniture and decorations. In 1861 a group of these friends, including Morris, Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Webb, the painter Ford Madox Brown, the mathematician C. J. Faulkner, and P. P. Marshall, a surveyor and sanitary engineer, formed Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., “Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and the Metals.”2 The painter Arthur Hughes was also listed but was never actually a member of the firm. In 1875 the firm was reorganized as Morris & Co., with Morris as its only manager. The company had enjoyed success from the start, winning two gold medals at the Great Exhibition of 1862. As the century wore on it became one of the leading decorating firms of England, with an international clientele. Morris himself designed fabrics, wallpapers, tapestries, embroideries, carpets, stained glass, and tiles, working from a sure knowledge of all the handicrafts involved.

A commonly held assumption is that Morris & Co. revolutionized the late-Victorian interior. Since Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius (first published as Pioneers of the Modern Movement in 1936), Morris has been seen as the fountainhead of modernism because of his emphasis on fitness to purpose, on understanding materials and techniques, on unity rather than eclecticism, and especially because of his attempt to combine utility and beauty. Yet one must remember that although Victorian rooms were less cluttered and more unified after Morris his designs do not look modern today. They were based on historical styles of the past and are transitional between historicism and the Modern Movement, as Pevsner points out, rather than being the first examples of modern art.3 Their overwhelming success lies in the fact that during a period of shoddy machine production Morris & Co. showed how beautiful hand-crafted things could be and how they could be assembled with taste.

It was from the building and decoration of Red House, followed by the activities of the firm, that the whole Arts and Crafts Movement grew. Unlike Aestheticism, Arts and Crafts did have a wider-reaching moral basis than Art-for-Art’s-Sake; Art-for-Life’s-Sake might well be the opposing term.4 John Ruskin, the writer on art and morality whom Morris had read at Oxford, was even more ideational mover of Arts and Crafts than he had been of Aestheticism. He saw Gothic art in quite another way from the eighteenth-century Revivalists, Horace Walpole and William Beckford. It was not picturesqueness that he valued but the fact that Gothic was a freer, less rule-ridden art than the Classical style. With its abundance of detail it allowed scope for the individual workmen to express their own creativity. In this possibility for self-expression in handicraft, Ruskin saw the only chance to save men’s souls from the brutalizing effects of the new factories that were turning them into automated cogs of an assembly line.

There were other nineteenth-century thinkers who turned backwards for relief from the unlovely realities of the Industrial Revolution. Thomas Carlyle, who had looked on the Middle Ages as a favorable contrast to nineteenth-century disorder in Past and Present (1843), influenced Ruskin. A. W. N. Pugin, the Gothic Revival architect, also wrote important books, notably Contrasts (1836) and The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841), that upheld the Gothic style and its emphasis on handicrafts as the true national style of England.

It was in this tradition that Red House was decorated with heavy, dark furniture, painted with scenes from Le Morte d’ Arthur, and that Morris & Co. emphasized stained glass and tapestries as among its finest products. The numerous fabrics and wallpapers designed by Morris went well with the company’s other products, while their two-dimensionalism, floral motifs, and harmonies of color made them also possible for the Aesthetes and, later, devotees of Art Nouveau.

Morris was as much given to verbal expression as to handicrafts. He once said: “If a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he’s weaving tapestry, he had better shut up, he’ll never do any good at all.”5 In 1876 he began to be involved in politics, becoming treasurer of the Eastern Question Association, a body devoted to keeping England out of war against Russia on behalf of the Turks. In the early eighties he broke with the Liberal party and became an active Socialist, trying to bring into realization his ideas about the nobility of the individual working man and his labor. The connection between a properly organized society and its art is the great theme of the many public lectures he gave, beginning with “The Decorative Arts” in 1877. Thus, Morris’ ideas, as well as the artifacts of Morris & Co., were well known in England.6

During the 1880s other people with similar ideas began to organize themselves. A. H. Mackmurdo and Selwyn Image founded the Century Guild in 1882, W. R. Lethaby and Walter Crane the Art Workers’ Guild in 1884, and C. R. Ashbee the Guild of Handicraft in 1888. This new Arts and Crafts Movement was described by Walter Crane as: “The demand for the acknowledgment of the personality of each responsible craftsman in a cooperative work…. [and] The principle … of regarding the material, object, method, and purpose of a work as essential conditions of its artistic expression… .”7

In America there were movements parallel to the English Gothic Revival and Arts and Crafts. Before and after the Civil War, churches and public buildings often took pseudomedieval shapes. Scott’s novels were the first great best sellers in this country.8 And the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had American followers.9

That there was still, at the end of the century, a pervasive mood of sentimental Romantic medievalism may be seen by turning to literature—even to Frank Norris, who, before becoming one of the leaders in the movement toward naturalism, wrote a poem called Yvernelle: A Legend of Feudal France (1892). Literary historians attribute the persistence of a Romantic mood to nostalgia for the long ago and far away that gripped the American people in their search for identity and escape during the post-Civil War days of industrialization, expanding wealth, and rapid social change. James D. Hart has pointed to the establishment of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the phenomenon of American heiresses marrying European titles, the popularity of the Grand Tour, as factors, along with the immense success of the romantic novel, that indicate the American’s desire to find roots in European culture and to flee from his own current problems.10

The great national business boom, even between its panic subsidences, did not elevate all Americans. “The disillusion rising out of deferred hopes led to the idealization of the past …,”11 especially as seen in regional literature, the voice of the nonurban population. Indiana, for example, produced several successful novelists, such as Charles Major (When Knighthood Was in Flower, 1898), Booth Tarkington (The Gentleman from Indiana, 1899), Maurice Thompson (Alice of Old Vincennes, 1900), and George Barr McCutcheon (Graustark, 1901), who wrote idealized romances that showed up unintentionally the emptiness of the very culture they seemed to be extolling; e.g., the “democratic” hero often turned out to be an aristocrat in disguise. “Romance at the century’s end applied a patch to the mortal would inflicted on the rural ideal by industrial America.”12

There was still another aspect of Romanticism that emphasized the new rather than the old—a fin-de-siècle mood, the feeling that change was necessary and inevitable as the century came to an end. The rapid and unsettling events of the Industrial Revolution, the profound shifts in thought caused by the growth of scholarship and science gave people of the nineteenth century a particularly poignant feeling of leaving one era and entering another. Toward the end of the century the adjective “new” was ubiquitous: the New Hedonism, the New Woman. This interest in change accounts in part for the épate le bourgeois side of the Aesthetic Movement and for the tremendous success of Art Nouveau in the 1890s. As one observer of the period has said: “The Eighteen Nineties were so tolerant of novelty in art and ideas that it would seem as though the declining century wished to make amends for several decades of intellectual and artistic monotony.”13 The desire for novelty, combined with the lasting love of the Middle Ages, set the stage for Arts and Crafts’ reinterpretation of the Gothic, although the older Gothic Revival style in book-making persisted, especially in certain elaborate productions.

An example is Richard de Bury’s Philobiblon in three volumes, printed by De Vinne in 1889 for the Grolier Club, in an edition of 297 on handmade paper and 3 on vellum. The first volume is the Latin version of the text in Gothic type (Plate 4), the second volume an English version in modern-style roman type with Renaissance arabesque ornament, and the third volume, also in roman, has notes by Andrew Fleming West. The ornaments by James West, Charles M. Jenckes, and George Wharton Edwards include a vellum binding; red, black, and gold end papers; a block-set title page with a gilt “P”; line fillers, fleurons, decorated initials, and headpieces throughout the text. The marginal notes of the first volume are in roman and italic, an unpleasant contrast to the Gothic text. The whole is intensely pseudo-Gothic but not artistically successful because of the inharmonious design. The books from this earlier Gothic Revival style tend to exhibit in their type and art work more pointed, angular lines than the blunt, rounded lines of Arts and Crafts.

As early as 1881 there was a Morris & Co. showroom in New York14 (by the turn of the century there were others in Boston and Chicago as well), laying the foundation for an American Arts and Crafts Movement. In 1891 Walter Crane visited the United States, bringing the ideas and ideals of the English movement as Oscar Wilde had done for Aestheticism in 1882. Specific artists, such as John La Farge and Louis Tiffany, were inspired by English examples.15 The same regionalism that fostered Romantic literature may have encouraged Arts and Crafts by its “more or less handmade habitat,”16 i.e., a tradition of handicraft and artisanship. There was also a strong anticapitalist movement seen in such writers as Henry George (Progress and Poverty, 1879) and Edward Bellamy (Looking Backward, 1888) who were, however, without the Arts and Crafts antipathy for machine production. In general, the Ruskinian combination of art with morality and his emphasis on Truth to Nature were profoundly attractive to Americans.17 Dickason has pointed out two mid-century periodicals inspired by Ruskin: W. J. stillman’s Crayon of the 1850s and the New Path put out by the Society for the Advancement of Truth in Art, founded in 1863.18

The major periodical of American Arts and Crafts was the Craftsman, published by the United Crafts at Eastwood, New York, from 1901 to 1916, under the direction of Gustav Stickley. The first issue (October 1901) was entirely devoted to “William Morris: Some Thoughts upon His Life, Work and Influence,” which gave Morris the whole credit for the journal’s inspiration. The second issue was devoted to Ruskin, the third to “The Gilds of the Middle Ages,” the fourth to “Textiles Old and New,” the fifth to “Robert Owen and Factory Reform,” and the sixth to “The Gothic Revival,” giving a fair picture of their spectrum of interests.

The first American Society of Arts and Crafts was founded in Boston in 1897 with Charles Eliot Norton, Ruskin’s friend, as president. The Guild of Arts and Crafts of New York was founded by four young women in January 1900.19 There were also Morris Societies, such as the one founded in Chicago in May 1903 with Oscar L. Triggs as secretary. Their Bulletin (November 1903 to February 1905) gives indications of rather widespread interest in Morris. There were seventy-five charter members, most of them from Chicago but a few from other parts of the country. The second issue mentions new Morris circles or possibilities of them in Columbus, Ohio, Toledo, Ohio, and Billings, Montana. Talks on Morris were given in Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Chicago, and an entire course on him was offered at the University of Chicago. In 1902 Triggs published a book on Arts and Crafts in which he wrote: “I count 1860 as the approximate year of its beginning, when William Morris built his famous Red House on the outskirts of London.”20

Back in England, still another body, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, had been formed in 1888. At the time of its first exhibition, William Morris realized that none of his books, as a physical object, was worthy of inclusion. His friend, the typographer Emery Walker, gave a lecture on printing in which he presented lantern slides of enlarged type specimens from the fifteenth century. This lecture was a momentous occasion for it opened Morris’ eyes to the creative possibilities within type itself.

  1. The first biography is still the standard one: John William Mackail, The Life of William Morris (London: Longmans, Green, 1899), 2 vols.

  2. From the title of their first prospectus, April 1861.

  3.  Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of Modern Design (3d ed.; Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1965), p. 107. For a rebuttal of Pevsner, see Herwin Schaefer, Nineteenth Century Modern: The Functional Tradition in Victorian Design (New York: Praeger,1970), which points out the continuing line of undecorated simplicity in functional and vernacular objects.

  4. Used by Peter A. Wick in Introduction to The Turn of a Century 1885–1910 (Cambridge: Department of Printing and Graphic Arts, Houghton Library, Harvard University, 1970), p. l.

  5. Quoted in Mackail, William Morris,  vol. 1, p.186.

  6.  Lionel Trilling has pointed to Morris’ great personal force: “The peculiar power and charm of William Morris are suggested by the deep admiration in which he was held by two great writers of the generation after his own, William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw. The dissimilarity of these men is legendary… . Antithetical as they were in their hopes for life, both men acknowledged Morris as master.” (“Aggression and Utopia: A Note on William Morris’ ‘News from Nowhere,’” Psychoanalytic Quarterly, XLII (April 1973): 214–215.

  7. Walter Crane, “Arts and Crafts,” Encyclopaedia Britannica vol. II (11th ed., 1911), p.701.

  8. David A. Randall, “Waverley in America,” Colophon, N.S., I (Summer 1935): 39.

  9. See David H. Dickason, The Daring Young Men: The Story of the American Pre-Raphaelites (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1953).

10. James D. Hart, The Popular Book (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950), pp. 181–186.

11. Jay Martin, Harvests of Change (Englewood Cliffs, N.j.: Prentice-Hall, 1967), p.217.

12. Larzer Ziff, The American 1890’s (New York: Viking, 1966), p. 92.

13. Holbrook Jackson, The Eighteen Nineties (NewYork: Knopf, n.d.), pp. 17–18.

14. Elizabeth Aslin, The Aesthetic Movement: Prelude to Art Nouveau (New York: Praeger, 1969), p.129.

15. For a thorough discussion of American Arts and Crafts, see Dickason, The Daring Young Men and Robert Judson Clark, ed., The Arts and Crafts Movement in America 1876–1916 (Princeton: Princeton Art Museum, 1972).

16. Quoted in Warner Berthoff, The Ferment of Realism (New York: Free Press, 1965), p. 28.

17.  For a discussion from the viewpoint of the history of ideas, see Roger B. Stein, John Ruskin and Aesthetic Thought in America: 1840–1900 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967).

18.  Dickason, The Daring Young Men, p. 5.

19.  “Exhibition of the Gild of Arts and Crafts of New York,” Craftsman, II (May 1902): 99.

20.     Oscar Lovell Triggs, Chapters in the History of the Arts and Crafts Movement (Chicago: The Bohemia Guild of the Industrial Art League, 1902), p. 1.