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The Myth of William Morris*

  • Martin J. Wiener


A few years ago the iconoclastic architectural scholar Reyner Banham declared: William Morris's “ruralizing vision of John Ball's other island as a vast medieval dude-ranch full of bit players addressing one another as ‘Neighbour’ just doesn't stand up.” Surely not, if this indeed was Morris's vision. Yet did this vision originate with Morris or with certain of his interpreters?

E. P. Thompson has called attention to the growth of a “Morris myth.” Thompson argued that William Morris's revolutionism, and specifically, Marxism, had been buried under layers of praise (and disparagement) for a fictitious—and socially harmless—character. This mythic Morris was a mixture of romantic poet and traditional craftsman, in love with old English countryside and old English folk life. As such, he could be—and was—embraced by Liberals, Tories, and right-wing socialists.

Thompson's observation was not the first such, nor the last. By now these protests have altered the commonly accepted view of Morris, and we see the revolutionary within the medievalist, the communist within the craftsman. Yet no one has asked why the myth flourished. Thompson, like R. Page Arnot more briefly before him, saw this myth, properly, as something more than a simple mistake. Thompson followed the Marxist lead of Arnot in implying deliberate distortion for class purposes.



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This article is based on a paper read to the Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies, Santa Barbara, California, April 5, 1975.



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1 Banham, Reyner, “The Reputation of William Morris,” New Statesman, 65 (Jan.-June 1963):351.

2 Thompson, E. P., William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (London, 1955), pp. 737–38.

3 The first was Arnot, R. Page, William Morris: A Vindication (London, 1934), a 30-page pamphlet. The most recent—and lengthiest—Meier, Paul, La Pensee Utopique de William Morris (Paris, 1972). See also Williams, Raymond, Culture and Society 1780-1950 (London, 1958), pp. 167–68.

4 Arnot, R. Page, William Morris, The Man and the Myth (New York, 1964), pp. 1013.

5 Smith, Henry Nash, Virgin Land (Cambridge, Mass., 1950), p. vii.

6 Henderson, Philip, William Morris (London, 1967), p. 367.

7 As has, of course, been noted, in various formulations, by many observers. “England has managed to modernize herself,” one of the most recent of these has concluded, “…and yet, in so many ways, for both better and worse, has changed far less than one would have imagined possible.…” Stansky, Peter, England Since 1867 (New York, 1973), p. 175.

8 See Naylor, Gillian, The Arts and Crafts Movement (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), pp. 7-10, 23, 148, 154, 194.

9 Ibid., pp. 178-94.

10 See, for example, Ashbee, C.R., Craftsmanship in Competitive Industry (London, 1908), p. 9. For Morris's reservations, see Mackail, J. W., The Life of William Morris (London, 1899), II: 201, 202, and E.P. Thompson, pp. 646-47.

11 Ashbee, p. 6.

12 Blunt, Wilfred Scawen, “Satan Absolved: A Victorian Mystery” (1899), in Poetical Works of Wilfred Scawen Blunt (London, 1914), II: 254–91.

13 Nesbit, E., “The Monster,” New Witness, 2 (19121913):368–69. Another prominent example is Forster's, E.M.The Machine Stops” (1909). Forster's “technophobia” is evident in his diaries, cited by Oliver Stallybrass, in his introduction to a new edition of Howard's End.

14 Ditchfield, P. H., Our English Villages (London, 1889), p. 4.

15 Ashbee, p. 11.

16 See Hynes, Samuel, The Edwardian Turn of Mind (Princeton, N.J., 1968), ch. 2. For an important example unmcntioned by Hynes, see Haggard, H. Rider, Rural England (London, 1902).

17 Masterman, C.F.G., The Condition of England (London, 1909), p. 190.

18 William Morris: A EulogyFortnightly Review, 66 (July-Dec. 1896):698.

19 Tennyson, Alfred, “The Palace of Art,” in Poetical Works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (London, 1911), p. 46.

20 Austin, Alfred, Haunts of Ancient Peace (London, 1902). See also Austin's “garden” books, about more than tips on growing flowers: The Garden That I Love (London, 1893), The Garden That I Love, Second Series (London, 1894), and In Veronica's Garden (London, 1895).

21 Bell, pp. 695-700.

22 Ibid., p. 702.

23 The Life of William Morris, I: 65, 80; 11: 205.

24 Lethaby, W. R. & Steele, Robert. “William Morris.” Quarterly Review. 190 (July-Oct. 1899):487, 489, 491, 504.

25 Ransome, Arthur. “The Medievalism of William Morris.” New Witness. 3 (19131914):500.

26 See Le Mire, Eugene. The Unpublished Lectures of William Morris (Detroit. Mich., 1969). pp. 1819.

27 Ibid., pp. 21-24.

28 Thomas, Edward. “William Morris.” Bookman. 39 (Jan.-June 1911): 223.

29 Noyes, Alfred, William Morris (London, 1908); second edition 1914), pp. 143-13.

30 Crane, Walter, William Morris to Whistler (London, 1911), p. 11.

31 For a discussion of this Conservative theme, see Gareth Jones, Stedman, Outcast London (Oxford, 1971), ch. 16.

32 Walter Crane, pp. 41-43, 77, 76. Crane heralded News From Nowhere as an “English” answer to the unappealing American Utopia of Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward; indeed, “its complete antithesis.” Ibid., p. 11.

33 Glasier, J. Bruce, William Morris and the Early Days of the Socialist Movement (London, 1921), p. 152.

34 Squire, J.C., in William Morris: Appreciations, ed. Roebuck, George Edward, (London, 1934).

35 See Rogers, Timothy, Rupert Brooke: A Reappraisal and Selection (London, 1971), p. 25.

36 Graham, R.B. Cunninghame, “With the North-West Wind,” Saturday Review, 82 (July-Dec., 1896):390.

37 Arthur Compton-Rickett, pp. 177, 193.

38 Drinkwater, John, William Morris: A Critical Study (London, 1912), pp. 2627.

39 Inge, W.R., Outspoken Essays (London, 1919), pp. 101, 103.

40 Cited by Raymond, John, introduction to Raymond, J., ed., The Baldwin Age (London, 1960), p. 10.

41 Decline and Fall [1928] (New York, 1959), p. 333.

42 Willium Morris: Appreciations, p. 12. See Manchester Guardian, July 24, 1907.

43 Ibid., p. 14.

44 William Morris (London, 1934). p. 13.

45 Ibid., pp. 7-8.

46 The Great Morris,” Time and Tide, 15 (1934):320.

47 The Times, Feb. 10, 1934, p. 9.

48 See his several volumes of collected speeches, from On England (1926) to Service of Our Lives (1937).

49 See, for example, At Home and Abroad (London, 1936), p. 11. The essays and speeches in this volume were written between 1925 and 1935.

50 The Economic Consequences of Progress (London, 1934), pp. 209–10.

51 The Country and the City (London, 1973), p. 200.

52 Williams, Merryn, Thomas Hardy and Rural England (London, 1972), p. xiii.

53 Cosmopolis, Jan. 1896, quoted in Lerner, L. and Holmstrom, J., Thomas Hardy and His Readers (New York, 1968), p. 42.

54 See Abercrombie, Lascelles, Thomas Hardy (London, 1912); Ralli, Augustus, Critiques (London, 1927), pp. 3748; Baldwin, Stanley, “Thomas Hardy,” English, 3 no. 14 (1940):5762. For Abercrombie on Morris, see William Morris: Appreciations, p. 6.

55 Portsmouth Evening News, June 5, 1940.

56 See, for example, Robert Blatchford in the Clarion, Oct. 10, 1896 (1 owe this reference to John W.M. Osborne); also Graham's, R.B. Cunninghame introduction to Arthur Compton-Rickett, William Morris (London, 1913).

57 William Morris: Appreciations, p. 10. See Cole, in the same volume, p. 15.

58 William Morris: Selected Writings (London. 1934), p. xx.

59 Arnot, R. Page, William Morris: A Vindication (London, 1934); Morris, May, ed., William Morris: Artist, Writer, and Socialist (Oxford, 1936).

60 E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary; Paul Meier. La Pensée Utopique de William Morris.

61 Culture and Society 1780-1950 (London. 1958), p. 155. See. for instance, Eugene Le Mire. The Unpublished Lectures of William Morris, introduction.

62 London, 1947. Appropriately, Meynell had previously written on country cottages and “country ways.”

63 English Excursions (London, 1960), p. 132.

64 See Daily Telegraph Magazine, Mar. 1, 1974 and The Destruction of the Country House, 1875-1975, eds. Strong, R., Binney, M. and Harris, J. (London, 1975).

* This article is based on a paper read to the Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies, Santa Barbara, California, April 5, 1975.

The Myth of William Morris*

  • Martin J. Wiener


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