The Politics of Beauty

The National Portrait Gallery’s winter exhibition Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and his legacy, 1860-1960 brilliantly demonstrates the wide-reaching hands of design movements and how central they can be within a culture. Morris is well-known for his nature-inspired designs and advocacy of hand-crafted products, but he is less well remembered for his radical socialism and the extent to which this thinking molded his work. Morris’s designs and art are not the focus of this exhibition; rather it is his mentality, and the radical thinking that obsessed him and affected all he did: his hands-on profession, his simple, solid designs, his socialist friends, his activist hobbies and his naturally beautiful, working-class wife. But what this exhibition makes clear is that Morris’s thoughts and designs were not spawned in isolation or from the idealistic musings of a one-off radical. Throughout the exhibition we are introduced to the people surrounding Morris and the others of this group who influenced and encouraged him and were equally gripped by their cause. And it was a belief that was by no means motivated merely by an idealistic love of nature; their movement was set in the post-industrialized, fiercely unequal and conservative Victorian Britain. The Arts and Crafts movement was a direct reaction to the working conditions of the people they saw around them and the ideas they heard propagated from the authorities. They were no mild idealists pursuing beautiful hand-made pieces of furniture, they were rebels.


La Belle Iseult by William Morris, 1858. © Tate 2014

La Belle Iseult by William Morris, 1858. © Tate 2014


In the late nineteenth century the Suffragette movement was gaining rapid momentum and attention[1]; New Unionism was formed in the late 1880s in reaction to changing working conditions[2]; and the Labour party were on the brink of their foundation.[3] The lower classes were an educated, mobile consumer class and the gap between this majority and the elite decision-makers in power was becoming increasingly visible and unacceptable. Furthermore, among the higher classes themselves, the divisions were tense: by the late nineteenth century, the Suffragettes were hunger-striking in jail to the point of being force-fed, and Oscar Wilde, an active member of the Arts and Crafts movement and close associate of Morris, was jailed for his homosexuality. The members of the Arts and Crafts movement were forward-thinkers and political activists, but their protest and the output of their beliefs did not end with their demonstrations and manifestos. They were able to use their crafts, designs and skills to promote their cause, such as the Angel of Freedom Suffragette tea service sporting the emblem designed by Sylvia Pankhurst, yet the connection they saw between art and design and their political cause went further than just employing art to represent their beliefs. The exhibition tells us, ‘Morris became convinced that only from the lives of truly democratic people could come a genuinely living art’: good art was a mind-set and a way of life; their beliefs were propagated through their art, but equally, art inspired their beliefs.


Jane Morris, posed by Rossetti Parsons, John R. c.1865. © V&A collections, museum no.: 1738-1939

Jane Morris, posed by Rossetti Parsons, John R. c.1865. © V&A collections, museum no.: 1738-1939

Bone china with transfers printed in green, bearing the emblem of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). c.1910 © V&A collections, museum no.: C.37C, D-1972

Bone china with transfers printed in green, bearing the emblem of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). c.1910 © V&A collections, museum no.: C.37C, D-1972

Throughout the exhibition are examples of the extent to which the works of the Arts and Crafts movement were infused with the political beliefs of its members. Morris’s novel, News from Nowhere, describes a futuristic society based on instinctive morals of altruism and giving. The romanticism of this book, and all others produced by his publishing company, Kelmscott Press, combined with their hyper-idealistic illustrations of rural beauty and tall fairy-like women, suggest a writer and publisher far removed from reality. The exhibition talks about the Guild and School of Handicraft set up by the designer Robert Ashbee in the East End, which he then relocated to the Cotswolds so that the workers may benefit from the healthy surrounding countryside. Although the exhibition text notes that some of the families remained in the village happily, we learn that the Guild soon closed.


Wood engraving designed by Edward Burne-Jones for Kelmscott Press, c.1896 V&A collections, museum no.: D.1554-1907

Wood engraving designed by Edward Burne-Jones for Kelmscott Press, c.1896 V&A collections, museum no.: D.1554-1907

However, by emphasising the longevity of their cause and the place of the Arts and Crafts thinkers in the history of politics, the viewer is somewhat blinkered to some of the realities of their beliefs. The mass-produced products of the industrialised factories were sustaining a growing and demanding population, and it was unrealistic to envisage hand-crafted goods supplied to all.  In many ways the thinkers of this movement were, far from forward-thinkers, compelled to looking backwards. Their ideal forms of architecture were medieval, as explicated in Morris’s utopian novel, and, like the Pre-Raphaelites (who perceived great beauty in art before the time of Raphael, and scorned the preceding austerity of the Mannerists), they refuted the straight conformist lines of classicism. The far-reaching ideas of the Arts and Crafts members, their idealism, and their hypocrisy are easy to scorn by posterity. And yet, by looking at this movement within a wider context of an ongoing political and social battle, we can see the significant role that it played. Pervasive ideas of liberty and a better society are not expected to revolutionise a country within a single generation. Their goal was not akin to the changes provoked by the sudden brutal conflict of war, but a long-term fight for change that is waged with words and new ideas and growing support. The consequences of the battle can be equally tangible – the fate of many suffragettes or the poor of the workhouses attest to this – and although peace or a victor is less easily measured, if ever reached, the small steps made by individuals marks them a place in history. The lasting influence that Morris and his contemporaries went on to have is the overriding message of the NPG’s exhibition. The last three spaces of the display are dedicated to the movements and individuals who have since shared Morris’s passion and beliefs. It speaks about the heightened antagonism towards inequality in the wake of the First World War: war-time propaganda propagated ideas of hand-crafted goods and familial communities based on the English countryside village, and nostalgia for pre-war times heartened these aspirations. The curator, and Morris biographer, Fiona McCarthy, writes: ‘The Arts and Crafts was a socially revolutionary movement which brought about a blurring of class boundaries, a dawning recognition of woman as creative co-workers and an end to false distinctions between work and leisure…. Although Morris was staunchly anti-parliamentarian, his imaginative blueprint for the new society inspired the Labour party in its early days.’ The exhibition closes with an epilogue noting Morris’s relevance today: within our current global art world the concerns of the Arts and Crafts are still pertinent, such as the environment, craft skills and the force of art within society to cross dividing boundaries and bind people together.


The Orchard; The Seasons, William Morris, 1890 © V&A collections, museum no.: 154-1898

The Orchard; The Seasons, William Morris, 1890 © V&A collections, museum no.: 154-1898

The contradictions of Morris’s life, designing hand-crafted goods for the wealthy under the brand of Morris & co., alongside writing manifestos urging the end of capitalism, was not a failing: Morris was not against industrialisation for the sake of well-produced craftworks alone, nor for the sake of worker’s rights. The legacy and inspirations that he left stand testament to the reality of a distinct connection between craft and politics.

It is easy for history to dismiss the political activism of the Arts and Crafts movement in favour of a history of their design aesthetic, extracting quotes that exhort beauty and nature and art. Morris famously retorted: ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’ and he appealed that ‘Beauty, which is what is meant by art, is… no mere accident to human life… but a positive necessity of life.’[4] But the backdrop to these ideas and the contempt with which he regarded his opposers are unavoidable. In the same appeal about Beauty he asserts: ‘the greatest foe to art is luxury’ and just a few years later condemns the ‘system of competition’: ‘if that system is to last for ever, then art is doomed, and will surely die.’[5]  Politics, socialism and activism were central to Morris’s work and, as the small exhibition at the NPG so clearly evinces, a consideration of his artworks without appreciating the beliefs and passions that drove them would be a misunderstanding.

 Annabel Sheen

‘Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, 1860-1960’ at the National Portrait Gallery runs until 11 January 2015




[1] Sophia A. van Wingerden, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain, 1866-1928 (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), ‘Introduction, pp. 1-22

[2] ‘New Unionism in Britain, 1889-1890: A Reappraisal’, A. E. P. DUFFY, The Economic History Review, Volume 14, Issue 2, pages 306–319, December 1961, p.306


[4] William Morris, “The Beauty of Life,” a lecture before the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design (19 February 1880), later published in Hopes and Fears for Art: Five Lectures Delivered in Birmingham, (London and Nottingham, 1882)

[5] William Morris, ‘Art under Plutocracy, 1883’ in Morton, A.L (ed) Political Writings of Morris (London, 1979), p.66


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