William Morris: Useful Beauty in the Home

Abigail Harrison Moore

‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’
— William Morris

The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century transformed England beyond recognition, turning a country of farmers into factory workers. It was a world ‘which saw the rich getting richer and the poor getting very much poorer’. The artist, designer and political radical, William Morris, brought together a group of colleagues to challenge the ‘dishonest’ mechanisation of factory goods and restore the importance of craftsmanship, quality and ‘truthfulness’ through design.

Art historian Abigail Harrison-Moore visits the National Trust’s Standen house, one of the most charming examples of Arts and Crafts workmanship in the UK, and explores its surprisingly pioneering spirit – from the use of electric lighting to its role in the Suffragette movement.

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In my talk, I’m thinking about the Arts & Crafts movement, designers and artists such as William Morris and Philip Webb, and how they used their design and art in a way that they hoped would change the society that they saw around them as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

 

The period I’m looking at is the period we refer to as the 19th century. We were very much a farming dominated country, and in a short time, 30 years, we moved from farms to factories. And as a result of that the work of the common person changed totally. So, they were involved in working in factories producing more than they could ever need, to sell. But as a reaction to that, we saw the richer getting very much richer, in England, but the poorer getting very much poorer. And into this world came these artists and designers who wanted to do something about that. And the Arts and Crafts movement was very much a reaction to the world of the poor.

 

It was about honesty. They saw factory-made goods as dishonest, as fake, and they wanted to create objects that were truthful, about hand-craftsmanship, and that celebrated the process of actually making art and design.

 

William Morris was celebrated for talking about the importance of beauty in the home. But beauty not as a falsehood, but beauty derived from the objects themselves.
And William Morris was incredibly influential because he brought together under the auspices of Morris and Co., a whole group of artists and designers who were living with him through this idea of the arts and crafts movement. So, they shared his political ideas, they shared his socialism and they shared this this ambition to change the life of the working poor in England.

 

One of the most important parts of Morris & Co., and the ethos behind it was the idea of the apprentice and the guild system. And they were looking back to a medieval practice where people were working together to make things they needed rather than make things to sell. But they had to have a purpose, a function. So, it couldn’t just be that you looked at them and said well that’s just a lovely thing, it had to be used for something and I think if I look behind me, all of the objects I see from the Benson tea kettle, to the fabrics used in the curtains, were about a practical need. In a Victorian house, this was a cold space, so you needed thick, lined curtains to block the windows, and the thing we see in this house is curtains used on the walls and panelling, because that would keep the heat in.

 

One of the key partners in Morris & Co. was Philip Webb. Philip Webb had trained as an architect with William Morris, so he’d worked with him from a very early stage in his career and in his thinking. Morris very quickly decided he was not going to be an architect, and he asked Webb to design his own house, the Red House, in Bexleyheath in Kent – a really important house in the history of arts and crafts movement in terms of Webb working out his ideas.

 

For Philip Webb it was about care, it was about consideration, it was about working with his clients. And in Standen, which he designed for the Beale family, who were a family who had made their money through the East Midland railway, through one of the greatest of the inventions of the Industrial Revolution, he designed them a family country home.

 

This house was designed between 1892 and it went on through to 1896. And he found at this site, in East Grinstead, three medieval farmhouses and he based his whole design around the Standen farmhouse designed in the 15th century. It’s a small farm building, that celebrates local craft techniques, local materials.

 

If you think about many country houses in England, you come up the driveway and there is the house in front of you. When you come to Standen, the first thing you see is the farmhouse, and a barn, a great big farm building. And you have to go past them, and through an archway. And only then do you come to the entrance to the house, and it’s almost as if Webb, and James Beale and Margaret Beale as his clients, were almost embarrassed in some ways about their country estate. They wanted it to be a home.

 

Standen is much more about a wonderful country setting. And the way Webb designed the house was about practicality and function, as well as beauty. So, for example, at the heart of building you see the great big water tower, that from a distance it makes it look like a small village. But in that water tower were the two massive tanks that were required to be a self-sustaining house. It provided water for washing, for cleaning and for gardening in really interesting ways.

 

When you come to Standen, one of the first parts of the house you see are the kitchens and the servant’s quarters: he’s not hiding them away. A lot of architects would have hidden them underneath the house or in the attics. They were part of the community, of the home. And as you move internally through the servant’s areas of the house, they were equally decorated and celebrated, as were the bedrooms, the dining rooms, and the drawing rooms of the Beale family.

 

And interestingly, in one of the main passages that leads to the kitchens, and where the servants would be coming through, is one of our most important wallpapers for the arts and crafts movement, Trellis. Because in Trellis we see William Morris and Philip Webb working together in a very early design to try and think through what they think they meant by a natural paper that didn’t artificially recreate three dimensions. And stories say Morris designed the trellis and Philip Webb designed the birds. So, in that one piece of wallpaper we see how important this partnership was, where they were thinking through their political and aesthetic ideas by making together.

 

Here in the drawing room at Standen we can see examples of many of the different designers and artists who worked with Morris & Co., so we can see work by W. A. S. Benson who was the very important metal worker. We can see designs by William De Morgan, who was um, a ceramics worker. And in both Benson and De Morgan’s ware, you see them learning from the past in terms of craft techniques: hammering copper, making lustreware.

 

And Standen is incredibly important in the history of lighting. This was one of the first houses built with electricity included. And in the lights that we see Philip Webb designing for Standen, we see this relationship between use and beauty – because what Webb was trying to do was produce designs based on natural ideas, that really worked with this new technology.

 

Also in the room, we see one of the most important pieces of Morris & Co. furniture, the Morris Chair. The Morris Chair in itself very much typifies all the ideas we’ve been talking about, in terms of the Arts & crafts movement. So it was an object that had been found in an historic farmhouse. So, they looked at a historic design and built it into a 19th century design – and it became incredibly popular.

 

So, we see objects that were designed by a number of the men who worked with Morris & Co., but also at the heart of our story are some very important women designers, and yet for many years, they’ve not been seen in the histories of Morris & Co. For example, Agnes and Rhoda Garrett. Now the Garrett cousins were incredibly important in the history of design because they were the first women professional decorators. They were part of a wider family of women that included Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Millicent Fawcett. They were the people who were doing for the first time jobs that hadn’t been considered the role of a middle-class person. Middle-class women were meant to stay at home and their husband’s wealth and success was very much identified by the fact that the woman could be at home.

 

At Standen we have a number of examples of furniture that was produced by the Garrett cousins, including a cabinet in the morning room. These are the only objects that we know at the moment that the Garrett’s designed that still exist in England. I’m sure we’ll find more, now we’re really looking for them, but at the moment these are the only ones we know.

 

One of the interesting things in standing in a house today that is now run by the National Trust, is in the histories of the National Trust we see how important William Morris and Philip Webb were. One of the impacts of the industrial revolution was that we saw great swathes of English architecture being knocked down to be replaced by streets of houses and factories. So, William Morris’s and Philip Webb’s thinking about the importance of the past, turned into them thinking about how to preserve that, and together they came up with the idea for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the S.P.A.B., which of course, was one of the most important precursors to Octavia Hill’s ideas for the National Trust, for an organisation that would protect architecture and the landscape of England’s past.

 

William Morris was never afraid to court publicity and upset people when he was celebrating the importance of buildings of the past – and he caused a lot of challenge by once describing a cow barn as beautiful, as important, as a cathedral. And in the highly religious-focused Victorian time, that was, in many ways, seen as an insult. But what Morris was saying was in those sorts of buildings, in the farmhouses and the barns that still existed in this country, we saw the most perfect examples of functional building that celebrated how a building worked, rather than just simply how it looked.

 

When I was a child I was very much interested in how this house looked – I warmed to it, there was something that made me feel safe. My uncle was the gardener here at Standen, and so throughout my childhood, I played around the farmhouse and actually lived within the farmhouse, because that was the gardener’s house. It was only when I started studying Art History that I started to realise that there were conscious moves made by the designers here to change people’s lives. And that by studying these spaces we can understand how people have lived, and we can learn lessons from the past.

With thanks to…

The National Trust
Northern Town
The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (S.P.A.B)
Standen House and Garden

 

Archive

Alamy Stock Photo
Bridgeman Images
Getty Images
National Portrait Gallery
Victoria and Albert Museum

 

Music

Audio Network
9 Lives Music

 

FULL LIST OF IMAGES SHOWN

Trellis Wallpaper
William Morris and Phillip Webb, 1864
Standen House Archive

 

Cyrus McCormick’s Reaping Machine of 1831
World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

 

Photograph of Widnes showing the effects of industrial pollution
Unknown photographer, late 19th century

 

Steel Mill
Ivan-96 / Getty Images

 

A Blacksmith’s Shop At Beckton Gas Works, London
Unknown photographer, early 20th century
Historica Graphica Collection / Heritage Images / Getty Images

 

Edward Burne Jones and William Morris
Unknown photographer, 1874
Universal History Archive / UIG / Bridgeman Images

 

A loom repairs an original William Morris design at the Morris & Co. workshop in Merton Abbey Mills, London
Unknown photographer, 23rd March 1931
Fox Photos / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

 

Printed season ticket to the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society
Walter Crane, 1890, England.
Museum no. E.4164-1915.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

Portrait of William Morris
Emery Walker, 1913

 

Morris & Co. Advertisement for Sussex Rush-Seated Chairs
William Morris & Co., 1900

 

Calico printing at the Morris & Co. workshop in Merton Abbey Mills
Unknown photographer, 1931
Fox Photos / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

 

William Morris with The Socialist League
Unknown photographer, 1900
© Historical Picture Archive / Corbis Historical / Getty Images

 

Chintz printing by hand at the William Morris works, Merton Abbey
Unknown photographer, n.d.
Private Collection / The Stapleton Collection / Bridgeman Images

 

Philip Speakman Webb
Charles Fairfax Murray, 1873
NPG 4310
© National Portrait Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/

 

Plans and elevations for The Red House, Bexley Heath
Philip Webb, 1859
Private Collection / The Stapleton Collection / Bridgeman Images

 

The Red House
Unknown photographer, n.d.

 

Footage of The Red House
Northern Town

 

The Beale Family at Standen
Unknown photographer, 1902
Standen House Archive
© The National Trust

 

Standen from the upper lawn
Unknown photographer, 1898
Standen House Archive
© The National Trust

 

An Architectural Plan for Standen House
Philip Webb, 1892
Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (S.P.A.B) Archive
© S.P.A.B

 

Original design for ‘Trellis’ Wallpaper
William Morris, 1862
Scan from: Gillian Naylor, William Morris by Himself: Designs and Writings, 1988

 

Hanging electric light fitting in the Hall at Standen West Sussex

Unknown photographer, n.d.
The National Trust Photolibrary / Alamy Stock Photo

 

Agnes and Rhoda Garrett

Unknown photographer, n.d.
Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (S.P.A.B) Archive
© S.P.A.B

 

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson
Walery, published by Sampson Low & Co, 1889

 

Millicent Fawcett
Unknown photographer, c.1865
IanDagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo

 

Millicent Garrett Fawcett speaks at Hyde Park, 26th July 1913
Unknown photographer, n.d.
Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

 

Illustration of the Summerhill Iron Works and Rolling Mills, Tipton
Unknown illustrator, 1873

 

Scan from, Samuel Griffiths, Griffiths’ Guide to the iron trade of Great Britain, 1873

 

View of Leeds, Yorkshire

Unknown illustrator, early 19th century
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

 

Malmesbury Workhouse Repairs

Unknown photographer, n.d.
Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (S.P.A.B) Archive
© S.P.A.B

 

Alfriston Clergy House
Unknown photographer, n.d.
Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (S.P.A.B) Archive
© S.P.A.B

 

Philip Webb during the Construction of the Red House
Unknown photographer, late 19th century
Private Collection / The Stapleton Collection / Bridgeman Images

 

Portrait of William Morris
Frederik Hollyer, 1884
Museum no. 7715-1938
© Victoria and Albert Museum

 

Abigail Harrison Moore with her Uncle
Courtesy of Abigail Harrison Moore

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