William Morris by George Frederic Watts, 1870 (National Portrait Gallery, London). The Glessners owned a photographic copy of this portrait.
A visit to Glessner House reveals the inseparable connection between the designs of William Morris and of Frances Glessner’s decoration for her new home. It has often been said that the Glessners were a bit ahead of the curve in Chicago in embracing the use of Morris & Co. wallpapers, textiles, and rugs, although such items were gaining favor on the East Coast. There is little surprise here as the Glessners were hardly followers of the popular trends of the day including the reliance on anything of French origin. Instead, they actively studied and developed an aesthetic of their own that is still well reflected in their carefully preserved home.
This leads one to ponder what the average Chicagoan would have known about William Morris in the 1870s and early 1880s. In this first of three articles focusing on Morris, we will look to the Chicago Tribune to see what was written about him, only to discover that the decorative arts was only a small part of a larger dialogue that included Morris as poet and Socialist.
The Defense of Guinevere
One of the first references to Morris appears in a review of new volumes of poetry in the Literature column on May 22, 1875. A reprint of The Defense of Guinevere, and Other Poems had just been released “without alteration from the edition of 1858.” The reviewer noted that “admirers of the noble narrative poems, ‘The Life and Death of Jason,’ and ‘The Earthly Paradise,’ will read with interest the volume of Mr. Morris’ earliest metrical compositions.” The reference to other well-known poems of Morris is followed by the note that his first works, which received less attention at the time of their release, as he was an unknown at the time, were now worthy of a second look, no doubt the reason for the reprint. Of the collection, the reviewer concludes, “Most of these embalm in verse the pleasing legends of King Arthur and his knights of the round table, while all of them show the author’s remarkable command of the simple, pellucid Saxon.”
Morris returned to the collection of poems in 1892, when it was reprinted as one of the first volumes published by his renowned Kelmscott Press. Many scholars have noted Morris’s ongoing interest in the story and have made the connection between the love triangle of Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot to a similar triangle composed of William Morris, his wife Jane, and their friend, the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This final edition under Morris’s own hand, shown below, is beautifully printed with woodcut borders and initials.
Aeneids of Virgil
Morris was also known for his translations and later in 1875 published his complete translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, the epic Latin poem composed between 29 and 19 B.C. It was no small feat – the original is composed of 9,896 lines of verse written in dactylic hexameter. The review in the Tribune quotes from the Graphic which stated, “it is almost impossible to conceive of a version more fluent, rhythmical, and supremely beautiful.”
The review then goes into a rather extended discussion of Morris’s use of tobacco, noting that “It is an interesting fact that Morris always writes under the influence of ‘the baneful weed’ – tobacco. . . When the smoke is thickest, the poetry is best.”
In the May 14, 1876 edition of the Tribune, we find the first mention of Morris as decorator, in this case for his wallpaper designs. In an article entitled “Household Art” written by John J. McGrath, the owner of Chicago’s leading decorating firm, he notes:
“I have procured, by direct importation, a large stock of the Morris and Dresser papers, being the only examples of these designs to be found in this country, executed under the immediate supervision of these ‘art specialists,’ and far excelling in purity of drawing and beauty of coloring anything heretofore presented to the disciples of artistic truths, I cordially commend them to the notice of all who are desirous of escaping from the thralldom of ill-conceived and badly executed designs in wall dressing.”
It is interesting to note that Frances Glessner was a regular customer of McGrath, acquiring wallpapers for her Washington Street home at exactly this time, and probably later for the Big House at The Rocks as well. This would have been her introduction to Morris’s designs, although there is no evidence that she considered any Morris wallpapers until 1883, as we shall see next week.
The Morris mantra
“Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
Morris’s mantra is carefully written – the usefulness of an object is something that is easily determined – a pitcher can hold and pour water; a clock keeps time. But the beauty of an object is subjective, one person may believe it to be beautiful, another may not. The concept became central to the Arts & Crafts movement in highlighting the significance of the decorative arts, and the importance of giving artistic consideration to the creation of all items – not just fine arts, but the everyday objects that surround the average person in their home.
An interesting article from April 1882, which at first glance has nothing to do with Morris, noted a large collection of “beautiful objects of art in the shape of foreign bronzes, carvings, exquisite china and porcelain, old tapestries, rugs, and odd bric-a-brac from every corner of the world, sent on to Chicago from the well-known establishment of Sypher & Co., New York, and to remain on view until next Wednesday, when it will be sold under the hammer.”
The anonymous writer of the column spends considerable time describing many of the objects and their inherent beauty. However, at the close, he turns to Morris and his famous mantra (which was apparently known well-enough for the reference) to consider both the beauty and usefulness of the objects. He writes:
“If everyone heeded the advice of William Morris, to admit nothing into their houses that they did not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful, some of these would have to be excluded on the score of usefulness.”
William Morris the preservationist
Morris was deeply concerned about the state of preservation in the latter half of the 19th century in England. In 1877, Morris and several friends formed The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in response to what he viewed as “destructive restoration.” This process involved removing later alterations to return buildings to an idealized original state, which may or may not have ever actually existed. Morris felt strongly that the later alterations were part of the history of the structure and advocated for repair and maintenance over the destructive restoration practices. The Society still exists today, and Morris’s principles are now widely accepted.
An article in the February 28, 1883 Chicago Tribune reprinted comments made by Morris regarding the announced demolition of the famous Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy because it was deemed unsafe and might collapse during flooding. Morris’s comments in part read as follows:
“We need hardly point out, the unrivaled historical interest and artistic beauty of this world-famed bridge, with its three graceful arches crowned by a picturesque group of houses, over which is carried the long passage connecting the Pitti and Uffizi Palaces. Not only the arches of the bridge, but portions of some of the houses, are still preserved exactly as designed by Taddeo Gaddi, and built in A. D. 1362 – an object of the greatest beauty both when seen close at hand and as one of the chief features in the glorious distant view from San Miniato . . . it certainly would not be beyond the skill of modern engineers to underpin and secure the falling piers.”
William Morris and his discontent
Morris wrote and lectured extensively on the current state of art. In March 1883, a paragraph in the London Life column of the Chicago Tribune, written by special correspondent Robert Laird Collier, noted Morris’s discontent with the current state of art. It is so well written that it is reproduced here in its entirety:
“William Morris has been talking about ‘blackguardly houses.’ This William Morris is in his way a ‘regular caution.’ He is poet, painter, house-decorator, shopkeeper, lyceum lecturer. He designs wallpapers, stuffs for curtains, carpets, and sells these designs or the manufactured articles. He keeps a shop where one can get the most artistic furniture, and, I believe, one can out of his shop furnish one’s house from top to bottom. He has just been down to Manchester lecturing at a conversazione of art and literary societies. He said he was so discontented at the present condition of art and the matter was so serious that he desired to make other people share in his discontent. He singled out Bournemouth, a fashionable watering seaside resort, and said the houses of the rich there were blackguardly! Whew! What would he say of Vanderbilt’s wallpaper with its diamond dust! What would he say of a Chicago ‘marble front’ house, a ‘back yard’ twenty feet by twenty, and an – alley. But thank God for the iconoclast. He is a nuisance, but he comes before the revolutionists, and the revolutionist comes before the reformer.”
The term ‘blackguardly,’ not widely used today, referred to something lacking principles or scruples, W. M. Thackeray (author of the 1848 novel Vanity Fair) referring to it as “the tyranny of a scoundrelly aristocracy.”
Morris the Socialist
The reference to Morris as iconoclast was appropriate. Most of the references in the Chicago Tribune by the mid-1880s referred not to his work as house-decorator, but to his belief in Socialism, of which he was a leading and outspoken proponent. In February 1885, the Chicago Tribune reprinted a song written by William Morris entitled “The March of the Workers” that had just been published in the English Socialist journal, the Commonwealth. Sung to the tune of “John Brown” (the same tune used for the Battle Hymn of the Republic), it consisted of eight verses and chorus. Beautifully written and displaying his talents as a poet, we reprint here the first and last verse plus the chorus.
“What is this, the sound and rumor? What is this that all men hear,
Like the wind in hollow valleys when the storm is drawing near,
Like the rolling on of ocean in the eventide of fear?
‘Tis the people marching on.
“On we march then, we the workers, and the rumor that ye hear,
Is the blended sound of battle and deliv’rance drawing near?
For the hope of every creature is the banner that we bear,
And the world is marching on.
“Hark, the rolling of the thunder!
“Hark, the rolling of the thunder!
Lo, the sun! and lo, thereunder
Riseth wrath, and hope, and wonder,
And the host comes marching on.”
William Morris the Socialist was quoted even more frequently in the newspaper following the Haymarket affair/riot in May 1886. A particularly strong statement, issued in the Commonwealth by Morris on November 12, 1887, the day after four of the “anarchists” were executed was addressed “To the Well-to-Do People of America,” and read in part:
“If you are sure that henceforward the workingmen of your country will live placid and happy lives, then you need think no more of the murder you have committed, for a happy people cannot take vengeance, however grievously they have been wronged; but if it be so with you, as with other nations of civilizations that your workers toil without reward and without hope, oppressed with sordid anxiety for mere livelihood, depraved of the due pleasures of humanity; if there is yet suffering and wrong amongst you, then take heed; increase your army of spies and informers; hire more reckless swashbucklers to do your will; guard every approach to your palace of pleasure without scruple and without mercy, and yet you will but put off for a while the certain vengeance of ruin that will overtake you, and your misery and suffering, which to you in your forgetfulness of your crimes will then seem an injustice, will have to be the necessary step on which the advance of humanity will have to mount to happier days beyond . . . You have sown the wind, you must reap the whirlwind.”
William Morris a bit soured
By now we have seen that William Morris was a man of strong opinions on a range of topics. To close this week, we return briefly to his thoughts on art. Perhaps of most interest is how he is introduced in the first sentence of a short Tribune article from May 1886 – poet, Socialist, and artistic designer – in that order. One cannot help but wonder if he would have introduced himself the same way. His quote, from a London talk given a few days earlier:
“During the last forty years people have conscientiously striven to raise the taste in art, yet the world is growing uglier and more commonplace.”
We do not know the extent to which Frances Glessner was aware of William Morris’s Socialist beliefs, or if she read his poetry, but in 1883 she began to study his views on art. The commissioning of H. H. Richardson to design the Glessner home in 1885 significantly strengthened that interest.